A technical writer is a professional writer who produces technical documentation that helps people understand and use a product or service. This documentation includes online help, manuals (system, end-user, training), white papers, design specifications, project plans, test plans, business correspondence, etc. With the rise of e-learning, technical writers are also charged with creating online training for their audience of learners. Technical writers explain technologies, processes, and products in many formats, including print, online, and other electronic means.
...trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to the reader.
Engineers, scientists, and other professionals may also produce technical writing, but often hand it off to a professional technical writer for developmental editing, proofreading, editing, formatting, and delivery to their audiences.
In addition to solid research, copywriting, language, writing, and revision skills, a technical writer may have skills in:
A technical writer may apply their skills in the production of non-technical content, for example, writing high-level consumer information. Usually, a technical writer is not a subject matter expert (SME), but interviews SMEs and conducts the research necessary to write and compile technically accurate content.
A proficient technical writer has the ability to create, assimilate, and convey technical material in a concise and effective manner. They may specialize in a particular area but must have a good understanding of the products they describe. For example, API writers primarily work on API documents, while other technical writers specialize in electronic commerce, manufacturing, scientific, or medical material.
Technical writers gather information from many sources. Their information sources are usually scattered throughout an organization, which can range from developers to marketing departments.
To create effective technical documentation, the writer must analyze three elements that comprise the rhetorical situation of a particular project: audience, purpose, and context. These are followed by document design, which determines what the reader sees.
Technical writers strive to simplify complex concepts or processes to maximize reader comprehension. The final goal of a particular document is to help readers find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they understand appropriately. To reach this goal, technical writers must understand how their audiences use and read documentation. An audience analysis at the outset of a document project helps define what an audience for a particular document requires.
When analyzing an audience the technical writer typically asks:
Accurate audience analysis provides a set of guidelines that shape document content, design and presentation (online help system, interactive website, manual, etc.), and tone and knowledge level.
A technical writer analyzes the purpose (or function) of a communication to understand what a document must accomplish. Determining if a communication aims to persuade readers to "think or act a certain way, enable them to perform a task, help them understand something, change their attitude," etc., guides the technical writer on how to format their communication, and the kind of communication they choose (online help system, white paper, proposal, etc.).
Context is the physical and temporal circumstances in which readers use communication--for example: at their office desks, in a manufacturing plant, during the slow summer months, or in the middle of a company crisis. Understanding the context of a situation tells the technical writer how readers use the communication. This knowledge significantly influences how the writer formats the communication. For example, if the document is a quick troubleshooting guide to the controls on a small watercraft, the writer may have the pages laminated to increase usable life.
Once the above information has been gathered, the document is designed for optimal readability and usability. According to one expert, technical writers use six design strategies to plan and create technical communication: arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, tone, and ethos.
Technical writers can have various job titles, including technical communicator, information developer, technical content developer or technical documentation specialist. In the United Kingdom and some other countries, a technical writer is often called a technical author or knowledge author.
Technical writers normally possess a mixture of technical and writing abilities. They typically have a degree or certification in a technical field, but may have one in journalism, business, or other fields. Many technical writers switch from another field, such as journalism--or a technical field such as engineering or science, often after learning important additional skills through technical communications classes.
To create a technical document, a technical writer must understand the subject, purpose, and audience. They gather information by studying existing material, interviewing SMEs, and often actually using the product. They study the audience to learn their needs and technical understanding level.
A technical publication's development life cycle typically consists of five phases, coordinated with the overall product development plan:
The document development life cycle typically consists of six phases (This changes organization to organization, how they are following).
This is similar to the software development life cycle.
Well-written technical documents usually follow formal standards or guidelines. Technical documentation comes in many styles and formats, depending on the medium and subject area. Printed and online documentation may differ in various ways, but still adhere to largely identical guidelines for prose, information structure, and layout. Usually, technical writers follow formatting conventions described in a standard style guide. In the US, technical writers typically use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Many companies have internal corporate style guides that cover specific corporate issues such as logo use, branding, and other aspects of corporate style. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications is typical of these.
Engineering projects, particularly defense or aerospace related projects, often follow national and international documentation standards--such as ATA100 for civil aircraft or S1000D for civil and defense platforms.
Technical writers often work as part of a writing or project development team. Typically, the writer finishes a draft and passes it to one or more SMEs who conduct a technical review to verify accuracy and completeness. Another writer or editor may perform an editorial review that checks conformance to styles, grammar, and readability. This person may request for clarification or make suggestions. In some cases the writer or others test the document on audience members to make usability improvements. A final production typically follows an inspection checklist to ensure the quality and uniformity of the published product.
There is no single standard career path for technical writers, but they may move into project management over other writers. A writer may advance to a senior technical writer position, handling complex projects or a small team of writers and editors. In larger groups, a documentation manager might handle multiple projects and teams.
Technical writers may also gain expertise in a particular technical domain and branch into related forms, such as software quality analysis or business analysis. A technical writer who becomes a subject matter expert in a field may transition from technical writing to work in that field. Technical writers commonly produce training for the technologies they document--including classroom guides and e-learning--and some transition to specialize as professional trainers and instructional designers.
Technical writers with expertise in writing skills can join printed media or electronic media companies, potentially providing an opportunity to make more money or improved working conditions.
The U.S Department of Labor expects technical writer employment to grow 17 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. They expect job opportunities, especially for applicants with technical skills, to be good.
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