During one of my grad school classes, the professor shared a diagram of keywords representing the career paths that a writer could pursue. You can imagine what showed up on the list: copywriter, journalist, magazine editor, communications manager, all-around grammar stickler. But my classmates and I soon realized something was missing: “technical writer” was nowhere to be seen.
And that was the point.
Technical writing, more formally known as technical communication, is not a well-understood field. People usually reduce it to creating user manuals, which aren’t exactly reputable products of human imagination. (“So you’re the one to call when my instructions are wrong!” chortle my relatives.) Or perhaps your impression is formed by Dilbert’s Tina the Technical Writer, that under-appreciated language slave who must write self-explanatory prose for inane users, on ridiculous deadlines, with little to no context of how the product actually works. Whatever the case, I’m willing to bet that we have all encountered bland, confusing help content that made us yearn for human conversation instead.
But technical writing is far more necessary and creative than we think. In fact I would go so far as to argue that technical writing is an indispensable element of humane technological progress, and that if you’re a student or a professional with strong writing abilities, you should consider it one of your best career options.
Here’s a thought experiment to get you started. Suppose the founder of a software company has the following challenge:
“We’re building an amazing new product, and we need to explain how it works to different groups of people with varying levels of technical expertise. The end users need instructions. New hires need background information and standard operating procedures. Sales teams need to understand the product’s value proposition. Engineers need to know how to extend the product and what to do if something goes wrong. And we need to keep this information accurate and up-to-date as the product evolves.”
But who will write and maintain all of this knowledge for years to come?
Usually the product experts do (managers, engineers, and designers), at least initially. Then they realize that hiring a full-time technical writer is a better idea, because they find that they don’t really like to write. Or they find that good writing takes more time than they have. Or they recognize that industry regulations require so much documentation in a particular format (as in the aviation industry, for example), that having a dedicated writer is the obvious economical choice.
There are of course frustrations with the job. Sometimes it is seen as a dull, practical necessity. Sometimes it is a dull, practical necessity. The overwhelming emphasis of advice in the field is to be brief and clear, and then to get out of the way so that your audience—the poor, bombarded end user—can reference your content, solve their problem, and move on with life. You usually don’t get a byline, and you’re discouraged from using sophisticated terms when simpler ones will do. And you certainly won’t acquire the fame and Twitter followings enjoyed by mainstream book authors and journalists.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons why writers should look into this career. Let me suggest four of them.
The first is that technical writing has undeniable utility. How many of us search Google for instructions and are delighted to find a summary of steps bubble to the top of the results? How often do we sigh with relief upon viewing a YouTube tutorial that answers our burning questions? From the tooltips in our software to the instructions and examples in the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, documentation surrounds us and helps us understand the things we use.
Second, science and technology organizations have some of the most complex and exciting information problems to solve. Think about Elon Musk’s SpaceX (which is hiring technical writers, by the way). Think about green tech, healthcare, cyber security, robotics—domains that require careful orchestration across teams to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges on a colossal scale. The larger and more complex the project, the more you need writers who can research the subject matter and deliver clear information to the people who need it in moments that matter.
Third, contrary to the dull reputation that technical writing has, there is an art to bringing clarity and order to complexity, and that is what technical writing is all about. Science and technology companies suffer from outdated content, superfluous jargon, acronym bloat, and incomplete fragments of content scattered across systems of record like remnants of a lost tribe. It takes creativity and imagination to tame the chaos and distill the strands of knowledge into organized forms that readers at varying levels of technical competence can quickly grasp.
The great sci-fi author Robert Heinlein gets at this idea in his novel The Door into Summer: “Engineering is not science, it is an art, and there is always a wide range of choices in how to solve engineering problems. An engineering designer ‘signs’ his work by those choices just as surely as a painter does.” Replace engineering with technical writing, and I think you’ll find the same principle holds true.
Finally, technical writing is a way to weave humanity into the technology that is becoming increasingly infused in our lives. Despite the comforts and conveniences it affords, technology is not an intrinsically neutral or benevolent force. We have used it to accomplish wonders and perpetrate horrors—and the horrors, as one communication scholar has pointed out, have often gone hand in hand with cold, detached prose and euphemisms used to deflect sustained scrutiny of inhumane machinations.
Take, for example, this haunting holocaust technical memo written by an engineer working within the Nazi regime. Not only is it rife with passive voice, it employs euphemisms such as “load,” “capacity,” and “cargo” to render invisible the lives of Jews and other human victims of gas vans.
Consider also the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster when top managers at NASA approved the launch of the shuttle despite warnings from engineers about the erosion of O-ring seals. While there were many complex factors at play in the incident, it is no secret that failures in organizational communication, much of which was highly technical in nature, directly contributed to the chain of events that led to the explosion and ended the lives of seven crew members.
These examples illustrate one of humanity’s greatest temptations of technology: to bow to the expediency it affords, and to buffer our technical discourse with a kind of formal, bureaucratic prose that is difficult to penetrate.
This is contra the ideals of technical communication. As humans who write in human communities, technical writers have a responsibility to understand and articulate how technology impacts real people. To be “user advocates,” as the phrase goes. That means writing in clear, humane terms to elucidate the forces at work in the technology that surrounds us. In a society awash in smartphones, personalized apps, and social media whose effects on our behavior are mixed at best, the importance of this task cannot be overstated.
So if you’ve got writing talent and you’re looking for ways to use it, consider the technical communication field. Start at the Society for Technical Communication website. Read Technical Writing 101. Visit I’d Rather Be Writing. As you discover what the job entails, I believe you’ll find a career that’s more rewarding and creative than you might think.