Technical writing has several definitions. Basically, there are two types -- writing technical manuals and instruction booklets, such as software documentation or product specifications; and writing feature articles, case studies, or marketing materials on technical topics that are intended for a technical readership, usually in a particular industry. Although I'll address both in this article, the latter will be the main topic.
To write technical manuals and documentation, the writer must typically be very familiar with the subject matter. In other words, you're not likely to take a new job as a tech writer for Company X one day, and then sit down the next day and begin writing the instruction manuals for their latest products. Rather, you'll need to get a basic grasp of the technology, applications, and products involved. This is typically the case. However, as you'll see later, a good writer can adapt to any type of writing, provided there is an available information source. For documentation writing, for example, having an available source of knowledge will make the task less daunting, particularly if the source has a wealth of patience and understands your situation.
Writing feature articles, such as how a technology is adapted to a particular application, requires less personal knowledge. However, at least one good source of information is still a requirement (two or more are even better). In this type of writing, interviews are conducted and transcribed before beginning to write the first draft. Below are some steps and pointers to writing a good technical feature, white paper or case study on a technical topic.
- Choose an industry. A good technical writer will find more success in choosing a particular industry, such as telecommunications, medical, automotive, computers, etc., to focus on. Although a good tech writer can usually write on any topic, it definitely helps to gain as much knowledge as possible by sticking to one industry's technologies. Almost every successful tech writer is associated with an industry. It will also, in time, establish the writer as an "expert" of sorts within an industry -- bringing more writing assignments within that industry segment.
- Find out what's hot and what's not? Selecting your topic for an article is important. Of course, if you're ghostwriting for a client, as I do, your topics are typically given to you. Otherwise, find out what is currently the hot topic in your industry. If you will need a place to publish the article, it's good to browse through the editorial calendars of the appropriate trade publications. Many have online opportunities as well as print. If you can match a hot topic to an upcoming issue topic on the editorial calendar, there is a better-than-average chance of having your article selected.
- The next step is to contact the publication and provide them with an abstract -- about 50 to 100 words describing the content of your proposed article. It's advisable to send one abstract at a time to one publishing source as opposed to "shotgunning" the abstract to everyone at once. Most publishers want exclusivity when it comes to publishing your article.
- Set up and conduct interviews. After deciding on a topic and finding a "home" for the article, you'll need to set up your interviews with the subject experts. For a white paper or case study, the interview will likely be with one or two in-house sources at a particular company. For a case study, this might be one person from the company and another from the customer in order to do a "problem/solution" format on the topic.
Good interviews can easily be conducted over the telephone if many miles separate you from the sources. Another method, although not recommended, is to email questions to the sources and have them write out their answers in a return email. I'd recommend face-to-face, telephone, and email -- in that order.
For telephone interviews, it is best to record the entire interview, if possible. Phone recording devices can be purchased at most computer/telephone stores for about $15. These are connected between a phone and recording device. Keep in mind, some states do not allow these items, so check it out for your state. Also, you should record yourself at the beginning of the interview telling the source that you are taping the interview for transcribing later.
The interview for a technical paper is unlike that of a news story interview. For white papers or very technical articles, you may have very little knowledge of the topic. In that case, let the subject matter expert know that you are relying on him or her to provide all the information they want in the paper. Basically, if they don't say it, it won't be in the paper! Sometimes it helps to have a bullet outline in place ahead of the interview call.
- Transcribe the interview. This is simply listening to the taped interview and typing it into a file. However, it's also a good way to learn through repetition. Even though the topic may be cloudy at best for you, listening a second or third time to the interview can help make things click a little better. The words and ideas seem to begin to make more sense the second time around. Also, in time and with practice, you'll begin to write as you transcribe. That means instead of typing the interview word for word, you begin to take ideas and reword them to your own writing style. Be careful that you don't change the meaning or the thought! But you can actually begin piecing the article together during the transcription process.
- Write the article. Taking the transcriptions and putting them into solid, readable paragraphs is the next step. Most technical articles use short paragraphs of two or three sentences each, along with frequent sub-heads to break up the text. As with your headline, use imaginative subheads that grab the reader's attention.
A deck can also be added after the headline to provide more information on the topic of the article. This is where your writing skills take hold. The first few paragraphs, or introduction, should set the stage for the rest of the article. If it interests the reader, he or she will read farther. If not, they will never get to the rest of the article.
The topic can then be broken into sub-topics within the article body. The conclusion, as with any written article, should restate and encapsulate the introduction.
- Review the draft and submit the article. Read the article through after spell-checking. Check for smooth transitions from one thought to another. Have another person read through and make suggestions or let you know what confuses them.
After the first draft is complete, you should send it to your interview sources to look over. They will typically have changes, additions, deletions, etc., and should feel free to "fix" anything. Ask them to send their changes back to you and incorporate their suggestions to complete a final draft.
The final step is to send the completed article to the publisher. Throughout the process, be acutely aware of any deadlines, word count requirements, or other formatting criteria set forth by the publisher.
Writing technical articles is challenging, but the number of good technical writers in any industry is few. This creates opportunity for you. Once you establish yourself as a "go to" technical writer in a particular industry segment, you're on your way to success in the field. The bottom line is this: a writer is a writer, regardless of the type of writing or the subject matter. Anyone who can write a news article or a press release or good short story can also write a technical piece. Remember, knowing the subject matter, although the primary deterrent from becoming a tech writer, is not nearly as important as good all-around writing skills and a confident attitude.
Robert Pease is founder, president, and senior technical writer at Write-Way Independent Editorial Services LLC (www.write-way.net), located in Barnstead, NH. He currently writes for more than 30 technical companies, mostly in the telecommunication industry. His writing career spans more than 25 years.