A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Technical Writing in 2024


Steve Lemanski, a technical writing and communications veteran, recently came across a T-shirt that perfectly describes his field: "I'm a graphic designing, technical writing, website creating, usability testing, document designing, technical editing, information developing, engineering translating, manual writing, online help developing, project managing, instructional designing, technical communicator. So… what do you do?"

You see, technical writing is more than just creating manuals. And that's exactly what Lemanski, a technical writing and communications instructor for the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies, teaches his students. From web content to medical writing, proposal writing, content strategy, user experience writing, technical editing, communications consulting, marketing and project management, and more, technical communications covers a vast array of jobs. 

Technical writers are needed in several industries, such as science, healthcare, mechanics, finance, engineering, space research, ocean research, pharmaceuticals, medical writing, and even auto mechanics. The opportunities are endless.

However, navigating this dynamic field requires both skill and strategy. Whether you're a recent graduate eager to dive into the world of technical communication or a seasoned professional seeking to boost your skill set or even switch careers, embarking on this journey can be both exciting and daunting.

In this blog, we will help you navigate the world of technical writing, including offering tips and insights from the experts. If you’re intrigued by technical writing and communications, your first step is to enroll in a course. This will not only introduce you to opportunities in the field but also sharpen your writing skills.

"Do what you can to improve your basic writing skills," said Lemanski, who developed an affinity for technical communications while working in the information technology field in the 1990's. "In the technical writing field, you are always going to be a writer/editor. You're always going to be switching hats writing original content, and you will continually be asked to edit the work of other people, mostly engineers and managers." 

Lemanski, who instructs several classes for the Technical Communication Certifcate, and is currently teaching 
UX for Technical Communicators and Critical Thinking for Communicators, sees a wide range of students, including practicing veterinarians, chemical engineers, teachers, social media and content creators, and marketing communications professionals. He has even had a student who is a a research chemist working in a large brewery. Lemanski said he's seen an uptick in interest and jobs in technical writing, especially since traditional journalism as a career has taken a downward trend.

"Technical writing is a whole new world for a lot of my students," he said. "This course is all about how to approach software applications and website content from a communications aspect, not from a software developer mindset. This is about communication on the web or anything digital versus printed matter. In this class, my students learn there are actual multiple genres of web writing."

For technical writing and communications, Lemanski said there's not just a one-size-fits-all approach. That's why his course covers creating user experiences for various types of websites, from e-commerce to retail, government organizations, and boutique restaurants.

"After you take this course, you're much more prepared to assist a website development team and have the tools to develop different user experiences," he said.

Taking a technical writing and communications course can undoubtedly boost your career, even if you don't plan on writing full-time. "If you're interested in going into project management, for example, technical communications can only help you excel," said Lemanski, who has developed or co-developed five different courses for Extended Studies, including Critical Thinking for Communicators. "Even if you may not do a lot of writing when you become a project manager, you will know how it's done and know what a good requirements document looks like."

"A lot of students are coming into technical communications and they have never written a proposal," he added. “But, if you work in government contracting or for a large Fortune 500 company competing for government contractors, proposal writing is a huge field that you may have not thought about."

Another tip for honing your technical communication skills -- know your audience. Technical writers must possess a solid grasp of the subject matter they are documenting, along with excellent writing skills and the ability to tailor content to suit the needs of diverse audiences.

Effective technical writing plays a pivotal role in various industries and sectors. Here are some reasons why it is essential:

  • Clarity and Accuracy: Technical documents must be precise and devoid of ambiguity to ensure readers understand the information correctly.
  • User Experience: Well-written user guides, manuals, and other written communications enhance the user experience.
  • Compliance and Regulations: In regulated industries such as healthcare and finance, technical writing is crucial for ensuring compliance with industry standards and regulations.
  • Knowledge Transfer: Technical documentation serves as a repository of knowledge, enabling smooth knowledge transfer within organizations and facilitating training programs.
  • Brand Reputation: Clear and comprehensive technical communication reflects positively on a company's brand reputation, fostering trust and credibility among users.

Another word of advice: Delve into a subject and learn it quickly so you can talk about it intelligently and produce new knowledge. As a technical communicator, you will be expected to bridge the gap between specialists and non-specialists.

"You don't have to become an engineer but you have to learn how to talk with engineers and gradually will become a quasi subject matter expert," Lemanski said. "In order to become a good technical communicator, you need to have the ability to absorb brand new ideas and brand new subjects you've never heard of before, and assimilate and master them in a matter of weeks."

"You add value as a technical communicator because you're becoming proficient enough in the terminology and you understand enough of the fine details that you can actually accept a project that no one else has time to do; you interview engineers, scientists, and managers and put together a white paper in a field you've never worked in," he added.

To succeed in this field, Lemanksi said it's essential to keep abreast of industry trends, technological advancements, and best practices in technical writing through continuous learning and professional development.

"What I like about technical communication is it has given me the opportunity to work full time as a professional writer, make a livable wage doing it, and have satisfaction out of using my liberal arts education in a productive manner," said Lemanksi, who has a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Colorado (after which he worked in television and radio early in his career), and a master of technical communication degree from Utah State.

You never know where a career in technical writing and communications will take you. In Linda Oestreich’s case, she has worked in various fields -- including information sciences, geophysics, oceanography, acoustics, chemistry, marine biology, property management, oil and gas research, and human resources -- and has even led a delegation of technical communicators to China.

Currently, Oestreich teaches three courses for Extended Studies: Technical Communication IBasics of Technical Communication, and Critical Thinking for Communicators. She has also taught Information Design for Technical Communicators for several years.

"Students in my classes (and others in the certificate program) learn about localization, visual display, typography, printing, writing, editing, communications, critical thinking, project management, content management, some tools and technologies, structured writing, and many other things that are needed in today's tech comm world," she said.

Oestreich, an instructor for Extended Studies for 12 years, also offers current and future students and technical writers this advice for improving their skills:

  • Pay attention and think critically: not everything you read is true.
  • Watch out for details: they can be dynamite. 
  • Invest in education: learn the fundamentals and keep yourself trained in how the language is changing.
  • Consider your fellow teammates: always be considerate of their writing and never edit just because something sounds better. Always know your resources and have a reason to change someone's work.

"The courses in this program add value and critical thinking to everyone's communication, whether they choose to be a technical writer/editor or not," she said. "Good communication skills mean you can write and report concisely and correctly in any discipline, thereby saving time and money for yourself and your employer. Learning how to read, write, and prepare work that is easily understood by others is a gift that not everyone has." 

Technical writing is indeed a dynamic and rewarding field that requires a blend of technical expertise, writing proficiency, and a keen understanding of your audience. By following the tips outlined in this blog and honing your skills through continued education, practice, and experience, you can become a proficient technical writer and communicator capable of producing high-quality content in a variety of media that educates, informs, and empowers its readers.

What are you waiting for? Let's get started! Learn more about the UC San Diego Extended Studies Technical Communication Program here.

Posted: 4/1/2024 9:23:15 AM with 0 comments

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