Saturday, March 26, 2011

What is technical writing?

What is technical writing?
Tim North,

Before setting up shop as a proofreader, I worked as a technical writer. When I told people what I did, I was often met with blank stares bordering on total incomprehension.

These days, I'm often asked how to get into the field of proofreading, and I usually suggest a stint doing technical writing first. Again, I'm often met by the same response.

Thus I thought I'd set the record straight and finally answer that question that has (I'm quite sure) been keeping you awake at nights:

Just what is a "technical writer" anyway?

Technical writing is the profession that involves translating scientific and technical information into more easily understandable language.

Technical writers may prepare scientific and technical reports, operating and maintenance manuals, catalogues, assembly instructions, sales materials and project proposals. They may also plan and edit technical reports and oversee the preparation of illustrations, photographs, diagrams and charts.

Some technical writers work full time for a single company for many years; others choose to do short-term contracts (usually of three to twelve months duration) for a variety of companies. Some hold a managerial (or other) job in which technical writing is just one of many tasks that they perform.

Some technical writers may specialize in a particular field such as medicine or computing. Others may write about a wide range of areas. Some start as general writers and then acquire specialized technical knowledge. Others start as technical professionals and then learn technical writing "on the job".

To be a successful technical writer (whether full time or just occasionally) you need many skills:

* You need a degree -- or at least a great deal of experience -- in the field (or fields) about which you're writing.

* Obviously, you need to be able to write well. At a minimum, this involves having a good vocabulary and a strong command of grammar, spelling and punctuation. If you don't know a conjunction from an adverb this may not be the field for you.

* You also need to be able to organise information well. When writing a technical report, you need to be able to arrange the information into a suitable order, delete (or de-emphasize) less important information, cross-reference the information and more.

* You need good people skills. Sometimes the only people who will be able to answer your questions about the material you're writing about will be scientists, programmers and engineers. These folk are not always the best communicators! Regardless, you'll have to be able to organize time to talk with them, tease out the answers to your questions, and have them check your work for technical correctness. This requires good interpersonal skills.

* You will need good Internet and library skills as these can be vital sources of information. You need to know how to use them efficiently.

* It helps to be a fast and accurate typist. Often you'll be working on a deadline, and two-finger typing will be a disadvantage.

It's a challenging career, and not an easy one to get into. If you work at it, though, it can be both financially rewarding and professionally satisfying.

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