What Does a Technical Writer do?

An explanation of the role in form of question and answers

A technical writer at work

What is a Technical Writer?

The vague answer would be: “somebody who writes boring texts”. Vague but not at all inaccurate. Unfortunately.

You know the documentation that comes with your new appliance? Or the one explaining the safety rules on a train? Or, yet, the documents explaining how to use a software API?

All of them have been written by a technical writer. Useful and important documentation but, easy to admit, not the most exciting content out there. Nothing that takes your breath away or is a page-turner.

The scope of a good technical writer is not to write in an engaging manner. It doesn’t hurt, it would be odd though, but the primary objective of a technical writer is to write clear, understandable, and complete documentation that allows the readers to know enough about a topic they’re interested in. Not a comma more, nor less.

A technical writer isn’t somebody who tries to sell a product, that’s a copywriter. It is more like a scientist that has to explain in a thorough way a subject, without getting bogged down in details, unless the intended audience expects to.

Usually technical writers work in close contact with experts in order to obtain information that will be digested by the brain and skill of the writer and poured into the documentation. No technical writer is expected to know everything about what they write, something that is increasingly valid for most writers and journalists. Therefore a good relationship with those who are responsible for the topic of the documentation is vital to get the information right, on time, and understandable.

A typical image of a technical writer in action: listening to an expert and taking notes
A typical image of a technical writer in action: listening to an expert and taking notes

What kind of technical documentation do you do?

I have a past as a software developer and engineer. It was only then obvious for me to go into the kind of technical documentation that deals with software documentation. APIs, cloud architecture, HOWTOs, wikis, and many other similar documents that help developers and engineers understand the component they are working with and get their jobs done.

This type of documentation doesn’t just involve putting words on the screen. It is far more complicated than copywriting, where the formatting done is minimal. A technical writer has to use tools that support drawings, code highlighting, complicated interlinking, macros, to format a good piece of documentation. The usual bold or headings are just a part of what a technical writer is responsible for when writing, and a minor one.

The technical writer role goes well beyond these and usually involves markup languages of the likes of Markdown, AsciiDoc, DITA XML. These are necessary to export the documentation in many other formats (think of PDFs), and are real languages, with their own syntax that a technical writer should master. The choice of these is for the client to make, when the writer is hired full time, or a personal one, when freelancing.

Personally I enjoy writing everything in Markdown and then embellishing it in a CMS (which may well be Word, no reasons to use a cannon to shoot a fly). Different writers will have different preferences and often have an elaborate set up to write technical documentation, involving scripts, syntax files and git repositories.

What is the audience of a Technical Writer?

Most of the time it is a split between end users of a product and internal developers. At least, this has been my experience in my projects.

Generally speaking a technical writer is hired to either create public documentation that will be hosted on a website or public wiki, or internal documentation that contains deeper concepts and data, intended for employees of a company to learn about a product or software or architecture. These two main use cases for technical documentation mean different tones and objectives.

In the first case, end users are a variegated bunch, coming from different perspectives and levels of knowledge. An easier language is thus necessary. There’s no need to go extremely technical, only enough to make the users understand the product. Formatting in a clear way, simple to follow, is of the utmost importance here.

In the case of internal documentation, being complete and deep assumes a higher importance. The readers in this case are more technical than end users, and not at all unknowing of the technical terminology used. The content here can be as technical as it gets, including plenty of external links and code. There’s no limit to how long and complicated such a kind of documentation can be. It depends on the desires of the client and how advanced they expect the audience to be.

Is it difficult being a Technical Writer?

As much as being a writer AND a wannabe scientist together.

So, yes, it is. No wonder they get paid fairly well.

The big advantage of being a technical writer over a general writer or working in marketing is that creativity plays a minor role. Nobody asks you to be quirky with your choice of words, nor experimental with your prose. Quite the opposite. Be boring, regular, precise, reliable. Creativity helps, occasionally, but it is better to write a documentation that is plain and simple than one that is overtly expressive and wordy. Some projects may ask you to be more creative, occasionally. They’re rare, but they do exist.

Quality over quantity. Thus, if you feel like you aren’t that creative as a writer but have good logic, a keen understanding of what the audience wants (this is valid for any type of writer), and can grasp difficult concepts fairly quickly, then you may be a good technical writer.

For sure you shouldn’t be scared of learning new topics on a regular basis. Curiosity is paramount to not get burned out in this job.

Often you can see me looking like this: with a pen and a notebook, taking notes while reading on the computer
Often you can see me looking like this: with a pen and a notebook, taking notes while reading on the computer

How can you be both a Copywriter and a Technical Writer?

Writing is writing, isn’t it?

Contrary to what I asserted just in the previous paragraph, if you have a fairly good amount of creativity you can dedicate it to the copywriting part of your career while keeping consistent and rigorous when you are writing technical content. There’s no rule that you can’t do both. It is just difficult to keep the two writers in you separated.

Most writers focus on one field, but a few do both at the same time, for different clients, arguably. If you have or manage to develop different styles of writing and can keep a conversation with experts without feeling dizzy in 30 seconds, you can be both a copywriter and a technical writer.

In my case I exploited my technical background and merged it with the writing present to provide both services. In full honesty, I don’t see a contrast here. Just hard to have separate writers inside of you and having to be up to date with more topics and trends at the same time. I wouldn’t advise a new writer to be both from the beginning but be open to try either and see where you succeed.

How do you get into the field?

There’s no clear path. Every technical writer entered this field in different ways. Common is sheer luck (joking!).

Thing is, there’s not an academic path that leads to technical writing. Like most roles in modern technologies, there is no step 1, then 2 and finally 3 to follow but most everybody enters their first job coming from disparate origins and studies.

Technical writers roughly become so either because they studied literature and are writers, first and foremostly, or have worked in I.T. and related fields and transit to writing about it. I would say that a good 80% of technical writers come from these two career paths.

I am one of the latter. I was first a Linux administrator, then developer, then applying DevOps practices to everything. In the meantime I caressed my passion for writing and finally decided to apply it to my career as a copywriter/ghostwriter, freelancing for a couple of years. At the end of these two years the chance to become a full time technical writer arose and I joined a company as a regular technical writer. Not with a certain surprise on my part, as I thought I would be assigned a junior role initially.

Be it what it is, technical writing for me is the sum of the past and my passion. As I like to say, Italians know a thing or two about passion, which explains why I keep referring to writing with this word. Technical in the brain, writer in the heart.

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Gianluca Fiore
Gianluca Fiore
Content Writer

Technical and Content writer, SEO consultant, avid traveler, coffee aficionado and all around nice guy