Mastering technical writing

Technical writing requires a knack for separating the wheat from the chaff, writes Nick Langley

Technical writing requires a knack for separating the wheat from the chaff, writes Nick Langley

Technical writers mediate between the people who create a technology product and the people who use it. They are amphibious beings: able to grasp what the user - intelligent or otherwise - needs to know and to understand what the developers of the technology - articulate or otherwise - are trying to explain.

Where did it originate?

As a general discipline, technical writing evolved from scientific writing. In IT, technical writing has its roots in system documentation. System documentation, however, tends to describe the characteristics of a system for the benefit of future development and maintenance staff; it doesn't necessarily tell you how to use it, or why. It also tends to take the form of dense slabs of unparagraphed, poorly punctuated text full of unexplained specialist terminology.

The first audience for IT technical writing were other technically-literate users, who simply needed documentation restructured into something more accessible, which they could use as a reference text. But with the arrival of desktop computing, technical authors could no longer make assumptions about what their audience knew. That has been the challenge for the last 20 years.

What's it for?

User manuals are generally provided online these days, often in the form of online help. Few software houses can assume that their users will read documentation or even complete the introductory exercises before using a product in earnest. Not that they ever did; the phrase "if all else fails, read the manual" is as old as the packaged software industry.

What makes it special?

There are two contradictory myths about technical writing. One is that anybody can do it; the other, that you have to be an expert in the technology you are describing. Reading some of the sub-literate training material available free on the Internet, it is tempting to believe the first myth. Developers, unfortunately, often believe the second, and treat technical authors with distrust. Among the qualities you will need are a thick skin and the ability to persuade prickly techies to take you seriously.

How hard is it to master?

First, you will need to be able to write lucidly. Some writing skills can be learned, and everybody's skills can be improved. Second, you should be able to fit complex information into a coherent structure, and there is more to this than filling in the blanks in a template. Third, you need good interviewing skills. You may also be working as part of a team, which many writers find difficult.

As for tools, you'll need good word processing skills and knowledge of a DTP package like Frame Maker. You may also use editing tools like Style Writer, and tools for creating online help, like Robo Help.

Where is it used?

See What's it for?

Not to be compared with

Manual labour.

What does it run on?

Paper, microfiche, CD-Rom.

Few people know

Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon both started out as technical writers.

What's coming up?

A meaningless error message. Blame the writer.

Training

The pool of contract technical writers tends to come from large computer companies which train their own. Some training companies offer public courses - try Parity on 01483-414145. There is a selection of classroom and online courses on the ISTC Web site, www.istc.org.uk. Sheffield Hallam University does an MA in technical writing. Paisley University offers a three-day course. There are plenty of other writing related Web sites: try techwriting.about.com or writerswrite.com.

Rates of pay

Technical writing was one of the first IT services to be outsourced, and many technical writers work through agencies. Permanent rates run from £18,000 to £20,000 for juniors up to £35,000 for lead authors on team projects.

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