What is a technical writer? And do you need a copywriter instead?

by , freelance copywriter

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What do people mean by “technical writer”? It’s worth checking you have it right – so you can find the right writer for your project.

When you’re looking for a writer on a technical topic, it’s tempting to go ahead and type the words “technical writer” into Google. After all, you want a writer, and you want them to be technical, right?

But language can be a fickle beast. Yes, a “technical writer” might appear to mean “a writer who writes about stuff that’s technical”. But it also has a specific sense that means something else.

What you may actually need is a tech copywriter, like me, instead. That way, you can not only describe your technology, but sell its benefits.

Have a look at this Venn diagram to see what I mean. Here, I’ve divided technical writing and tech copywriting according to common content types:

Technical writing versus tech copywriting - a Venn diagram of different content types
Technical writing v tech copywriting – a Venn diagram of different content types

What is a technical writer?

As you can see from the diagram, a technical writer, in the specialist sense, is usually someone who creates highly technical documentation, notably manuals.

They are good at walking readers through technical processes, so tech users can get specific jobs done.

Many technical writers work at impressive scale, using specialist software designed for collaborating on documents worked on by teams.

To my mind, it’s this focus on process that’s important. Take a look at the Society for Technical Communication website, which says on its home page (my emphasis):

“Technical communicators research and create information about technical processes or products directed to a targeted audience through various forms of media.”

Society for Technical Communication

Although we have many of the same skills, that’s a big shift from what I, as a tech copywriter, might do.

So how is a tech copywriter different?

The difference between technical writers and copywriters is one of approach.

Tech copywriters are less interested in processes, and more in benefits. As a freelance copywriter, it’s my job to be persuasive as well as technical.

Rather than (or as well as) helping someone perform a technical process, I want to change their mind.

When I’m helping you to bring a technology product to market, I’ll focus on the benefits that make the biggest difference to the client’s life. I’ll try to draw a picture of what it’s like to be there when they’re here.

Of course, I need to understand tech to do that accurately. To do my job, I may find myself talking to the same expert as a technical writer. That helps me get things right.

A space where technical writing and tech copywriting meet

For all that, there’s a space where traditional technical writing and technology copywriting meet. See the middle of the Venn diagram, above. This is where things can get a bit fuzzy.

For example, lots of SaaS (software as a service) businesses now include knowledge bases on public-facing websites. And this has helped change my view of what technical writing is.

Twenty years ago, a developer of accountancy software might, for example, have created a bulky manual to help people use it.

These days, though, things are different. Look at the way SaaS book-keeping firm FreeAgent, for example, uses a knowledge base to walk people through how to use a product.

In one post, for example, the site walks small businesses through the process of setting up an Open Banking feed.

From a content marketer’s point of view, this kind of content must be helpful: Google no doubt sees it as a user-friendly resource which helps FreeAgent to rank.

On the one hand, it’s undoubtedly technical writing. But as it’s also part of a friendly, public-facing knowledge base, I’d argue that it’s also tech copywriting – and within the skillset of both kinds of writer.

Conclusion: choose a writer based on outlook and skills

For you, the client, the distinction between “technical writing” and “tech copywriting” or even “technical copywriting” may or may not be a helpful one.

If you’re a marketer, you might naturally seek a tech copywriter to write your content. If you’re in the product team, you might seek a technical writer. That’s natural.

But with better collaboration between different parts of your company, the big story is the chance to create great, human-friendly content – not just for prospects, but for users.

If that excites you, feel free to look beyond the label of what kind of techie writer you use.

If you’re planning to create any content that’s public-facing, look instead for a writer who’s open-minded, experienced and interested in your project. Someone who’ll ask the right questions, to help prospects and users alike – and write in human-friendly English. If they have the skills, what they call themselves is irrelevant.

Personally, as a content writer, I welcome projects where the goal is to use language to help – and if I’m helping users, as opposed to leads or prospects, that’s fine by me.

To find out more about my technology copywriting, technical copywriting, or whatever you want to call it, please contact me. I’m here to listen and to help you meet your goals.