The Purpose of Technical Writing
The purpose of technical writing is similar to any other type of non-fictional writing. It is to explain or provide insight into a specific topic. Not general information, although that’s part of most technical manuals, but specific information.
Technical writing differs from other non-fictional writing in that it’s subject matter is dry and often uninteresting to read. Although some technical writers might like to believe differently, no one wants to read a technical manual. That is, no one wants to read a technical manual unless there’s a reason to read it.
We’ve all bought electronics or refrigerators or lawn mowers and blissfully set about using them until that dreaded moment when something goes wrong. That’s when we head to the manual. Other than that, most folks tend to avoid technical manuals.
(Although once when I was working on a computer system for a submarine, I heard that the sailors would read the manuals from cover to cover. I suppose they ran out of other reading material after six months under water!) As useful as technical manuals are, that’s a fact of life.
However, there comes a time. That is, there comes a moment when there is a critical need to find some specific information. At that moment, we see the real purpose of technical writing. And that purpose is to provide the specific information that will solve the user’s problem.
If the technical manual fails at that task, as too many do, there’s going to be an unhappy customer calling a help desk. And a company that gets a reputation for useless documentation. That’s something you want to avoid at all costs, especially if you’re running the documentation department.
But if the technical manual performs its reason for being and provides that specific information, then all is well with the world. And there’s a good feeling about that company and its documentation.
Therefore, in my opinion, that’s the purpose of technical writing: to provide the specific information a user needs to solve some kind of problem, big or small.