Technical Writing Skills for the Technically Curious

Abi Wurdeman
May 15, 2024

User manuals, case studies, textbooks… these written works boast mysterious origins. They seem to simply materialize, appearing like magic when we scan the QR code on the little card inside our new tech toy or waiting for us on our desks on the first day of second grade.

But you and I are writers, and we know the truth. Words don’t manifest themselves. Someone has to write them. (Or something, but we’re focusing on human writers today.)

So who’s behind all those informative guides and reports with no byline?

Technical writers, that’s who. These are the folks who take complex concepts and translate them into digestible content for non-experts. 

If you’re looking for a way to put your wordsmithing talents to professional use, technical writing is a solid option. The jobs are out there, and many companies will pay well for a reliable writer with this unique skill set.

What exactly is that skill set, you ask? Let’s discuss!

We’re about to take a quick tour of the most essential technical writing skills. You’ll learn what it takes to be a stellar technical writer and even get some tips for advancing your talents.

Ready? Let’s get technical.

What is Technical Writing Exactly?

A sheet of paper showing charts and graphs sits on top of a document.

Technical writing basically translates specialized knowledge into a language your target audience will understand.

If you write user manuals, for example, you explain how to operate a product your readers are not yet familiar with.

In case studies, you blend data and storytelling to help your reader understand the relationship between strategies and results.

In employee training manuals, you explain procedures and policies that staff members have likely not dealt with previously.

Pretty much every industry in existence needs some form of technical writing done, which is why this is a particularly practical use for your hard-earned writing skills. Some of the most common forms of technical documentation include:

  • User guides
  • Case studies
  • Reports
  • Product specifications
  • Textbooks
  • Company handbooks
  • Installation guides
  • Business proposals
  • Grant proposals
  • E-learning content

That’s honestly a very short list in a very big industry, but it should give you some idea of what people are referring to when they talk about building a technical writing career.

Technical Writing vs. Creative Writing

Now for an important question:

Can you be a strong technical writer if your background is in creative writing?

Absolutely. You may need a little additional training depending on what your exact history is and what area of tech writing you want to get into. But your creative writing skills still give you a pretty solid foundation.

Sure, these two types of writing are quite different on the page. Technical writing is more direct, fact-focused, and rarely attempts to stir emotions in the reader.

Creative writing, on the other hand, is all about connecting with an audience’s humanity. This craft indulges in metaphor, delights in allegory, and—in the case of fiction—straight-up fabricates events, people, and even entire universes.

Nevertheless, if you’re a creative writer, you likely know a thing or two about the importance of clarity, simplicity, structure, and concrete language. All those things will serve you very well as a technical writer, as you’ll soon see.

Should Creative Writers Care About Technical Writing Skills?

Now for the reverse question:

Can creative writers benefit from developing technical writing skills?

Oh, for sure. I mean, I wouldn’t encourage you to run out and get a job as a technical writer purely as a way to become a better fiction writer. There are much more effective options for developing that specific skill.

But if you’re an aspiring novelist who’s considering technical writing as a day job, you can rest assured that you will pick up a few skills that will serve you as a creative writer, too. You’ll develop a sharper eye for clarity, learn to instinctively read your words from your audience’s perspective, and grow to appreciate the power of being concise.

You’ll probably also learn tricks for sticking to deadlines even when you’ve got a severe case of the I-don’t-wannas.

Essential Technical Writing Techniques

A hand writes in a planner. Notebooks, pens, and an open textbook surround the planner.

So now that we know what technical writing is, let’s clarify what it takes to do the job well.

All technical documentation has the exact same goal: to clarify the subject matter for the reader.

Depending on what you’re writing about, you might also seek to persuade, inspire, or even entertain. But no matter what, your first and most important duty is to bestow knowledge.

That’s why all the most important technical writing skills involve doing stuff like this:

Understand the Subject Matter

I know it seems like it should go without saying, but this is really crucial. Whether you’re writing a software installation guide or a grant proposal, you must have advanced knowledge of the topic you’re explaining.

Consult subject matter experts. Communicate with product teams. Analyze the relevant data. If you’re writing about a specific gadget or program, try it out for yourself so you know what the user experience is like.

Make yourself an expert. You can only explain what you understand.

Get Clear on the Objective

Aside from conveying knowledge, is there anything else your client or employer wants you to accomplish with this technical document?

In some cases, the additional objectives are implied. If you’re writing a grant proposal, for example, you can probably assume it’s supposed to be persuasive. Even then, you’ll want to make sure you’re clear on what the angle of the persuasive messaging is supposed to be.

It’s also possible that your client or employer will want your technical writing to be entertaining. We often think of a technical writing style as dry and direct (because it usually is), but some companies prefer to add a degree of playfulness as part of their branding.

Just, you know, not so much playfulness that obscures the technical information you’re trying to convey.

