Last week I talked about the 10 Golden Rules of Technical Writing. I’d like to expand on that a bit and give my take on it. Here are the five C’s of Technical Writing. I think they’re easier to remember than a commandments list.
Above all else a Technical Writer is a conveyor of information. We must communicate our ideas to a target audience. Knowing our audience and understanding the best way to communicate with them is paramount.
Content is King. This is the “what” of your writing. This is the subject matter. Make it count. Make it compelling. Make it well understood. And always be open to revision and improvement. No document is ever “finished.” Documents evolve, and you are the one that controls their evolution. Always with an eye to make it better.
While I would not say that Technical Writing is the opposite of Creative writing (more about that in a bit), I would say that your job as a creative writer is to demystify the complex, breaking it down to its most basic form. Technical Writing is often a role that must explain complex ideas, technologies, software, hardware, and the like. If you can get in and learn what it is you are tasked to write, you are better prepared to break it down and explain it to your audience in simple terms. No fluff. No wasted words. And this becomes more important as our society becomes less inclined to give the written word the time it deserves. In short, we are an ADHD society, where the sound bite rules. As a result, we must choose our words carefully and write for the shortest of attention spans. Even this paragraph may be too much.
Clarity is one of the most important traits of anything you write. Use short sentences. Convey ideas in the most simple of ways. I would even favor being clear over being accurate, in certain situations. If your audience is more accustomed to contractions, for example, then use them. Even though they are shunned in formal writing, if it makes your copy clearer to your target audience, rules can be broken. Being clear in relation to your audience is more important than the formality. Use your discretion wisely.
I see this one all the time. The author uses one verb tense in one place, and another verb tense in another place, or different terminology is used to describe the same thing in two different places. You capitalize a noun in one place, but don’t in another. Then there’s “agreement” of items in a bulleted list. I could go on. The point is this: Be consistent throughout your document/project. If you use a term for an important item in one place, make sure you use that exact same term in the other. Nothing makes your text come across more sloppy than inconsistency. Be overly alert and cognizant of it.
Many people think that Technical Writing lacks creativity. I would argue the complete opposite. It takes creativity to adhere to the above criteria, first and foremost. In addition, there are a number of ways to make your text compelling: The use of white space, color, formatting, illustrations, screen shots, columns and layout. These are all creative aspects of your writing which uplift your message. If Content is King, then Creativity (and Design) is Queen. And they are both of equal importance in weight. Whereas Content is the “What,” Creativity is the “How.” I use this example all the time: If you walk into a four star restaurant, it doesn’t matter how good the food tastes, if it doesn’t look good on the plate, it’s not going to taste good. Nothing makes me more upset than seeing great content ruined by horrible design, and I see this mistake so often it shocks me. If you work hard on your content, don’t ruin it by wrapping it up in an ugly package.
Have any additional thoughts? Can you think of another “C” that should be added to this list? This may not be everything there is to Technical Writing. There’s problem-solving, cross-functional teamwork, gaining understanding from SMEs, teaching, learning, being curious, and much more. But I think this covers a healthy portion of what it takes to be a good Technical Writer. More to come. . .