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What is technical writing and how does it differ from other kinds of content? Northeastern alumna Kate Schneider, a senior technical writer at MadCap Software, explains.


Hi, My Name is Kate and I’m a Technical Writer.

I’m used to getting a blank stare when I tell people my occupation. “A technical writer?” they ask. “What is that?”

“Well, I write the directions for a software program. So whenever my users need help, they click the ‘Help’ button and they read my writing. If you’ve ever used Help in Word or something, that was written by someone like me.”

(This is where I get the blank stare.)

“Oh. I never realized that someone actually wrote that stuff.”

I usually laugh and make some kind of self-deprecating joke. Yes, I write that stuff. And I love it.

What Does a Technical Writer Do?

Simply put, technical writers explain things. We take complicated concepts and break them down into easy-to-understand pieces. We’re also skilled at organizing information so it flows logically. With these skills, a technical writer is often responsible for many kinds of writing: manuals, online Help systems, or even video tutorials.

How Is it Different from Other Kinds of Writing?

I’ve had lots of different jobs where I’ve written lots of different things: proposals, reports, press releases, and marketing slicks. The documentation I write as a technical writer is very different from all of these other kinds of writing.

First, technical documentation is often heavily focused on steps and processes, and it is painstakingly organized. This attention to detail and organization makes it easy for you to find out what you need to do, do it, and get on with your day. The key purpose of a technical document is to help you learn what you need to know.

Second, technical documentation is usually very direct. You won’t find any extra fluff in an online help system (although technical writers love to use examples to illustrate concepts). Instead, we get right to the point and tell you just what you need to know—and all of the caveats and warnings that will help you along the way.

Third, although it is direct, technical documentation is also very detailed. While a report or proposal might give a “30,000-foot overview” of a topic, that isn’t adequate in technical documentation. To a technical writer, the more information in your document, the better. By getting to know everything about our product and explaining everything we can, we help our readers understand the product and learn to use it correctly. Can you imagine if an airplane manual only gave a brief overview of how to operate an airplane?

So Why Do You Do It?

Sometimes when I get that blank stare, people ask me why I do what I do. Well, I love my job because technical writers are behind the scenes, helping people when they need it. When you’re setting up your coffee maker, a technical writer wrote those instructions. When a pilot is safety checking an airplane, a technical writer wrote that manual. When you’re browsing the internet for the answer to a question and find some product FAQs or online help, a technical writer wrote that content.

So the next time you’re installing new software on your computer and encounter an error, or you can’t remember how to set up a Microsoft Excel macro, click the Help icon and search the documentation. Someone writes that stuff, and we do it because we want to help.