If you’re not part of the marketing or documentation world, it’s easy to get confused between these three common, but different, writing professions: technical writer, technical copywriter, and copywriter. You probably just know that you need a good writer, but if you’re going to make a good choice, knowing the difference between the disciplines will make your search a lot easier.

What is a Technical Writer?

A technical writer is someone who creates documentation that explains:

  • How to use a product or service
  • How to complete a process
  • When and why a feature should be used
  • What are the consequences of using a feature incorrectly or at the wrong time?
  • How does the feature or process fit into the “bigger picture” of the product or service as a whole?

The key emphasis here is on explanation. The technical writer helps the end user, often a layman or novice user, to understand a product, service, or process. They do this by identifying the ‘user journey’ – the process that an end user needs to go through if they are to learn how to achieve a goal successfully. For example, a user that has zero knowledge of iTunes might go on a user journey that starts with launching iTunes and ends with knowing how to import tracks.

Some technical writers only focus on the ‘how to’ aspect of instructions, but for people to learn and remember information, they often need more than that – they need context. So it is important to explain when and why they should follow the instructions and also the consequences of making mistakes. With iTunes, the consequences are unlikely to be serious, but if the reader is wiring into a mains electricity circuit, the consequence can be death.

Importantly, technical writing is often only read after a product or service has been bought, and usually when the reader has run into problems or doesn’t know what to do next. It is not the purpose of the technical writer to sell or promote a product, although a level of product promotion can be achieved in user documentation.

Technical writing is often seen as dry and boring because technical writers are trained to write very clearly and concisely. As documentation is often translated into other languages, at a cost per word, the technical writer also has to be as minimalist as possible. However, it is possible to create more lively, engaging documentation if you hire technical writers who have copywriting skills too.

There are two types of technical writer: generalists and niche writers.

Generalists, like me, are usually trained in the art of technical communication and know how to produce effective content for almost any product or service (because the user journey is what we focus on, not the product – we learn about the product on the job).  Generalists are often better at writing for non-expert users, as we, like the users, have limited knowledge when we begin and so go on the same user-journey as the customer.

Niche technical writers are usually experts in a particular subject. They will find it easier to write for expert users than generalists do, simply because their knowledge level is closer to that of the audience. But on the flip side of that coin, niche writers often find it more difficult to write for less knowledgeable users. This is because the more we learn, the more distant we are from the novice user’s perspective. Lee LeFever explains this really well in his book, The Art of Explanation.

As a technical writer, I class myself as a generalist. I have a BA Hons in Technical Communication and have created user guides, training material, online help, and wiki pages for a variety of products. Having said that, I have spent a lot of time working on SCADA software, so I know more about that than perhaps I should!

What is a Copywriter?

A copywriter is a marketing writer. They write content that is designed to promote or sell. Typically, this comes in the form of advertisements, case studies, direct mail, etc., all of which are designed to:

  • Attract the reader’s attention
  • Create a rapport with the reader
  • Explain how the product/service will make the reader’s life better
  • Make the reader desire the product/service
  • Call the reader to action – either get them to buy or get them to make contact in some way.

Think of a copywriter as a salesperson who works with the written word rather than the spoken. Traditionally, copywriters work on hard copy (paper) documents and video scripts etc., but there are also web copywriters who focus on digital content. If web pages are what you need, look for copywriters with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) knowledge – this is a way of writing, and coding pages, so that search engines like Google rank them favourably.

As a Success Works SEO copywriting graduate and VIP member, I class myself as an SEO copywriter. I have been trained to write effective copywriting, but also have SEO knowledge too, so can keep your pages Google-friendly. As  VIP member, I have lifetime access to the latest course materials so can stay up-to-date. #Googleisforeverchanging.

The vast majority of my copywriting work has been for the web, with all sorts of clients, including stage illusionists, national scrap car dealers, oil and gas recruitment agencies, chicken coup manufacturers, nightclubs, security firms…all sorts!

What is a Technical Copywriter?

A technical copywriter, like a ‘standard’ copywriter, focuses on sales content. Again, they create content designed to:

  • Attract the reader’s attention
  • Create a rapport with the reader
  • Explain how the product/service will make the reader’s life better
  • Make the reader desire the product/service
  • Call the reader to action – either get them to buy or get them to make contact in some way.

The difference is that the technical copywriter is more comfortable with technology, especially industrial technology that you don’t come across in day-to-day life (unless that’s your job). Often they are experts in that technology or have some sort of background with the technology or technology that is similar. As the target market is likely to be tech-savvy, it is important that the technical copywriter promotes the benefits correctly and includes the technical specifications that customers want to see. The target audience with technical sales content is sometimes more than one particular person or role – the content might need to be easily accessible so that a CEO can understand it quickly, but still have the technical details that engineers (that advise the CEO) will be looking for.

Am I a technical copywriter? Good question. I am comfortable with technical products and services due to my technical writing work, and I know how to write marketing too, so combine the two and it probably does make a good match.

Tips for Hiring a Writer

Here are my tips for choosing the right writer for your job:

Figure out what type of content you need

If it is news articles that also promote your business, such as articles for industry publications, go for a journalist or a a copywriter who can recognise ‘news’ and knows how to tone down the selling.

If it is sales literature, you want a copywriter. If the subject matter is quite technical, and the target market is a tech savvy audience, a technical copywriter will probably be a better choice than a straight-out copywriter (there are lots of creative writers that shy away from technology, especially industrial technology).

If you need to teach people how to use your product or service, hire a technical writer. They will approach the content from the perspective of the end user and know how to explain instructions and concepts.

Identify your target audience

Before you hire a writer, think about who the audience is. This information will help you find the right type of writer.

  • If your content is for selling to a non-technical audience, go for a regular copywriter. Make sure they have SEO knowledge if you need content for web pages.
  • If your content is for selling to a technical audience, go for a technical copywriter. Make sure they have SEO knowledge if you need content for web pages.
  • If your content is to educate new or non-expert users, go for a generalist technical writer*
  • If your content is to educate experienced, knowledgeable users, go for a niche technical writer**

*Don’t rule out niche technical writers though. Some can still empathise with novice users really well, it is just less common.

**Generalist technical writers could also do a great job, but bear in mind they will most likely need to ask more questions and spend more time researching.

Who Feels Right?

When you are hiring someone to write for your business, remember that they are going to be the voice of your business. So take the time to read their work and see if their tone and style creates the right impression. Don’t look for writers who create complex sentences packed with obscure word or jargon – this style won’t be effective as copywriting or technical writing. The message has to be engaging and clear.

Also bear in mind that your writer will most likely need to interact with you, members of your team, and possibly your customers. Choose a writer who is easy to get along with, adapts to problems with the right attitude, and conducts themselves in the right way. They don’t have to be super-professional or a corporate robot, but they should be sensitive to other people’s feelings, timescales and pressures.

Hire a Tech Writer with Copywriting Know-How

If you need content that sells products or explains how to use them, I can help. [/fusion_text]

Hire an Experienced Technical Writer Today

Let’s get the ball rolling on your documentation project. Use the form below to get in touch and I will get back to you a.s.a.p. What things should you mention? To start with, let me know about the type of documentation you need, a rough idea of the amount of documentation or scope of the project, and your time scales.