Writing about technical stuff, right?
I hinted at what technical writing actually is in this tweet.
Technical writing is actually a style of writing, rather than a subject of writing. Technically, you could write a technical piece about some technology using a technical writing style, but you don't have to...
Yes, sorry; I got carried away with that word - let me explain.
You could write for a scientific paper in a technical writing style, or you could write for a mechanics magazine in a technical writing style.
Technical writing is a style of writing that you will usually see in things like manuals, technical documentation and educational leaflets. It is often used in STEM fields and is only ever factual. You'd never write opinions in technical writing, unless specific circumstances call for it.
The style is authoritative, well-informed, factual and very formal. I've tried to break it down to the three main things that technical writing should do. There's a fair bit more to it, but to me, these are the most important:
When you're using a new piece of technology, or you've just got your new drone out of the box, or you're figuring out how to use a bunsen burner in the lab, what sort of documentation would you find useful?
Clear, directive instructions with some diagrams or even pictures to go alongside?
Technical writing that is unclear, informal or ambiguous could actually be very dangerous or costly -
"Turn the bunsen burner upside down and hold it at the end while you turn the red dial that's next to the blue dial the other way on the gas cylinder"...
Technical writing must inform the reader; the reader is expecting to either learn something by reading your writing, or learn HOW TO do something (in the case of a manual or documentation), so you must consider this when laying out your writing. Make sure to use white space as well as pictures to distribute your work cleanly on the page. Using white space sparingly for this is very useful - it means that information can be portioned out into 'bite-sized' portions for the reader to absorb more easily than a huge block of text. How would you feel if you opened the manual to your new hardware/software and the docs read like a chapter from a novel?
We could look at this one 2 ways - you want to make sure that you are directing your reader, especially if it is a confusing or dangerous topic that you are writing about. You need to use an authoritative tone and leave your reader in no doubt as to what they must do.
"Always wear safety goggles"
Is more effective than
"Consider wearing safety equipment to protect your eyes"
Your writing must also be direct. This means that you don't want to leave any ambiguity in your writing. Leave nothing to chance. Using the example above, you can see in the 'authoritative voice' example, I've specified 'safely goggles', whereas the other line states 'safety equipment'. What does that mean? Gloves are 'safety equipment'....should I use those to wipe my eyes...is that what it means..?
Do you see how being direct in all instances will rule out any ambiguity?
The writing must instruct the reader. The reader must come away feeling confident that they learned something new or now know how to do something. Do you feel confident writing it? Good, that'll show in your writing. Don't feel confident yet? That's fine, just note your ideas at that time, go back and do some more research.
Leave the 'might', 'probably', 'sometimes' and even the 'often' out of it. You want clear, sharp instructions that are easy to follow.
☕️ You're not writing for people who are sitting down with a cup of tea to enjoy the poetic language, you're writing for people who have got things to do!
Ah yes, research...
You might spend just as much time researching for a topic or assignment as you do actually writing it. Essentially, you want to be, or at least be able to write as though you are, an expert on the thing you are writing on. If you are a contractor writing on a topic that isn't in your field of expertise, it's always best to ask for help and isn't a sign of weakness.
No one is born an expert.