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What is Technical Writing?

Published by on under the Coding category.

So, you want to be a technical writer? I do not often talk about my job on this blog. Today may be the first day that I have at any length. I feel like I have some wisdom to impart about what it means to be a technical writer and why I love doing it so much.

Before I begin, let me tell you why I am writing this post. I am writing this post because sometimes I get lost and this is a way of reminding myself who I am. I lose track of who I am. I find myself again but it takes a while. I sometimes go back to old memories to see if I can use them to comfort me. That does not usually work. I have no solution to the problem of “how to get unlost.” I just try to do something until the moments pass.

My job is a massive part of my life. I enjoy working. What do I do? I’m a technical writer.

My Beginnings

I never expected to be a technical writer. I have been good with code for a while. I did not think that explaining code to others was something that I wanted to do. I started working as a regular writer. I wrote about careers and other topics. Then I was assigned to a few technical articles. I was asked to write about a few JavaScript methods with which I was familiar.

Happy to take on a challenge, I wrote those posts. They were just articles to me at the time. There was nothing special. I started to write more and more of them and I realized that I find comfort in explaining technical topics to other people. It is what I like to do.

The Day to Day

The day to day life of a technical writer is oriented around coding and writing. Not all technical writers are coders, I must add. Technical writers create instruction manuals for furniture (yes, the manual that comes with furniture was written by a technical writer). I cannot speak to how those technical writers work. I write about programming and that is my field of expertise.

I spend some of my time conducting research. It is during this time that I figure out which articles are most appropriate to write. The question that I ask myself is: what topics have I encountered that I know are useful to beginners? I have written articles for all technical audiences but most of my work is for beginners. This does not mean my work is easy. Articulating complex topics in few words is hard. It also happens to be the defining factor of being a technical writer.

I spend a lot of my day writing. I am in Google Docs. I often have open or a text editor in which I code. I sometimes write examples before I write an article so that I can plot out the direction I will take an article in before I start. Other times I write examples while I am writing the article. This is common when I am writing articles for beginners because I know exactly what points I want to cover.

Then there’s the editing. While all of my technical articles are edited by another writer, the essence of my work usually stays the same. This is because I invest a lot of time in quality control. If my mind tells me that an article is incomplete, too advanced, or just not right, I do not publish it. I have my own editorial standards. I have refined these through writing articles and knowing what tone I like to write in.

Qualities of a Good Technical Writer

I have recently been promoted to the title of Technical Content Manager. This has put me in a unique position where I can see other technical writers get started. Everyone with whom I work right now has no professional experience with technical writing to my knowledge. They are all coders. Thus, they started like me. I knew how to code when I began but I was by no means a professional writer.

As I mentioned earlier, the defining factor of a good technical writer is the ability to articulate complex topics effectively. To do this, you need to understand your audience. It took me a long time to develop this muscle. Some of my earlier articles include more fluff than my more recent ones because I was still trying to figure out what to include in an article and what to leave out.

I do not consciously ask myself about my audience. I just know when I am going too deep into a concept. The best way to develop this intuition is to keep writing. That’s the rule with technical writing. The more you write, the better you will get. I suppose that applies to most things in life. I digress.

A good technical writer does not have to be an excellent coder or a spectacular writer. I know that there are many ways in which the code I write could be optimized. I’m actively learning about how to write better code. Similarly, I could not tell you the definition of a participal or how various other grammatical constructions work. (We didn’t cover participals in high school. It’s a word I remember from The Simpsons.)

If you are good at coding and good at writing, being a technical writer is a great job to have. It’s rare that someone has both of these skills. There are so many great programmers out there who probably wouldn’t make good writers. They know how the code works but they are not sure how to articulate that to other people. Hence, I advise that if you want to be a technical writer, you should not worry about being spectacular at either coding or writing. Just being good at both is enough to get started.

The Long Journey

Technical writing gives me a great balance. I cannot see myself coding all day. I struggle to code for long periods of time in my off hours. When I have a project to work on I can code for longer. I find that on most days the bulk of my technical work happens at work. I also cannot write for a whole day. I prefer to have a mix. In my job I write, edit, manage, and code. It’s a great blend of tasks.

Each of those tasks engages different parts of my mind. Writing makes me think about how to communicate information with others. Coding helps me learn more about programming and how to write more simple and effective code. I would say that technical writing is what I want to do with my career. I am only at the very start of my career but it has been both challenging and amusing to write about technical topics. I’m not excellent at coding or writing. I think that I just happen to be good at both of these skills and I want to improve.

Should you become a technical writer? I don’t know. If you like to code and write and you are willing to try your hand at blending the two, then yes, give it a go. The best place to start is to write an article about something you have built. You don’t need to find a job as a technical writer to practice. Do not give up if your first draft is not great. It takes time to learn how to write about technical concepts.

If you are starting out, or want to start out, as a technical writer, please feel free to email me if you want to chat or have any questions. My email address is:

def email():
  prefix = "jamesg"
  domain_name = ""
  return ("{}@{}".format(prefix, domain_name))

address = email()

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