Technical writing – what is it and where can I find it?
Living in the XXI century, you’ve definitely come across technical writing at some point. But, you may have been unaware of it. So, what is technical writing in today’s world? Let’s take a brief look at its types and examples.
Technical writing came a long way since ancient Greek and Roman nautical handbooks, twelfth-century software documentation (sic!) and an early-American technical writer (and a busker) – Benjamin Franklin. Its scope has been changing along with the technologies it described. But the core assumptions stayed the same: technical writing is still on a holy crusade to transfer knowledge and make people’s lives easier. Where do you find technical writing today? We could spend days listing different types of technical writing and their examples, so let us focus on the most popular ones.
What do we do when we run into a technical problem these days? We google the solution. And it’s usually there. We take it for granted, but how did the right information end up there? One of the answers is: community. We meet people who had exactly the same or a similar problem and learn from their findings. But another reason is that technical content itself reaches out to people. Companies build whole websites filled with technical writing centered around their products, like this Volvo portal. Governments use their official web portals to post information on using tax software, like this. Nearly every Internet service has a help section to it, be it Facebook, Google or cooking software. This is where technical writing resides, waiting for people in need.
It may be a laundry machine user guide that you open when things go south. It may be a car quick start guide that you should probably read not to blow yourself up. Musicians need manuals to see what their brand-new pedal effects can do. Graphic designers need user guides to get their heads around powerful graphics software. Farmers need them to start using combine harvesters. Soldiers need them to master the army equipment. Those technical writing examples are all around us.
The popular opinion may be that nobody reads user manuals, but in fact, they’re not meant to be read and enjoyed like books or magazines. They’re meant to help, by bringing the right information to the right people, exactly when they need it.
With the mind-blowing rise of information technology, software documentation is probably one of the fastest-growing branches of technical writing. The term describes both user documentation and information for software developers or system designers. The former performs a function similar to traditional user manuals. It explains how to use an application from the user’s perspective. Like this document about using camera software on a PC. Or this quick start guide for an academic research program. The latter is a bit more complicated, as it conveys professional, highly specialized knowledge aimed at a specific audience. Consider this topic entitled x86: Adding Kernel Arguments by Editing the GRUB Menu at Boot Time. It’s not exactly meant to be understood by everyone out there. The only people who read it are specialists working with the Oracle Solaris operating system (or even just with this particular version of the system). But without it, their work would be much, much more painful. In some cases, impossible. And we want database specialists to do their job right, don’t we? (Otherwise, the end is nigh!) A subcategory of software-related technical writing is API documentation (Application Programming Interface docs). It even earned a separate term for its creators: API writers. What they do is provide software developers with the information they need to make different applications work together. You’ll find more about this type of technical writing here.
Probably most of today’s technical information is stored in knowledge bases of all sorts. What does it have in common with technical writing? For example, think of a large company producing compact radios. People who work in the factory need a lot of information to keep up production standards, fix things quickly, have something to refer to on a daily basis and train new employees. The information they need comprises thousands of documents of different sorts: manuals, procedures, drawings, instructional videos, forms and many others. Now, one way of keeping this knowledge would be to scatter it around thousands of email boxes, web portals and personal computers. And another way would be to keep it all in one, easily accessible place, where the right people can always find it. The latter option sounds a bit more practical, doesn’t it? That’s why these days you’ll find lots of technical writing stored in company-specific, scalable knowledge bases.
OK, that statement may be a little exaggeration. But it’s not far from the truth. In a world driven by applied science, every piece of technology out there has tons of documentation behind it, around it and in front of it. The chances are that without technical writing you wouldn’t be able to see this website right now. Keep your eyes open!