Skip to main content

Using Technical Writing to Simplify Complex Information

Explore the definition of technical writing and some tips for using this important skill to make complex information understandable.

Our lives are full of technology, from video doorbells to internet-connected cars. But have you ever stopped to think that for every piece of technology, a writer had to create content to describe what the technology is and how to use it? These professionals are tasked with translating complex information into easy-to-understand material for customers, investors, end users, journalists, and other key audiences.

As the field of technology has grown, so has the need for individuals with the skill to capture and clearly convey technical information and processes in a readily understandable way. The need for technical writing spans all kinds of professions, including physicians, scientists, and engineers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for technical content writing is expected to grow 7% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations.

In this article, we’ll explore the subject of technical writing, addressing what it is, who relies on it, and some tips for those working in the field.

What is technical writing?

Technical writing refers to a unique discipline within communications focused on simplifying specialized and often complicated information. We’ll address a list of some forms of technical writing, but a few common examples of technical writing include product descriptions, instruction manuals, and technical documentation.

Content might address subject matter including everything from software programs to pharmaceutical regulations. The list of industries that rely on technical writing is growing all the time and includes:

  • Aeronautics
  • Telecommunications
  • Biotechnology
  • Robotics
  • Finance
  • Chemistry
  • Health care 
  • Automotive
  • Environmental regulations

The audiences for technical writing can vary widely as well. In some cases, the material is bound for industry-specific audiences with some specialized knowledge of the subject. Other times, the writing must meet the understanding level of a general audience, as with consumer electronics. Technical writers must adapt their approach to meet the needs and expertise level of their particular readers.

When you become a technical writer it’s likely you’ll also be asked to provide images or assets to support the technical subjects you’re writing about. That means that among the skills needed, writers must also commonly learn and use tools to create and edit visuals like illustrations, charts, graphs, and diagrams. Design tools may similarly be necessary for formatting the technical documents.

Unlike some business or marketing writing, technical writing style is also typically distinguished by a neutral tone that seeks to inform, guide, and educate versus persuade. The focus is explaining complicated technical concepts or processes to a largely non-technical reader.

Types of technical documents

There is a long list of different kinds of materials a technical writer might work on. Many, such as user manuals, have become familiar to even non-technical audiences. But the list is always expanding, and more than ever technical writers must collaborate with engineers, programmers, and product designers to explain technical information. Below are some examples of technical writing.

Software installation guides

Every new piece of computer software must include the appropriate technical documentation. Critical among these resources is the installation guide created to help users get the most out of the software. This includes clearly articulating the steps for software implementation and installation through detailed workflows, video tutorials, FAQs, and a troubleshooting resource. Sometimes installation is automated, in which case technical writers will contribute via instruction text and a ReadMe file.

User instruction manuals

Technical writing is also central to creating user instructional guides. One might encounter such manuals for consumer electronics, smart appliances, and even software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools and solutions. Sections typically address assembly instructions, operational tips, and warranty details to help users operate or configure the device or program. The goal is to make the user understand as quickly and easily as possible through clear, direct writing and helpful visual aids.

Standard operating procedures (SOPs)

Sometimes technical writing is focused on aiding internal audiences. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) represent a perfect example, providing detailed guidelines outlining organizational tasks and supporting the pursuit of efficiency, consistency, and seamless operations. SOPs might include process documentation that streamlines internal operations and workflows as well as manufacturing guidelines and payroll processing.

Case studies and white papers

Technical writing may be required for developing case studies and white papers. These reports generally offer a profile of a particular project, event, or collaboration, capturing the details and laying out how the effort was organized and executed. Case studies tend to focus more on a single discrete event while white papers often tackle larger subjects related to a key issue, challenge, or question.

Technical manuals

This category includes owner manuals, maintenance and repair guides, engineering specifications, and technical documentation. Such materials offer instructions, information, and guidance for a wide range of different use cases, including consumer appliances and electronics, mechanical systems, and automobiles. In each case, the technical manual is intended for a specific audience, requiring the writer to understand that audience’s level of knowledge.

API guides

Technical writers are regularly brought in to draft the instructions to help developers of an application programming interface (API). They may create tutorials and user documentation to support the integration of APIs into software applications. To make sure developers can easily find, use, and understand APIs, technical writers must ensure API documentation is clear, concise, and accurate.

Press releases

Certain business-related announcements include technical details that must be described properly. Think of press releases written for a new product or service launch, or a collaboration with a partner technology company. With this kind of document, writers can use an established template to share the details and the value of the product or services to the audience. As always, writers must be mindful of the level of technological savvy of the reader.

Feasibility studies

Technical writing demands are part of most feasibility and corporate studies, such as a company’s financial reports. In addition to conducting the necessary research, technical writers must organize and present the information in an easily digestible way for diverse audiences. This is especially true for studies related to finance, forecasting, and product roadmaps. These writers must often call on graphs, charts, and other visual support.

Technical writing certifications for technical writers

Effective technical writing begins with a command of good writing skills in general. Technical writing courses and certifications can help a technical writer elevate those skills to meet the unique and exacting demands of writing about complex subjects like robotics, finance, and health care.

