As a business owner or an employee, you may have heard the term “technical writing skills” and wondered what it means. Is it important for my business? The answer is yes, it really is. Poor technical writing has both subtle and obvious impacts. Ignoring it is like enthusiastically manning your shop front while the back door is wide open.
Despite this, poor technical writing skills are, unfortunately, the norm in many companies, costing employers time and money and causing avoidable employee stress. The thing is, everyone is ‘used to doing it this way’, and people often have no real idea of how faster, easier and more profitable things could be, with just a few quick and pain-free changes.
So, what exactly are technical writing skills? Let’s talk about that, and what impact they have on your bottom line.
What are technical writing skills?
Good technical writing skills is the ability to create clear, concise, and accurate documentation – whatever industry your company works in. For many aspects of the day-to-day running of a company, you don’t have to be an actual technical writer to have strong technical writing skills. What you do need is someone to show you how to write the right way. You need a blend of strong writing skills, subject matter expertise, and a precise understanding of the intended audience. Sounds easy, but unless someone shows you and your employees how to do it, it’s well-nigh impossible to get it right.
It’s my experience as a technical writing trainer that the majority of employees are simply ‘doing their best’ to write well, or, worse again, think they are doing it well, when in fact they really are not.
Strong technical writing skills means being able to do the following:
- Distill complex information into easily digestible content for a diverse range of users. Much harder than it sounds.
- Write unambiguous and easily understood content for the target audience.
- Write concise and to-the-point content, with no extra information or jargon.
- Create content that is factually correct.
- Create content that is super well-structured, so that the target audience can find their way through the document with ease.
- Create all content with a consistent tone, style, and format.
Why are technical writing skills important?
Technical writing skills are crucial for businesses in several ways:
- Audits: Firstly, it keeps the auditor happy, and that’s a huge bottom line for many industries. However, clear, concise and correct documentation is good for everyone from client to employee to CEO. Imagine if it wasn’t just some people in the company creating auditor-ready content. Imagine everyone was. How much easier would audits be?
- Communication is everything: Clear and concise technical documentation helps employees understand complex processes, equipment, or software faster. This gets people hitting the ground faster with new processes.
- Onboarding is sped right up: It takes on average six months for a new employee to effectively earn their salary. Up till then, they are familiarising themselves with systems and processes. Good in-house content cuts this time in half, allowing the employee to get down to it faster, with fewer mistakes.
- Better communication across the company: Once people in a company learn how to write clearly, in a way that guides their colleagues easily through content, it has a knock-on effect on communication at all levels. Clarity brings confidence.
- Strong technical writing skills lead to reduced errors companywide: Reduced errors lead to faster output, which leads to more money. Again, clarity brings confidence.
- Customer satisfaction: High-quality user manuals, FAQs, and help documentation make it easier for customers to understand and use your products or services, leading to increased satisfaction and loyalty. What company do you prefer, the one who answers your questions quickly and clearly or the one who leaves you feeling like you’re a bit dim for not ‘getting’ it.
- Save time and money: Clear and accurate technical documentation reduces the need for time-consuming customer support, training, and troubleshooting. It also prevents costly mistakes caused by misunderstandings or misinformation.
- Boost credibility: Professionally written technical documentation reflects positively your company’s image and can enhance its reputation as a reliable and knowledgeable provider.
- Ensure compliance: In some industries, well-documented procedures, guidelines, and specifications are necessary to meet regulatory and legal requirements.
How do you improve technical writing skills?
Whether you’re a business owner looking to develop your technical writing skills or want to train your staff, the following tips will help improve the quality of your technical documentation:
- Understand your audience: Identify the knowledge level and needs of your target audience. Tailor your writing for exactly them. Use language and terminology appropriate for the reader.
- Use a clear and concise writing style: Write short sentences and paragraphs. Everyone on this entire planet will skim a longer paragraph. Shorten them! Avoid passive voice and always choose simple words over complex ones. Remove all unnecessary jargon or technical terms, and always define acronyms and abbreviations.
- Organise your content: Structure your document with clear headings, subheadings, and bullet points. Help your reader find what they need without having to skim and scroll.
