Technical-writing courses introduce you to some of the most important aspects of writing in the worlds of science, technology, and business—in other words, the kind of writing that scientists, nurses, doctors, computer specialists, government officials, engineers, and other such people do as a part of their regular work.

To learn how to write effectively for the world of work, you'll study common types of reports, special format items such as lists and headings, simple techniques for putting graphics into reports, and some techniques for producing professional-looking final copy.

Technical-writing courses build on what you've learned in other writing courses. But there's lots that is new to learn! If you currently have a job in which you do some writing, you'll discover that you can put what you learn in your technical-writing course to immediate use.

About Technical Writing

You're probably wondering what this "technical writing thing" is. Someone may even have told you, "it's this course where they make you write about rocket science and brain surgery." Well, not really, as you will see in a moment. Actually, the field of technical communication is essential in a wide range of fields and occupations. It is a fully professional field with degree programs, certifications, and—yes!—even theory. It's a good field with a lot of growth and income potential; and an introductory technical-writing course for which this book has been developed is a good way to start if you are interested in a career in this field.

Workplace writing. However, the focus for technical-writing courses is not necessarily career as a technical writer but an introduction to the kinds of writing skills you need in practically any technically oriented professional job. No matter what sort of professional work you do, you're likely to do lots of writing—and much of it technical in nature. The more you know about some basic technical-writing skills, which are covered in this guide and in technical-writing courses, the better job of writing you're likely to do. And that will be good for the projects you work on, for the organizations you work in, and—most of all—good for you and your career.

The meaning of "technical." Technical communication—or technical writing, as the course is often called—is not writing about a specific technical topic such as computers, but about any technical topic. The term "technical" refers to knowledge that is not widespread, that is more the territory of experts and specialists. Whatever your major is, you are developing an expertise—you are becoming a specialist in a particular technical area. And whenever you try to write or say anything about your field, you are engaged in technical communication.

Importance of audience. Another key part of the definition of technical communication is the receiver of the information—the audience. Technical communication is the delivery of technical information to readers (or listeners or viewers) in a manner that is adapted to their needs, level of understanding, and background. In fact, this audience element is so important that it is one of the cornerstones of this course: you are challenged to write about highly technical subjects but in a way that a beginner—a nonspecialist—could understand. This ability to "translate" technical information to nonspecialists is a key skill to any technical communicator. In a world of rapid technological development, people are constantly falling behind and becoming technological illiterates. Technology companies are constantly struggling to find effective ways to help customers or potential customers understand the advantages or the operation of their new products.

So relax! You don't have to write about computers or rocket science—write about the area of technical specialization you know or are learning about. And plan to write about it in such a way that even Grandad can understand!

Really technical writing. Keep relaxing, but you should know that professional technical writers do in fact write about very technical stuff—information that they cannot begin to master unless they go back for a Ph.D. But wait a minute! The technical documents have to ship with the product in less than nine months! How do they manage? Professional technical writers rely on these strategies to ensure the technical accuracy of their work:

  • Study of books, articles, reports, websites related to the product
  • Product specifications: what the product is supposed to do, how it is designed
  • Interviews with subject matter experts: the product specialists, developers, engineers
  • Product meetings during the development cycle
  • Live demonstrations of the product
  • Familiarization with similar, competing products
  • Experimenting with working models of the product
  • Most importantly, subject matter experts' review of technical writers' work for technical accuracy and completeness

Of course, experienced technical writers will tell you that product development moves so fast that specifications are not always possible and that working models of the product are rarely available. That's why the subject matter experts' review is often the most important.

About Technical-Writing Courses

In technical-writing courses, the main focus is typically the technical report, due toward the end of the semester. Just about everything you do in the course is aimed at developing skills needed to produce that report. Of course, some technical-writing courses begin with a resume and application letter (often known as the cover letter), but after that you plan the technical report, then write a proposal in which you propose to write that report. Then you write short technical papers where you get accustomed to using things like headings, lists, graphics, and special notices—not to mention writing about technical subject matter in a clear, concise, understandable way that is appropriate for a specific audience.

Caution: You should be aware that technical-writing courses are writing-intensive. You will probably write more in your technical-writing course than in any other course you have ever taken. If you are taking physics, calculus, and intermediate accounting and are expecting a baby this semester—well, maybe, this is not exactly the right semester for technical writing.

About This Free Online Technical Writing Textbook

This text came about in the mid-1980s while I was working at IBM–Austin, Texas, and teaching as an adjunct at Austin Community College. Using a desktop publishing system called Interleaf, I wrote this at a time when most students still used typewriters. There may still be vestiges of this era in these pages. In 1994, I discovered the web and began a mad dash through my lunch hours converting the Interleaf files to HTML using loads of macros I created in Emacs. In 2014, I began extensively overhauling this thing and trying to modernize it. Some of the examples are from my technical writing teaching days in the early 1980s at the University of Texas. They are dated but good examples. Readers are encouraged to send me updates! — David

About the Author

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