Technical writing and technical copywriting are not the same thing. It is of vital importance for companies who operate in the technical space to know the distinction between the two. Here, we explain how they are different, and what type of writer you will need for the product you’re developing.
All writing is not the same. This is not to say anything new. Comparing the works of Chaucer, Nietzsche, and Rowling side-by-side reveals differences verging on the irreconcilable. The same is true of content and copywriting. Depending on the organisation, the type of output, and the intended audience, enormous disparities can be found.
A type of professional, commercial writing that stands alone as being particularly distinct from others, is the technical type. However, even here we have two very different camps. Technical writing, and technical copywriting. If your organisation is looking for a technical writer, it’s important to know the difference between the two.
Technical writing vs technical copywriting
Technical writing – Essentially, writing that tells the reader ‘how’. Whether it’s a manual explaining how to operate an RD-0410 nuclear rocket engine, or the slither of paper containing instructions for the build-it-yourself toy in a Kinder Egg, it’s all technical writing.
Obviously, depending on the product and the audience, the depth of technicality and use of language will vary wildly but the intended outcome is the same; that the reader understands how. As for what makes for a good technical writer, the following make for good starting points:
- Knowledge – How much knowledge is needed by a technical writer depends on the complexity of the product. Referring again to the examples used earlier, the writer(s) putting together the manual for the RD-0410 nuclear rocket engine will require significant experience of that industry. The writer(s) producing the instructions for the toys in Kinder Eggs needn’t have any specific background.
Products somewhere in the middle of these examples don’t particularly require thorough subject knowledge (although this is helpful), rather a willingness of the writer to learn about and engage with the product prior to writing.
- Clarity – Again, the use of language required will depend on the level of expertise of the intended reader. The manual for a product intended for use only by highly qualified and experienced personnel can afford to use acronyms and terms unfamiliar to the average person. Any material intended for the general public cannot.
Generally speaking, the key to good technical writing is to use language that is clear and unambiguous. Sentences should be short and to the point, avoiding complexities such as metaphors and similes.
- Diligence – Technical writing usually requires the writer to go through each step of a process meticulously. For the first-time technical writer, producing copy for an expensive product, this can seem an almost comical way of writing. Having to instruct a reader to ‘turn a screw’ to secure a fitting seems insulting but is often wholly necessary. A good technical writer recognises this and is diligent with all detail.
Technical copywriting – As opposed to telling a reader ‘how’, technical copywriting instead tells them to ‘buy and why’. Think of it this way; having developed the RD-0410 nuclear rocket engine, the technical writer sets about instructing as to its function and usage. Once this has been published, the engine now needs to be sold. The RD-0410 nuclear rocket engine is a fairly niche product, so a 60 second advertisement during Celebrity Big Brother isn’t going to reach the right people.
This is where the technical copywriter comes in. The technical copywriter writes about the engine in much more general terms, explaining why it is a superior alternative to other engines and subtly encouraging the reader to make a purchase. Through their copy, a good technical copywriter will exhibit:
- Knowledge – To write about why a person should buy a product, you do need to have a certain degree of knowledge about it. However, as the documents technical copywriters produce go into nothing like the level of detail as those produced by technical writers, most competent copywriters can do the job capably.
- Story-telling ability – This tends to be where the differing skillsets of technical writers and technical copywriters deviate. Good technical copywriters are story-tellers. They are able to bring the inanimate to life with their use of linguistics. It is a vitally important ability when the remit is to sell a product. They must use language in such a way that, as well as informing and educating, they excite and intrigue.
- Understanding of ToV – The abbreviation of ‘tone-of-voice’ and critical to getting a message to resonate with an intended audience. When asked to produce technical copy for an organisation, most writers will receive a brief regarding preferred ToV. Some though, will not. This is where the initiative and experience of a technical copywriter becomes evident. Even without a brief, they will understand the expectations of the target audience and have a feel for the organisation and product they are writing on behalf of. The copy they produce will read accordingly.
Matching the writer to your product/service
Hopefully the above has helped clarify the distinction between technical writers and technical copywriters. It’s an important distinction to make because picking the wrong one to undertake a project is a waste of everyone’s time and money.
On the subject of money, you must also appreciate that both technical writers and technical copywriters possess skillsets in high demand, so good ones don’t come cheap. With a technical writer, you are looking for an individual with profound knowledge and experience of an industry or product. With a technical copywriter, you are looking for someone with an ability to quickly learn about a product enough to demonstrate a level of expertise, but to then write out about it in a way that excites and intrigues the reader.
When the time comes to begin looking for a writer, think carefully about the document or documents you want to produce. If in doubt, think of it like this; If your document is telling a reader ‘how’, you need a technical writer. If your document is telling a reader ‘why and to buy’, you need a technical copywriter.