I have often wondered what technical writing was all about, and my curiosity finally reached the level where I decided to find out.
Technical writing is about the transfer of knowledge and understanding from one person to another.
The foregoing definition hides a multitude of details. This post outlines my own understanding of technical writing.
My first move was to see how other people were describing technical writing. This included a Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_writer (accessed 10 March 2013), as well as course summaries from four training organisations. While the levels of detail differed in every case, they all had a number of common themes.
Drawing on my own experiences in both education and information technology, I was able to recast those themes in my own terms.
TECHNICAL WRITING IS …
A useful starting point is to identify who is involved in the technical writing process. There are three main groups:
- The subject matter expert,
- The technical writer,
- The people who need to acquire the subject matter expert’s knowledge and understanding (the target audience).
When viewed like this, the technical writer is acting as a conduit between the subject matter expert and the people with the need to know.
This has a number of implications for the technical writer:
- A good interview technique
- The ability to record the subject matter expert’s knowledge and understanding accurately
- A good understanding of aspects of the target audience:
- existing knowledge and understanding,
- A thorough grasp of language
- A facility to present the knowledge and understanding using words that are readily understood by the target audience (“plain English” if you like)
- An ability to organise all the material in a logical and coherent fashion
- The ability to use authoring tools efficiently and effectively, including word processors, web page builders, and image editors
- A good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of different communications technologies, and how this impacts on the target audience’s learning experience
- An ability to work well within the client’s documentation styles and conventions
- A strong desire to produce a first-class document, this requiring persistence and patience.
With the exception of the first two items, educators who prepare their own delivery materials can be expected to have all of the above. Even so, the ability to read and fully understand a curriculum document is similar to the first item, and consulting colleagues on any of points of concern bears a resemblance to the second item.
HOIST WITH MY OWN PETARD?
I must leave it to others to decide for themselves how well this post meets the requirements listed above. If you are interested in also evaluating my work with images, you might want to critically review this article on managing images.