Learn Technical Writing – The Difference Between Technical Writing and Copywriting

All doctors, whether they’re ophthalmologists, cardiologists, or endocrinologists, began by studying the same thing: medicine. After that, they moved onto their specialized fields.

All writers begin with the same, basic skill: using language well. After that, they decide how they’ll use that skill. The two possibilities we’re focusing on are copy writing and technical writing.

In the US, if you ask a writer which one he or she is, the answer can be either copy writer, tech writer, or yes. In some parts of the world, particularly the UK and India, and in some specialized markets in the US, writers make a choice between the two. Especially if they have full-time positions. In most markets in North America, among freelance writers, though, the answer is more often yes.

Let’s start by defining our terms. The differences are easiest to see by looking at the extreme ends of the spectrum from tech to copy writing. We agree with our esteemed colleague in Twickenham that the technical in technical writing refers to “a body of information that’s not known or understood by the general public.” That covers areas of information that are usually known only by what are termed experts or specialists. As he put it, “The point about being a technical writer rather than any other type of writer is that we should excel in being able to write in support of technique or proficiency in practical skills. Our job entails explaining how to do things.”

On the other end is copy writing, which is non-technical. Pure copy writers are concerned with consumer communications. Their jobs are to influence target audiences to buy or at least become interested in products or services. Without intending to impune anyone’s reputation, it’s possible to say that copy writers aren’t as concerned with facts as they are with feelings. Their purpose is to get the consumers’ attention and convince them that this or that product is the best there is.

A highly successful creative director used the “cupcake” analogy to separate the two types of writing. She said a copy writer will tell you how good the cupcake is and how pretty the sprinkles are while the technical writer will tell you how to bake the cupcake. It seems that the problem with these two polar-opposites arises when you consider types of writing that don’t fit on either end. What do you call the writer who writes the report on the latest research into cookies or writes an executive summary of that report?

As a senior technical writer from the UK (or technical author as they’re called there) had to admit, “Of course documents that ‘do-not-explain-how’ may also be required from us in the course of our work but they are less relevant to the practice of technical writing as opposed to other types of business communication.” On the other hand, a copy writer may be required to write a document that explains the workings of a new insurance program or the application of a new federal law covering employer/employee negotiations.

Being a technical writer may not always be limited to explaining how to assemble, operate, and service bilateral widgets. And the copy writer isn’t always limited to “selling the sizzle.”

The question becomes: Where does tech writing leave off and copy writing begin? An important distinction is whether you’re a specialist or a generalist. If you write only technical documents that tells how to, you’re certainly a tech writer. If you write only soft copy that tells why, you’re clearly a copy writer. But what if you write both and a lot of things in between? At the TWTK, we don’t think you can put your finger on the exact spot when tech writing becomes copy writing. We see it as a single, sliding scale.

For example, where does writing training fit in? It seems it should be over on the technical writing side because it’s a form of instruction on a process or procedure. That makes it closely related to writing manuals or guides. But, then, what about instructional designers who write about how to perform soft skills such as customer service or sales techniques? They’re not writing ‘technical’ content, but their not writing ‘copy’ either.

We believe that copy writers and tech writers have one important thing in common: they’re both writers first. There are fundamental skills a writer must have whether writing copy or tech material. After that, it’s a matter of what kind of content the focus is on. Our intention is to give some useful tools, help, and encouragement to writers from hard tech to soft copy.

So, why did we call this newsletter the Technical Writer’s Tool Kit? Semantics. Professional writer is too broad an audience. Just writer is also too general since the content isn’t aimed at creative writers who produce poetry, novels, and plays. We could have said “people who write for hire but whose names never appear on what they write,” but that’s kind of long for a masthead.

We settled on technical writer as a place to start with the intention of moving the needle along the scale. We define technical in a wider sense as writing involved with creating the kinds of documents produced regularly by people in all areas of science, medicine, engineering, marketing, government, and education. These include reports, letters, memoranda, executive summaries, manuals, brochures, product descriptions, proposals, tutorials, and articles.

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