Stephen King is known for writing giant novels that take place in Maine. Nathaniel Hawthorne can easily take several pages to specifically describe a person or place’s history in The House of the Seven Gables. Truly, the beauty of literary work lies in the ability to richly utilize all aspects of language in order to tell a fully engrossing and captivating story; however, much in the same way that you probably wouldn’t trust Stephen King or Nathaniel Hawthorne to design computer software or rewire a car’s electrical system, today’s term is all about the “other” kind of writing, the one used in technical and occupational fields.
As a term, technical writing can, of course be broken down into its 2 separate words, technical and writing. Referring to the specialized use or meaning of language in a particular field, the root of the term technical, which was first used in Thomas Jackson’s 1635 work, The Humiliation of the Sonne of God, writing that: “Every good Interpreter should have a Lexicon either of his own, or others gathering peculiar unto Divinity, specially for words used in a technical, Emblematical, or proverbial sense.”, can be found in the Latinized form of the Greek tekhno-, meaning ‘skill or craft in work, or a method of making or doing things.’ Writing, being the verbal noun of expressing thoughts or ideas in the written word, comes to us from the Old English writan, meaning ‘to score or draw the figure of,’ as well as the (further back) Proto-Germanic writan, meaning ‘to scratch’ (in the sense of scratching something onto paper or a surface), and is first mentioned in the Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1405): “Moreover he could draw up anything, That no man might find fault with its writing.”
In and of itself, technical writing has only been recognized as a separate field since World War II, but its beginning stretches back to antiquity. Inventors, scientists, and philosophers from Aristotle, Newton, and DaVinci to the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution and up to the present day have endeavoured to process, document and disseminate information; moreover, it is through this desire to communicate findings with the use of language specific to the subject matter that technical writing evolved.
Essentially, technical writing involves technical communication. While this used to simply mean the practice of documenting processes, such as in instructional materials or manuals, it has now grown into any communication which encompasses the documentation of technical processes, which can take forms as diverse as e-mails, press releases, policy briefs and proposals, white papers, and data sheets. In other words, if you are working in an applied technical field, you’re probably already doing it without knowing it.
Doing it, however, doesn’t, by default, mean doing it well. To be a good technical writer, you need to also be a good communicator. More than just producing an instruction manual, a technical writer needs to strike the right balance in order to produce something that is easy for the intended audience to understand, concise but not too short, and focused but not too dull and rigid. In other words, while creative writing doesn’t require technical thinking, technical writing does require creative thinking.