The benefits of earning a certification are many. The courses help you sharpen basic writing abilities while addressing other key technical skills like interviewing, researching, and editing. In addition, students receive valuable background about the career opportunities for a technical writer. Certification through an accredited school or organization can help people get technical writing jobs by illustrating devotion to the field and confirming technical knowledge, communication skills, and competencies.

Here’s a background on a few certification options popular among technical writers.

Society for Technical Communication (STC)

STC is a tiered program that addresses the needs of 3 levels of technical communicators: Foundation, Practitioner, and Expert. To graduate from one to the next, you must pass examinations of increasing difficulty. STC claims to be the world’s oldest professional association dedicated to the advancement of the field of technical communication, with members representing every industry segment. 

American Medical Writers Association (AMWA)

If your goal is to become or build on your experience as a medical writer, the AMWA is an important resource. Note that you must have at least 2 years of experience in medical communications and a bachelor’s degree to be eligible to earn the Medical Writer Certified (MWC) credential. If you are just starting out in the medical writing field, explore AMWA’s Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Medical Writer and its Essential Skills Certificate Program.

National Association of Science Writers (NASW)

The sciences regularly need a technical writer to report the industry’s news and stories. Established by a dozen science reporters in 1934, NASW now represents a community of journalists, authors, editors, producers, public information officers, and students who write and produce material intended to inform the public about science, health, engineering, and technology. Applying for certification requires submitting 5 pieces written in the last 5 years.

Technical writing tips for the technical writer

Admittedly, the tips offered here are not all necessarily specific to technical writing. That’s because tackling any technical writing project is necessarily grounded in strong writing skills, principles, methods, and practices. However, some basic business writing truisms may prove more applicable to technical writers than those in creative writing or academic writing. Put these tips to work for you to distinguish your content.

Start and stay audience-focused

The best content is born from a deep understanding of those you’re attempting to reach. Once your audience is clear, keep that focus front of mind as you write. The final document should reflect the level of expertise of the audience and their unique interest in and expectations for the sort of piece you’re creating. If it fails to deliver real value for your audience, you’ve missed the mark.

Define the goal of your technical document

With the audience established, it’s time to define the objectives of your technical writing project. Identify the primary communication goal and any key supporting goals as well. In some cases, you may be provided a project brief that can help identify the fundamentals of the project. Either way, this is your chance to fill in any gaps and spotlight the path you’ll be taking, including format, writing style, and length. Share this with your manager or client to confirm the plan.

Create an outline of the technical information

It’s also recommended to develop an outline for your proposed technical document before writing begins. This is your opportunity to work through the flow of the piece, identifying all the key ingredients. The exercise will not only acquaint you with the source material, but it will also help spotlight holes you hadn’t noticed. Share the outline with not only your client but also your manager and any engineers, developers, and subject matter experts as well. A solid outline can sharpen your writing discipline, speed up the writing process, and deliver a more successful final draft.

Pursue simplicity and concision with technical documents

Technical writing works with dense, complicated subjects. That’s why it must be as clear and straightforward as possible to maximize audience understanding. So, keep your writing simple, direct, and free of jargon. Rely on active voice and short declarative sentences that bring clarity. Editing skills play an outsized role here; be ruthless about cutting filler and extraneous language in your draft.

Avoid industry jargon with technical subject matter

We mentioned jargon in the previous tip but it warrants its own reminder. Technical documents are frequent and flagrant users of industry-specific terms and acronyms that may not be understood by their intended audiences.

Of course, such language has a way of creeping into technical materials and you may find yourself adding jargon without quite realizing it. That’s why it’s important to consider sharing your work with someone who doesn’t possess your technical knowledge to review and scrub your draft.

Write for a global audience

It’s generally best to write for an international audience. In other words, keep the language as simple as the subject matter will allow. Also, avoid using slang or idiomatic expressions that could be confusing to or misunderstood by your readers. Look for words with multiple meanings, especially those that can be used as either verbs or nouns. And try to keep sentence construction short. All of these steps will also smooth the process of translation into other languages if necessary.

Cite all claims in technical documents

Many technical writers will frequently create documents that include statistics, benchmarks, and results from key outside studies, surveys, and reports. It’s critical to footnote these numbers and claims, providing the source of the information so readers can learn more if they wish. It’s also necessary to verify the accuracy of these citations and is generally recommended to use the original source.

Double-check technical content accuracy

Before calling it final, confirm the accuracy of all the content in your document. Errors can be expensive and potentially dangerous, depending on the situation. Being unable to troubleshoot a problem with your computer because of a misstep in the user’s manual is frustrating. But an inaccuracy in the installation guide for a gas furnace can be catastrophic. Build in the appropriate reviews, especially the subject matter expert, to ensure your document is correct.

Achieving your technical writing aims through relevant skills

Complex technologies and mechanical systems play an ever-growing role in our lives. As a result, there is an increasing need for writers who can clearly describe these products and services and how we are to use them. Technical writing will continue to play an important part in our ability to understand and make the most of innovations across diverse industries.

Subscribe to get more marketing tips straight to your inbox.

Share This Article