Defining Technical Writing in the Digital Age

A older Macintosh user manual on a wood desk.
Photo Credit: Brett Jordan / Unsplash

What is Technical Writing?

Jon Balzotti, author of Technical Communication: A Design-Centric Approach, defines technical communication as words and images used to assist readers in achieving goals. These communications include manuals, emails, websites, or newsletters that help readers learn, perform tasks, or make critical decisions. As I perused through the first week’s readings, I realized that I’ve been writing to help people accomplish tasks for years. I am a technical writer.

I would have immediately said a user manual if you asked me what I thought technical writing was a few months ago. It didn’t occur to me that my recent publication on how to watch Star Wars in order could be a technical document, but it is! In that piece, I provide a step-by-step method to enjoy the sci-fi series in various ways. Most of my writing is instructional in some form or another. I use words and images to help readers understand and perform tasks. That’s the goal of technical communication.

A black and white photo of a person sitting and using a laptop.
Photo Credit: Sergey Zolkin / Unsplash

Technical Writing is User-Centered

Writing aims to share thoughts, stories, or facts with readers. Writing is a way to talk to people and share something important. Technical communication focuses on the reader, not the writer. It puts the audience's needs and expectations first and adapts the message to their level of knowledge and needs. Defining the audience, or discourse community, is vital. If you do not understand your audience, your message falls flat.

As a writer for many websites, my clients tell me who my audience is. Publishing companies pour thousands of dollars into marketing research to identify the target audience. I think it doesn't have to be complicated. Yes, writing to your discourse community is important, but writing for people should be as natural as a conversation.

As the daughter of a Korean immigrant, I spent a lot of time translating for my mother. I didn't speak Korean fluently but became adept at breaking down complex information into simple, digestible pieces so my mother could understand. Oftentimes, my explanations turned into a game of charades or simple drawings to get the point across. The essence of technical communication is translating complex information or ideas for the reader, or in some cases, verbally, to the person standing right before you.

A markup screenshot of a website.
Screenshot from Technical Communication by John M. Lannon and Laura J. Gurak

Technical Writing is Visual Communication

If a picture is worth a thousand words, why bother with words? As someone who works with words and imagery daily, I love how both can enhance a message. I work as a full-time visual editor as my day job. My journey to this role is interesting. I started as primarily a writer who had photography skills. I used both my skills to create content that supported each other. Now, I spend 40 hours a week writing creative briefs for photographers so that they may capture what my company wants to convey from the content.

My work has helped me understand the fundamentals of visual communication. Like technical communication, visual elements must have a purpose. Visuals are not purely ornamental. A document's visual and written elements effectively convey the message. However, visuals are broader than beautiful photography. Visuals are charts and diagrams; they are bolded headlines and hyperlinks; they are strategically placed summaries in the margins or simple icons that help a reader understand the content on the page.

A screenshot from the movie, A River Runs Through It.
Photo credi: trisweb / imgur

Technical Writing is Concise and Efficient

Technical writing makes documents easy to navigate and understand. It takes into account (and empathizes) with the end user. Technical writing also focuses on providing clear and concise instructions, eliminating any unnecessary jargon or complex language.

My first foray into digital writing was shocking. I wrote my first article on choosing HVAC systems. I used my college creative writing skills to transform a dull topic into something interesting and exciting. When I received my first draft, the editor cut it to a third of what I originally wrote. I immediately thought of that scene in A River Runs Through It where the Rev. John Maclean marks up his son's paper, hands it back to him, and says, "Half as long." I wasted my time trying to do more when it was unnecessary.

John M. Lannon and Laura J. Guraksay write in Technical Communication that you should find out before you write whether your user is more interested in conclusions and suggestions or in having everything spelled out. The answer lies in understanding your audience. Even though I learned in school to use complicated language, you don't always need more words to communicate your point.

A metal statue of a blindfolded woman in a toga holding scales.
Photo Credit: Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash

Technical Writing is Objective

Objectivity is critical in technical writing. It requires the ability to present information without personal opinions or emotions. Some days, I struggle with this task. The helper in me wants to reassure the reader that the tutorial I created is simple and will give them the confidence they need to complete the task.

The most surprising detail I gleaned from this week's readings was that a creative tone and objectivity can coexist. Technical writing is plain, direct language that doesn't have to be dull. By maintaining objectivity, I learned that writers can ensure their work is unbiased and credible. This approach allows readers to make informed decisions based on the facts presented, enhancing the overall effectiveness of technical documents.


Debbie Wolfe

Debbie Wolfe

Debbie Wolfe is a freelance writer, photographer, and author who has been writing in the home and garden industry for 10 years.
Powder Springs, GA