The Ultimate Guide for Technical Writing
If you’ve ever gotten frustrated when putting together IKEA furniture or reviewing product info online, you have learned the importance of quality technical writing firsthand.
With the rise of software companies in the last decade, the demand for quality technical writers has sharply increased.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for technical writers is going to increase much faster than average relative to other professions, and the average technical writer makes $35 an hour.
It’s no wonder that writers are flocking to pick up this skillset. Before we walk through how you can become an effective technical writer, let’s first define what we’re actually talking about.
What is technical writing?
When most people think of technical writing, they tend to think of user manuals. In reality, technical writing is any kind of writing that instructs a reader how to do something.
This is in contrast to writing for marketing purposes, in which the goal is to try to get the reader to take action. The goal of technical writing is to be direct and make complex concepts easy to understand.
Some examples of technical writing are:
- Press releases
- White papers
- Product descriptions
- Business proposals
You can see why there is a lot of demand for capable technical writers amongst software companies, as they need to create online documentation to answer a wide range of product questions from customers.
When I first started technical writing, I made a lot of mistakes. I have distilled what I learned to help you avoid those same mistakes and to ensure your writing is concise and easy to understand.
Tip 1: Hang out where your audience does online
The first technical writing assignment I did was for my company BeamJobs. We built tools to make it easy for tech professionals to create effective résumés. Specifically, my assignment was to write a résumé guide for software engineers, a notoriously skeptical audience.
In my first attempt at that assignment, I thought I could wing it. I read a few articles online about software engineering and wrote my first draft. It went very poorly.
I received a lot of negative comments, all on the theme of, “You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about.” While those comments were hard to read, upon some reflection, I knew they were right!
When writing a technical piece, you’re typically targeting an audience of subject matter experts. If you don’t take the time to really understand the product or field you’re writing about, it will be obvious that you’re an outsider and you will lose the trust of your reader.
So, how did I better acclimate myself to software engineering to write a more effective résumé guide? I learned where software engineers hung out online and I frequented those websites. For software engineers, these were websites like Hacker News and Stack Overflow.
Almost any niche you’re writing for will have a place to congregate online. By spending time on these sites, I quickly learned what kind of language and tone resonated with my audience. I also learned the technical lingo as it was used in context.
Hang out where your audience does online to better acclimate yourself and come across as an expert in your technical writing.
Tip 2: Keep your writing simple and direct
Remember what the goal of technical writing is: to instruct your reader how to do something or convey the meaning of a concept that is hard to understand.
The aim is to leave no room for interpretation. Your writing should be concise and straight to the point. Exclude all flowery prose and metaphors from your technical content.
This is not a creative writing assignment. It’s not the time to wax-poetic! With each iteration of your drafting and editing process, you should strive to shorten your content by 5-10%.
Be ruthlessly efficient. Examine each word and determine whether it will impact your reader’s understanding of what you’re writing.
To illustrate this point, let’s walk through an assignment I actually completed. I was tasked with writing a short technical description of the objective of the card game solitaire.
Remember, as a tech writer, your goal is to convey information and be direct.
Good example of a technical description:
Place all cards on the foundation in sequence. Each foundation pile contains a single suit, starting with Aces at the bottom and Kings on top. The game is won once all cards are in their respective foundation piles.
We’re describing exactly how to win a game of solitaire. There’s no fluff here.
Bad example of a technical description:
Get rid of all the cards in the deck as quickly as possible to demonstrate your solitaire expertise! You can play alone or play with a group of friends.
Tip 3: Give examples to provide clarity
Technical writing is, by its nature, dry and objective. A reader chooses a technical writing piece to learn new information to build something or solve a problem.
During my first few assignments as a technical writer, I went a bit overboard with this concept and made my writing too dense. Just because your writing needs to be objective does not mean it needs to be hard to read. I mistakenly conflated those two ideas.
Again, the goal of a tech writer is to clearly convey complex information. What better way to do that than to include concrete examples of what you’re talking about or trying to get the reader to understand?
These examples can come in the form of text, or you can use images and diagrams to show exactly what you’re talking about. Let’s illustrate the efficacy of concrete examples with, you guessed it, an example.
In this technical guide, we’re trying to explain to a user how to filter all incoming emails that contain the word “error” in Gmail and star them.
Here is how that looks without an example:
- Open Gmail
- In the top right corner, click the gear icon and choose “Settings”
- Click on the “Filters and Blocked Addresses” tab
- Click “Create a new filter”
- In the “Has the words” field type “error”
- Click “Create filter”
- Click the checkbox for “Star it”
- Click the “Create filter” button
Now, let’s convey that same information, except this time, let’s use only images.
Using screenshots and diagrams in your technical writing as examples makes it much easier for the reader to understand what you’re trying to say.
How to become a technical writer
Now that you know the tricks of the trade to become a great technical writer, what’s next? How can you apply these tools and actually become a tech writer?
If you’re an entry-level technical writer, you’ll need to demonstrate the necessary technical writing skills to be successful at the job.
What are those skills?
Technical writing skills you’ll need to land your first job:
- Research skills to learn about new products and topics.
- Tech proficiency. To break down complex technical concepts, you’ll need a good grasp on technology.
- Attention to detail. You’ll be in charge of telling others how to complete complicated tasks, so attention to detail is a must-have.
- Strong writing skills. You could have guessed this one. You need to be a strong writer to succeed in technical writing.
If you’re looking to break into the field as an entry-level tech writer, I highly recommend you build a small portfolio of technical writing pieces that you can show to prospective employers. Do this by taking tools and processes you use in everyday life and write technical documentation for them.
Do you love a certain website? Write a sample press release for a fictional technical product they’re launching. Write a how-to-guide (with screenshots) for completing certain tasks in your favorite online tool.
If you want a challenge to really impress employers, try to build out technical documentation for a field you currently know nothing about. As I mentioned before, spend time where your audience does online to learn the lingo, and then give it your best shot.
Remote technical writer jobs
Now you have the right skills and you know what you need to do to appeal to a prospective employer to land a technical writing job. You’re well on your way to getting paid to write technical content.
The beauty of being a tech writer is you can work from anywhere. When it’s time for me to write, I get too easily distracted by the hustle and bustle of an office. This is especially true when I’m writing technical pieces.
How can you find technical writing jobs that will allow you the freedom to work where you want? There are a lot of resources online that make it easy to find freelance technical writing jobs.
A great place to start your search is Textbroker. You can apply for free, and once approved you’ll have access to thousands of paying projects from companies across the globe. You can pick up new assignments as you want them, so you control your own schedule.
If you’re looking for a full-time role, I suggest you visit career websites of tech companies, especially enterprise companies that sell to other businesses. They have a need to clearly explain their products to their customers to reduce customer support costs.
Technical Writing Opportunities
The demand for tech writers is going to continue to grow over the next decade. If you have great writing skills, strong attention to detail, and a good tech sense, you’ll have no trouble launching a technical writing career.
The goal of technical writing is to make complex concepts easy to understand through extensive reports and user how-to guides. To succeed, follow these three tips that I’ve learned firsthand by making mistakes:
- Know your audience by spending time online where they spend time online.
- Keep your language direct.
- Illustrate your points with examples and screenshots or images.
Technical writers can work from anywhere, so if you’re looking for your next freelance technical writing job, be sure to sign up as a writer on Textbroker.
Begin your technical writing career at Textbroker.
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Author Bio Stephen Greet
I’m the co-founder and head of growth for BeamJobs, where we help people create effective resumes. I write all the content for BeamJobs so I love engaging with the content writing community and sharing what I’ve learned.