Simply put, technical writers produce documentation to help the average reader understand how to use products or services. We create user guides, manuals, white papers, specifications, and other such material. Technical communication (TC) does not have a glamorous reputation. Few in our field attain fame for their writing, and those who do – like Ted Chiang, Kurt Vonnegut, and Amy Tan – are generally known for their non-technical work. Many think of technical writing as favoring simplicity, consistency, and clarity over creativity. And yet, as many artists have noted, creativity is born from limitation. Rather than focusing on its constraints, technical writers see our work as an opportunity to communicate, to inform, to increase understanding. And, after all, is there not elegance in simplicity, discipline in consistency, and selflessness in clarity?
Perhaps this seems melodramatic, but good technical communication – and technical writers – are anything but dispassionate. Kurt Vonnegut famously stated that “Technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers.” However, he went on to say: “If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them […] The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.” Good technical writing is not so much about concealing ourselves as it is about building an empathic link with our audience. As technical communicators, our job is to put ourselves in place of our readers and produce writing that quietly, and subtly, shows that we care.
Often, engineers are tasked with writing technical documentation for their own products. This seems sensible on the surface – after all, who knows a product’s inner workings better than its own creators? However, those who are most familiar with a product or technology are rarely the best at explaining its use to the average person. In a sense, then, a technical writer’s mission is to be a professional novice. We must approach each product, service, or technology as if for the first time. And yet, therein lies the great paradox of technical communication: our documents must be simple and accessible, even to complete beginners, but we must write with a tone that conveys confidence and authority. Technical writers have to be able to see things as our readers do while still being thoroughly knowledgeable about our subject matter. This is no easy task.
Technical writers often come from diverse backgrounds – science, IT, linguistics, literature, and more – and possess a wide array of skill sets. What unites us, more than anything else, is what Ted Chiang has described as the “desire to explain an idea clearly.” While it may be true that technical communication lacks glamour, for those of us with a passion for language, it is easy to find in it a true calling. If any of this resonates with you, perhaps you should consider a career in technical writing.