Technical writing has multiple flavors and is, indeed, a diverse field for pursuing a career. If you’re new to the field or still in school, you might have some vague ideas or stereotypes in your mind about who a “technical writer” is. Dilbert portrays Tina the Tech Writer as “brittle,” by which I presume he means bitter and easily stressed out. You might think technical writers only write software documentation. That’s one possibility, but here are others to contemplate as well, with many of them varying by their audience and intent.
My friend Dauna does this. As a journalism form, it means you are translating current scientific findings or research into engaging stories that a broader, non-scientist public can understand. It often requires working with analogies or metaphors, and it definitely deals with ambiguity if the field of investigation is new or not clearly understood.
This could be writing for Car & Driver, Aviation Week & Space Technology, or Popular Mechanics. As with science reporting, you’re explaining something new to an interested but not necessarily tech-savvy audience. Again, the goal is to share information about the product in an intelligent and engaging manner.
This is writing that explains to engineers or technical users how to work with a particular product. This could include things like software development, where requirements and system logic are laid out prior to actual programming to ensure that the appropriate audiences agree with how it should operate. Tech docs are written by engineers for other engineers or technicians who have to use a product after it’s built. The language is jargon-heavy and assumes a lot of knowledge on the side of the writer or the user. These are the types of jobs that are often require a background working in a specific field. If you’re an engineer or technician who can write, you can be a subject matter expert for these documents. That said, I’ve edited these types of docs for NASA once the SMEs have done the writing, so it’s not impossible to be an English major and work with them.
Our world is run by software, and not everyone gets it. Help menus can range from highly detailed programs like those found in Microsoft Office products to relatively simple apps for your smart phone. Someone still has to write those, regardless of how few people read or use them. (My father’s take on pressing F1 is, “Why should I do that? I’ve got you.”) Your audience here is generally a user–someone who’s interested in using the product to perform a task–as opposed to an engineer or technician who has to know how it works.
Technical Education/Instructional Design
This is textbook writing. Usually you need to be a SME in your own right to be asked to write one. That, or you need to spend a lot of time working with SMEs to get things right. What you’re trying to do with technical education products is write about your subject–pick your field–in a way that informs and broadens the reader’s understanding without (hopefully) boring or losing them. Textbooks can include writing questions at the end as well. This writing can also include additional learning materials, such as workbooks or handouts.
Technical Marketing or Advertising
This is writing advertising or marketing copy for technical firms–anything from aerospace to pharmaceuticals to nuclear power. Products can include newspaper and magazine ads, “advertorials,” or product fact sheets. Audiences for technical marketing can vary from technicians to politicians to military service members to members of the general public. As such, you don’t always need or want a SME writing the copy, but someone who can translate between the engineers and the general public. Another, long-form version of technical marketing is proposal writing. You’re performing a mix of technical education and sales.
I’ve defined technical advocacy as a combination of marketing, technical writing (documentation), and politics. I call it this because what you’re doing, essentially, is selling voters or elected officials on policies that affect science or technology. It’s an odd niche, but satisfying for me. Much of this writing is for nonprofit organizations, though businesses with a “government relations” (a.k.a. lobbying) department do this sort of work as well. I got into this sort of thing through my interest in human space exploration. Maybe your hot-topic interest is nuclear power or GMOs. Regardless, you need to be able to write accurately about your subject while also being able to speak Politician in a way that wins the day.
So when someone asks you what a technical writer does, you can now tell them it’s about more than writing user manuals. If you like variety, you can find sometimes find a job (or career) doing all of the above.