Technical writing is the act of documenting how to use products of all types. This definition of technical writing is broad because the field itself is vast. Those who work in the field are employed in a huge array of industries, including medical, automitive, software, training and consulting, and more.
A technical writer works closely with the engineers and product developers to draft instructions for using the product. The writer must interview the developers to find out how the product works, and then write clear instructions that can be understood by average users.
The final product can take the form of user manuals, online help, training guides, installation guides, quick-reference sheets, white papers, and more. Some technical writers also work on proposals. Others draft instructions that appear on packaging, or warnings stamped directly onto products.
The process requires highly developed language, project management, and technical skills. Also, people skills are important for gathering information and working with the many departments within an organization that have feedback on documents.
Here are a list of the writing techniques I believe are most important for technical documents.
- Information gathering
- Making sense of complex technology
- Organization of content for ease-of-use
- Drafting jargon and technical concepts into plain language
- Reducing procedures to simple steps
- Verifying the accuracy of the content
- Conveying warnings effectively
- Writing with user-advocacy in mind
- Minimizing wordiness
- Breaking information into granular concepts
- Cross-referencing and linking related concepts
- Providing a clear learning path through the content
- Assessing what users already know
- Knowledge of topic types and structure (reference, procedure, faq, overview, and so on)
Overall, you have to write like a teacher. If you have a knack for explaining things in a clear and concise manner, chances are you have mastered some of the essential technical writing techniques.
You can find an overview of the field in the Technical Writer section of the Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the US Department of Labor.
To view job-related discussions by a large community of technical writers, check out the Techwr-l Mail List Archives.
To read about technical writing theory, check out this free technical writing textbook.
Another great resource for technical writers is the Society for Technical Communication website. The society is the largest professional organization for technical writers, and is a great place to network, find mentors, and share information.
Hopefully this definition of technical writing gives you a strong understanding of what the field involves.