Structure Logically

As you can imagine, content organizational skills are paramount in technical writing. You have to know how to sort, structure, and deliver the material in order to help your reader understand complex technical information.

Now, as a creative writing skill, structure can get pretty complicated. It influences not only your reader’s understanding of the story, but also the way they experience it emotionally and how well it holds their attention.

As a technical writer, you usually get to deal with organizing information in a more straightforward way. In many cases, you only need to worry if your structure promotes a clear understanding of the subject matter.

Incorporate Research and Statistics

This doesn’t apply to all forms of technical writing. Data analysis likely won’t come into play when you’re writing a product manual or employee handbook.

But say you’re writing a business or grant proposal. Case studies, statistics, scientific findings… these things can all clarify the value of a particular service or strategy. They can support a persuasive argument or provide the reader with key knowledge for analyzing a situation.

It’s safe to say that some employers consider research abilities among the most important technical writing skills.  

Include Visuals

Design skills carry a lot of weight in this field, too. Illustrations, diagrams, charts, and graphs can all help clarify complex information. 

It’s possible that your client or manager will provide the visuals they want to add. Even if they do, you, as the technical writer, may run into a situation where you realize your written explanation could really use the support of a diagram. Don’t be afraid to suggest adding an image.

It’s a good idea to learn some basic graphic design skills, especially if you perform technical writing on a freelance basis. Not all clients will expect you to provide visuals, but some will prefer you have that qualification or—even better—they’ll be willing to pay more for it.

Tailoring Technical Documentation for Different Target Audiences

Overhead view of a person consulting an illustrated guide for repairing a metal gadget that sits on the table in front of them.

Who will be reading these technical documents? The answer should inform the way you write them.

The most important question to ask yourself is, “What is the reader’s current level of knowledge in this topic?”

Say you’re writing a security system installation guide for homeowners. You’ll likely use different terminology and simpler instructions than you would if you were writing a guide for a professional installer.

You also want to consider what type of expertise the reader has.

If you’re writing a report on new gut health discoveries and your audience is a conference full of dieticians, you can assume they already have a lot of knowledge on the topic. 

Even so, the exact terminology you use, ideas you emphasize, and explanations you provide for those readers will likely be a little different than if they were gastroenterologists.

In technical writing, it’s not enough for your message to be clear. It has to be clear to the specific people you’re writing for.

Crafting Clear and Precise Technical Writing

So it’s all well and good to say that clear communication skills are critical in technical writing, but what does that mean in practice? How can you make sure you’re explaining all this complex information in a way your reader will understand?

Here are a few pointers:

Watch Your Language

Leave technical jargon out of it, unless it’s the kind of vocabulary your reader understands and will find useful. Or, if it’s a technical term your audience needs to learn, make sure you define it the first time you use it.

Now, when it comes to writing for clarity, we usually emphasize basic and direct diction over ten-dollar words. That’s typically the best policy when it comes to technical documentation written for consumers, employees, and anyone who doesn’t need reassurance that the person providing the material is, like, super smart.

The standard changes for documents like business proposals and case studies, where the reader might negatively judge the expertise of the person or entity presenting the information if the language is too simplistic. This is another reason why it’s important to know your target audience.

Break It Down

To help your reader digest complex technical information, start by asking yourself what the least informed person in your target audience already knows. This will help you determine where to begin and what details to include.

Say, for example, you’re writing a guide explaining how to edit a photo on a smartphone. You can probably assume the least knowledgeable end users already know what a photo is, what editing means, and how to take a picture with their phone.

But if you’ve ever helped someone who lived decades in the landline age work their smartphone, you know you can’t assume everyone knows what a filter is or what the magic wand icon means.

Let that insight guide your technical writing.

Keep It Concrete and Direct

A good technical writer avoids abstraction as much as possible. No feelings. No vibes. No metaphors unless they effectively clarify a complex concept using concrete images. In short, your job is to explain things exactly as they are in tangible terms. 

You also want to avoid talking around ideas in technical documentation. Don’t pad the information and don’t try to build anticipation with a long introduction. Just say the thing.

Concrete, precise, and direct. That’s technical writing.

Structuring Your Writing Effectively 

Close-up of instructions for periodontal procedures.

As I mentioned before, the way you organize all this technical information influences your reader’s ability to comprehend it.

We’ll discuss some best practices for structuring a technical document, but first, I want to clarify that different types of technical writing come with different structural and formatting standards.

If you want to become a technical writer specializing in a specific area, take the time to learn the standards for your chosen realm of expertise. Also communicate with your client or employer to make sure you know what their expectations are.

Beyond that, here are some general tips for finding a logical flow in your technical writing: 

Strategize Introductions and Conclusions

For most technical documents, you’ll begin with an introductory overview—something that tells the reader what they’re about to learn and why it matters.

