Technical writing can be a challenging field, especially for newcomers. You’ll be tasked with condensing highly technical information down into a digestible format, and possibly for multiple different demographics and audiences. And because writing can be so subjective, it can be hard to tell if and when you’re doing things right. Using a good documentation tool can help you write more efficiently and publish your documents in the right places, but it’s still on you to master the art of technical writing.
Fortunately, there are a few helpful tips that can get you started in the right direction.
Tips for New Technical Writers
Follow these strategies as you begin to perfect the art of technical writing:
1. Learn to master verbs and active voice. In technical writing, you’ll often be relaying instructions, or at least guiding people on what to do. In common speech, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using passive voice, or weak combinations of verbs and nouns. But your writing will be much stronger if you use active voice, with direct, concise verbs to describe your intended action. For example, instead of writing something like “if a user were to make a statement,” you could simply use the command, “State.” This simplifies, clarifies, and makes your writing more powerful overall.
2. Get familiar with your audience. Technical writing success depends heavily on your ability to cater to a specific audience. If you’re writing to experts in a given field, they’re going to expect you to use high-vocabulary terms accurately, and make assumptions about what they already know. If you’re writing to laypeople, you’ll need to use simplified language, and explain concepts that may be intuitive to someone more familiar with the subject. Creating a persona can help you get in the mindset of your target audience, as can having direct conversations with your audience members, and asking them for feedback.
3. Always outline first. Whether you’re writing a help guide for your company’s app, or internal process documentation, it’s vital that you create an outline before you plunge into writing. Technical writing, more than other forms of writing, depends on high-level organizational coherence. Users need to be able to reliably navigate your document, and if they’re reading it straight-through, they need to follow your content logically and straightforwardly. An outline is your chance to iron out some of the inevitable complexities, and set a course for the rest of your writing.
4. Use examples. It’s one thing to describe a high-level concept, and another to explain or illustrate how that concept applies to the real world. In technical writing, you’ll often be covering complex or hard-to-understand subjects, so it’s even more important to use a well-placed example or two to showcase why your topic matters, or how it relates to the real world. If your audience is technically savvy, go over a couple of hypothetical scenarios. If your audience comprises laypeople, try using a metaphor or a story to make your points more relatable.
5. Define your terms and stick to the definitions. Correct, consistent terminology is a hallmark of effective technical writing. Good technical writers treat the terms they use almost like a lawyer, creating formal definitions for each word and using those words only when their definition applies, deliberately avoiding substituting those words with synonyms or closely related words. For example, if you use the word “device” to describe the device a consumer is using to access your app, be sure you define “device” formally, and don’t interchange it with “computer” or “hardware” unless you have a good reason to do so.
6. Integrate visuals when you can. As a writer, you may be delegating the visual responsibilities to a designer or a photographer, but it’s still important to make room in your outline for visual components. Regardless of how much control you’ll have over the final visuals, incorporating more visual elements can significantly increase the effectiveness of your words.
7. Spend time revising. In most writing fields, revision is even more important than drafting. Don’t get too attached to your first draft, since there will almost always be multiple ways you can improve it. Allow others to preview your work, and spend some time away from it. Then, return, collect feedback, and start making critical improvements from the ground up; remember, revising is more than just fixing mistakes.
Finding Your Style
There isn’t a strict “right” or “wrong” approach to technical writing when it comes to things like how to plan a document, how to develop your voice, or how to find and incorporate feedback. You’ll have to decide or establish many of these concepts for yourself. As you gain more experience in drafting and polishing work, you’ll gradually feel more confident in your abilities, and can start making stronger decisions for your writing. Be patient, and give your personal style the time and space it needs to develop.