- Edit and proofread: Review, review, review. Read your document multiple times for clarity, conciseness, and accuracy. Take breaks away from the document. When you open it up again the mistakes will jump right out at you. Correct any grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors. Ask a colleague to take a look. The more eyeballs on a document, the better.
- Practice and learn: Interactive technical writing courses for employees will get everyone quickly writing at the same level. It starts a ripple effect across a company, with attendees passing on how to write simple, clear and concise content.
What do technical writers write about?
It would probably be faster to tell you what we don’t write about, but here are just a few examples:
- User manuals and guides: Get everyone, from clients to employees using devices, machines, and systems quickly, with ease, and without mistakes.
- Standard operating procedures (SOPs): Clear and concise SOPs allow employees to work consistently and accurately, ensuring quality control, regulatory compliance, and workplace safety.
- Technical reports: Whether for internal use or for stakeholders, clients, partners, or regulatory bodies, make sure all your reports are easy to read, contain everything needed, and impart the information needed to the right audience quickly and clearly.
- White papers: Providing a detailed analysis of a particular issue, solution, or technology, these are often used as marketing tools to showcase a company’s expertise and establish it as a thought leader in its industry.
- Online help and knowledge bases: Web-based documentation to assist users with troubleshooting, FAQs, and how-to guides. Needs to be easily accessible and searchable, reducing the need for customer support.
- Technical proposals: Proposals outlining the proposed solution to a specific problem, including the approach, resources, and expected outcomes. They are often used in bidding for projects, grants, or contracts.
- Release notes and product specifications: Documents providing information about new product releases or updates, including features, enhancements, bug fixes, and compatibility requirements. They help users understand what has changed and how it affects their use of the product or system.
What is the business impact of ineffective technical writing?
There are so many! To begin with, mistakes slow business at every level, internal, external, client-facing, new employees, everywhere. Onboarding for new employees or internal role shifts is slowed right down, money and time is wasted at every level. Reports aren’t ‘right first time’ or get stuck in cycles, with auditing taking longer both to carry out and to prepare for, with less guarantee of success.
Also, inadequate standard operating procedures (SOPs) and unclear technical reports lead to internal inefficiencies. Employees find it difficult to follow ambiguous or incorrect instructions, leading to errors, inconsistencies, and even safety hazards. Such inefficiencies can result in increased operational costs, lost productivity, and potential legal liabilities in cases of workplace accidents or non-compliance with industry regulations.
Customers and clients are quietly (or loudly) frustrated. When customers struggle to understand how to use a product or service, they are more likely to become dissatisfied and, often, abandon the product or service.
And it’s not just a problem of struggling to understand the information. When users cannot find the information they need or can’t understand the resources they do find, they are more likely to contact customer support. In turn, this increased demand for support leads to longer wait times, which leads to further customer dissatisfaction, all while being a strain on resources. This all affects profitability, retention rates and leads to negative word-of-mouth publicity.
Poorly written technical reports impede informed decision-making, with stakeholders unable to accurately interpret the findings or recommendations presented. People are often slow to ask questions when things are immediately clear. Every report needs to be so clear that decisions can be made quickly and with confidence.
Lastly, ineffective technical proposals and release notes hinder a company’s ability to secure new projects, grants, or contracts, and can cause confusion among existing clients. Weak technical proposals fail to convey a company’s expertise or the benefits of its proposed solution, making it trickier to win new business.
Strong technical writing skills are crucial for any business needing to convey information clearly and effectively, be it in-house or to clients and customers. Which is every company I can think of. Effective communication, improved customer satisfaction, efficient internal and external documentation and a significant reduction in errors all give your company a competitive edge. Ignoring this is like having old reading glasses. You get on with it, but it’s only when someone pops the right prescription on your nose that you realise how much you were unnecessarily struggling.
Simply put, strong technical writing speeds everything up and makes your company and brand trustworthy. By all means, you can ignore that your workforce needs strong technical writing skills, but doing so really is like continuing to man that beautiful shop front. You might be luring clients in the front door, but if the back is wide open, you are losing more than you realise.