This introduction directs the reader’s focus. It says, “I’m going to show you that performing arts youth programs like this one are proven to boost mental health and encourage community engagement.” Or, “Follow all these steps and you’ll have a fully functioning robot butler to free up hours of your time.”

Then, after you’ve laid out all the information you wanted to cover, you’ll close your technical document with a tidy conclusion. Usually, a conclusion provides an opportunity to summarize your most important points in a few compelling sentences.

You can also think of it as a way to tell your reader what their primary takeaway should be, whether it’s that a well-funded performing arts nonprofit will give kids a brighter future or that a robot butler is easy to operate and will last for years if properly maintained.

Organize Logically

The real substance of a technical document lies between the introduction and conclusion. This is where you provide all the concrete information that leaves your reader with a clear understanding of the topic.

The way you structure this section depends on what you’re writing. If it’s a product manual, you’ll likely start with an explanation of key features, then perhaps move into step-by-step instructions for setting up, operating, and/or maintaining the item. 

If it’s a report, you might organize it by categories of information or start by laying out some foundational insight before gradually building in more advanced technical knowledge.

If it’s a proposal, you could begin by using statistics to demonstrate a need for your product or service, then explain how your product or service solves the problem you’ve presented.

It all depends on what you’re writing. That’s why understanding your audience—what they know, how they think, and what they care about—is one of the most critical technical writing skills.

Format for Clarity

Use headings, subheadings, numbered lists, and bullet points whenever appropriate.

These formatting details make it so much easier for the mind to organize and understand the technical knowledge you’re offering. 

They also invite skimming. Sure, the ultimate goal might be for your reader to review the entire document, beginning to end. But if it’s skimmable, it will be easier for them to follow along during a presentation or find a specific piece of information they want to refer back to in the future.

Key Research Skills for Technical Writers

A hole made of warped paperback books.

As we’ve discussed, research skills are absolutely essential for some forms of technical writing. 

This includes the ability to, you know, research. If you plan to specialize in a special area, make sure you have access to databases and journals that allow you to support your writing with additional data. Find subject matter experts who can help you build on your existing knowledge. 

It’s also important that you learn how to cite your sources properly and accurately. Clear citations add credibility to your work and ensure you don’t accidentally plagiarize someone else’s hard work. 

Be aware that citation styles can vary. As always, your best bet is to learn what’s standard for your area of writing and ask your client or employer about their preferences. 

Finally, make sure any data you include are truly relevant to the subject. Help your reader see the link between the statistics you provide and the conclusions you’re drawing (if any). There’s no point rattling off research if your audience doesn’t know what to do with it.

Editing and Proofreading

A good technical writer goes over their work multiple times to ensure it’s clear, coherent, and effective.

In your first few rounds of editing, you’ll want to look for big-picture issues. Does your structure create a logical flow? If you seek to make a specific point, does it come through clearly? Read your document through the eyes of your target audience and look for potential areas of confusion.

If you can get feedback from a layperson without violating your agreement with your boss or client, do it. They can give you invaluable insight into how clearly you’re conveying technical knowledge. 

It’s also a good idea to share your work with someone who has experience editing technical documentation. They’ll likely have advice for enhancing the clarity of your writing, and they’ll make sure your formatting is correct.

Once you’re happy with the way you’ve pieced the whole thing together, review your language and syntax. Do you use simple, concise sentences? Are your word choices specific, concrete, and appropriate for your reader?

The last round is proofreading, where you look for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors that may have snuck past you. This is also a good time to make sure your formatting is clean and consistent.

Resources for Aspiring Technical Writers

Think you’d like to become a technical writer? Let’s talk about what you can do to beef up your technical writing skills.

First, there are a ton of books on the subject. These guides can introduce you to the most essential technical writing skills and give you great tips for honing your talents.

You can also seek out specialized courses both in person and online. For super convenient, learn-from-home options, search for classes through Udemy or Coursera.

Networking is another great way to develop your technical writing skills. Connect with mentors who do the kind of work you want to do and welcome their feedback. Reach out to small businesses who might be willing to work with a rookie technical writer for a lower rate. You’ll hone your technical writing skills very quickly when you can learn on the job.

Don’t forget about those graphic design skills! Take a semester-long course on Adobe Illustrator, ask for guidance from a friend who has design experience, or just watch a few Canva tutorials. Even basic design skills can set you apart as a valuable technical writer.

Finally, remember that—just like with all forms of writing—your fellow writers are one of the best resources you could hope for. They can offer tips and feedback, connect you with potential technical writing jobs, and provide loads of encouragement along the way.

If you’ve already got a strong creative writing community, there’s a good chance you’ll find some technical writers in the mix. 

Still on the hunt for a community? Check out Dabble’s Story Craft Café and meet writers from all walks of life, each on their own unique path. It’s free to join for Dabblers and non-Dabblers alike. All you have to do is click this link and say hello.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.