What Is Technical Writing?
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Technical Writing 101 - This article is part of a series.
I’ve had quite a few conversations recently with folks who’d never heard of technical writing before and/or didn’t quite know what technical writers do. I put together this quick post to answer some of the most common questions I’ve been getting.
As always, this is just one person’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as gospel. I’m drawing from my own practice and experience, but different people at different companies will, of course, have their own opinions and ways of doing things. YMMV.
Let’s dive into it.
What is a technical writer? #
A technical writer works with developers, engineers, subject matter experts (SMEs), and other stakeholders to write and publish technical documentation.
We cover a wide variety of products across all industries, from games and software to medical equipment and avionics. We teach users how to use software, configure household appliances, calibrate complex medical equipment, and so much more. Ever googled an error code for your washing machine? The page you landed on was probably written by a technical writer.
In this post, I’ll stick to technical writing for games and software development, which has been my bread and butter for a sizeable portion of my career.
I’m an in-house technical writer who covers, among other things, MetaHumans and Unreal Engine. Unlike people outside the company who create tutorials and other learning content, in-house technical writers have access to internal resources (such as test builds and internal product briefs) and get to test new features before they’re released to the public. We’re the first ones to tell users how to use our software and what to do when things go wrong.
There are some common misconceptions around what we do, owing in part to the fact that technical writing is such a vast field of work. Before we get into specifics, here’s a non-exhaustive list of what technical writing isn’t:
- Marketing / ads copy
- Literary writing (sorry, English majors!)
- Tossing a couple paragraphs in a
Readme.mdand calling it a day
Does technical writing require formal education? #
In my experience? Not necessarily. Some companies do list certain degrese as a requirement. They may or may not enforce it, and they usually take industry experience into account, but it really varies from place to place. I’ve rarely seen people be sticklers about it (keep in mind, this is just my experience; I also can’t speak for US companies since I know next to nothing about the US jobs market).
If you don’t have a degree, my advice is to apply anyway. Let the company do the work of rejecting you if they have a problem with that.
Some technical writers are also experts in their fields1, regardless of what they studied in college or university. That’s not necessarily a prerequisite. However, you do have to be at least somewhat technical to be a technical writer. It’s in the name, after all.
At the very least, you need to understand the fundamentals of the product you’re documenting. If you try to write technical documentation with no understanding of the product and/or general area it serves (like rendering, animation, or input for a game engine), it’s a lot easier to get things wrong.
Can I move into technical writing from another career? #
Yes, but be prepared to take a pay cut (true for any career shift, I’d imagine).
How much of a pay cut depends on a lot of things. The more transferrable skills and knowledge you have, the more likely it is that you won’t have to start all the way back at Junior or Associate level. I’ve known highly skilled technical writers whose previous background was in teaching, games development, academic research, and, in one memorable instance, biomolecular friggin’ biology2.
My own work experience consisted of a mix of translation, webdev, social media stuff and a tiny bit of research, if you squint. I have a degree in Sociology with a minor in Organizational Management, which are both unrelated to what I ended up doing.
Do all game studios have technical writers? #
Mostly, yes. Having in-house technical writers at big-name studios is definitely more common than it used to be.
Let’s have a quick look at one of Blizzard’s technical writing jobs in the Story & Franchise Development department:
Blizzard Entertainment’s Story and Franchise Development department seeks a Technical Writer to contribute to our ever-growing documentation on processes and technologies. The tech writer will partner with our technology and production teams to author, organize, and advise on the creation of documentation on our Confluence wiki. They will also work closely with our Engineering department to advise on user activations and deactivations, permissions, plug-ins, and license availability.
This seems to be a role that’s focused on internal processes and technologies. The ad goes on to detail the expected level of Confluence proficiency and list additional requirements, with a mix of hard and soft skills.
Here’s another internal role, Technical Writer III (they could’ve just said Senior or Principal 🤔) at Riot Games:
As a Technical Writer III on League Studio’s Tools Core Tech team, you will act as the guide for developing a high-quality documentation program related to various end-user art and design workflows, as well as game development software applications. This includes both curation and editing of documentation as well as designing the ongoing process for managing the documentation program for League Studio technologies.
This role sounds more like a product owner / technical editor kind of deal, with documentation being the product. If we demistify the phrasing a little bit, they want someone who can put in place the tools and processes required to document League Studio (which I’m assuming is the proprietary engine that League of Legends and TFT are built in; Rioters, please correct me if I’m wrong).
Throughout the years, I’ve interviewed for a couple of in-house roles that also had to do with documenting internal platforms and processes, from Creative Assembly’s proprietary engine to an all-purpose role at Playground Games for their upcoming Fable title. I also worked as a technical writer at Unity for customer-facing documentation, including feature docs (the stuff you see in-engine) and APIs.
All this to say, while technical writing roles do exist, no two roles are exactly alike.
In the next post, we’ll look at the types of content a technical writer produces, from feature documentation (concepts, tutorials and references) to APIs and everything in-between.