Technical Writing

By Chantel Robinson '09; Revised by Aaron Stewart '09

Media likes to make fun of the “how-to” dad in commercials, T.V. shows and movies—the ones that try to follow the instructions on how to build a tree house, but their finished project never quite looks like the picture. Then they throw the instruction sheet in frustration and blame it on how confusing it was. Well, the people that write those instruction sheets are technical writers and the media’s view on those sheets could give the job a bad reputation; however, technical writing is far from a bad job. In fact, technical writers are extremely important! They’re the people who take medical and legal jargon and translate it on to paper in a way that the general public can understand. They write the instruction booklets on how to fix your brakes if you can’t afford to have someone else fix them for you. They are also the people who write the safety labels for chemicals used in a factory, which ultimately saves lives. So, if you’re interested in being such an important part of daily life, read on.

According to Michael Farr and Laurence Shatkin, technical writers “write technical materials, such as equipment manuals, appendices, or operating and maintenance instructions” and some writers “may assist with layout and design” (430). Technical writing generally falls into two separate areas:

Copy writer- “writes advertising copy for use by publication or broadcast media to promote goods and services” (195). This is sometimes referred to as promotional/persuasive writing.

Copy editor – responsible for editing materials for final print and making sure copy is free from typos and other discrepancies that compromise the integrity of the work.

The technical writer’s job is also similar to Public Relations, in that they have to write for In-House Communications, such as newsletters, memos, &c, and Out-of-House Communications, such as conventions, advertising, &c (Camenson 98-99). For more on Public Relations, read its respective section on this site.

Skills

It’s obvious that, without proper instructions, the public would be confused on how products are to be used and how procedures are to be carried out. That’s why technical writers need to be strong in writing and design. Without decent writing skills, people would not know what it is that they’re reading. Without proper design skills, the best writing skills in the world won’t save you because people won’t know the order in which to read what you’ve provided. So the best piece of advice for future technical writers is to be extremely sure you know how to write and design effectively.

Also, you need to be comfortable working with others. According to Blythe Camenson, technical writers are often hired in a corporate setting working with “teams of writers” (Camenson 93). No one is perfect and, by working cooperatively with a group of other professionals, even the best ideas can become even better. Also, you will spend a lot of time working with engineers on the best way to write safety procedures and protocol. If you don’t learn how to take criticism, advice, or orders from other people, then you’ll find a career in technical writing is going to become immensely difficult.

A strong technical writer also has to have good communication skills. As a writer, you’ll be expected to take legal and medical jargon and translate it into something that the general public can understand. Without professionals who can do so, your Biology and Anatomy textbooks would be completely beyond your comprehension. Technical writers are the people who make those textbooks useful for everyday studies.

Qualifications and Training

For a communications specialist, a Bachelor’s degree in Communications, English, or a related liberal arts major is useful (Camenson 105). Recommended courses of study are business and corporate communications, communications studies such as speech and rhetoric, and technical and business writing (Farr and Shatkin 430). Other courses you could take to improve your skills are:

Clerical practices- knowledge of clerical and administrative practices such as word processing, filing and keeping records, designing forms and other basic office duties.

Sales and marketing- “principles and methods for showing, promoting and selling products or services.”

Education and training-“principles and methods for teaching and instruction for individuals and groups and the measurement of training effects.”

Communications and media- “knowledge of production, communication, and dissemination techniques and methods” which “includes alternative ways to entertain and inform.”

English language- “knowledge of content and structure of English language” including definition, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and composition rules.

Computers and electronics- “knowledge of circuit boards, processors, chips, electronic equipment, computer hardware and software including programming and applications” (Farr and Shatkin 430)

Technical Writing at Heidelberg

The English program at Heidelberg University is top-notch, with many professors to help you in your studies. We have a wide variety of courses, including “Technical Writing” and “Computer-Mediated Communication” (both are essential for technical writers), specialized courses such as “Advanced Poetry Writing” and “Fiction Writing,” as well as an abundance of literature courses ranging from “British Literature” to “Contemporary American Novels.” We also have many classes in Communications and Political Science that could become very helpful on your path to becoming a strong technical writer.

Outside of classes, there are other opportunities that could be helpful. You could join the school newspaper, The Kilikilik, or the literary magazine, Morpheus (though work on the magazine is usually reserved to English Writing majors). You could also work for the school yearbook, Aurora, which would be helpful in your designing skills.

Works Cited

  • Camenson, Blythe. Great Jobs for Liberal Arts Majors. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc, 2008.
  • Farr, Michael and Laurence Shatkin, PhD. 250 Best Paying Jobs. Indianapolis: JIST Publishing, Inc, 2007.

Additional Information

Online Journals and Websites:

Society of Technical Communications http://www.stc.org/

Job Information

Writing Assisant, inc. http://www.writingassist.com/ppc_technical_writer4.php?referrer=msn

Helpful books available at Amazon.com

Technical Writing 101: A Real-World Guide to Planning and Writing Technical Documentation, Second Edition by Alan S. Pringle and Sarah S. O'Keefe (Paperback - Jul 2003)

The Handbook of Technical Writing, Eighth Edition (Handbook of Technical Writing Practices) by Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu (Hardcover - Mar 7, 2006)

Spring Into Technical Writing for Engineers and Scientists (Spring Into... Series) by Barry J. Rosenberg (Paperback - May 27, 2005)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Technical Writing & Technical Writing for Dummies. (Book Reviews).: An article from: Technical Communication by Pamela S. Ecker (Digital - Jul 31, 2005) - HTML