What technical writing is and why so few people know about it.
Recently, I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in technical writing and communication (TWC). From my experience as TWC major, very few of my friends or family members knew what technical writing was or had heard of it before. It was really only my friends within my major that knew that the field existed, and even most of them hadn’t heard of it before they started studying it.
So why does no one know about this career path? Or why does no one know what a technical writer does? After all, breaking down technical information into plain language should not be that hard to understand….right? Actually, as it turns out, no; it’s actually pretty difficult to understand from and outsider’s perspective. Keep reading to find out why.
- Technical writers are never called technical writers
These days, technical writers are very rarely given the job title of ‘technical writer.’ Communications specialists, bloggers, newsletter writers, documenters, designers, editors, journalists and similar job titles are often given to technical writers. This is because technical writers typically have a niche, topic, or genre of writing they write about at their job, and therefore, are given a job title associated with their topic and not necessarily their skillset, education, or daily tasks. In my experience, my past roles have all been labeled as ‘web something’ because I was writing for the web and about the web.
- Technical writers disguise themselves in other roles
In addition to being titled after their niche or topic, technical writers often work in other fields. When I was in my undergrad, I had nearly every one of my professors tell me that I might never really work as a traditional technical writer. The classic imagery of technical writers created instruction manuals and lab reports is actually not what many technical writers end up doing. As an example, I have worked in positions before where I was hired as a technical writer, but ended up spending most of my time programming or designing web pages. While this is still the process of organizing technical information, it does not fit the classic technical writer role.
- Technical writers are taken for granted
I may be bias here, but I have evidence to back up my claims. Think about the last time you read a nutrition manual, or a prescription description, or saw an infographic. Did you think about the technical writer that wrote it? Probably not. While this is true of many other fields as well, I think technical writing is taken for granted with the amount of technology in today’s world. People assume once spellcheck and Grammerly came out no one actually sits and edits writing. However, this is far from the truth. Just about every professional writing or graphic has a specific set of standards that must be followed in order to keep everything legal and official. While AI has come a long way, it has not quite learned the art of following specific company style guides, and a technical writer still needs to do that themselves.
- Technical writers don’t write anymore
The bread and butter of technical communication is explaining technical concepts in plain language for the non-expert. While manuals, books, and documentation used to be the primary way of doing this, long, texty, and dry writing is no longer captivating for audiences. Today, there are new fields emerging within the technical communication spectrum such as usability, heuristics, user experience design (UX), and computer human interaction. These fields are all about instructing users through intuitive designs and platforms instead of writing and many technical writers are now working in these areas or similar. Additionally, technical writers are always doing research because the field changes so much.
- Technical writers are not common
So far, the University I attended is the only technical writing and communication program I have heard of at the undergraduate level. Not surprisingly then, there are not many technical writers around. While they can always enter into the field from a different educational background, the field is not advertised enough to build a large, competitive workforce. Therefore, many technical writers end up being the only one of their kind at their organizations and then eventually move into another role that is more similar to their coworkers.
So, overall, technical writing is not the most common of professions. However, that does not make it any less important, valuable, or needed in today’s workforce. People are always going to be on different technical skillsets and understandings and someone needs to bridge that gap.