Technical copywriting, IT copywriting and technical writing… What’s the difference?
May 19, 2023 • Glenn Murray
Eight years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Technical writer vs technical copywriter: What’s the difference?. Today, that post is still one of our site’s most popular pages.
Trouble is, it’s not actually a very good post! I wrote it quickly and without much planning so, although it’s helpful, it could certainly be a lot more helpful.
Today, I remedy that. Today’s post covers:
- What is technical copywriting?
- What is IT copywriting?
- What is technical writing?
- What’s the main difference between technical copywriting, IT copywriting and technical writing?
- Which is hardest: Technical copywriting, IT copywriting or technical writing?
- Are technical copywriting and IT copywriting harder than normal copywriting?
- What to look for in a technical copywriter or IT copywriter
- What to look for in a technical writer
- Why I’m qualified to discuss these terms
Let’s dig in.
What is technical copywriting?
Technical copywriting is promotional writing about any technical subject, like science, manufacturing, IT, audiovisual, construction and medical equipment.
Technical copywriters write many of the same sorts of materials as other copywriters, including web copy, brochures, articles, blog posts, EDMs and emails, but — because of the complex nature of their subject matter — they also tend to write a few more case studies, whitepapers, thought leadership pieces, explainer video scripts and press releases.
What is IT copywriting?
IT copywriting — or information technology copywriting — is a type of technical copywriting. It’s promotional writing about any information technology subject, like computers, mobile phones, tablets, networking, storage devices, data backup & recovery, and cloud technology.
Because IT subjects are often very technical in nature, IT copywriters tend to write the same sorts of materials as technical copywriters (case studies, whitepapers, thought leadership pieces, explainer video scripts and press releases), but also the same materials as other copywriters (web copy, brochures, articles, blog posts, EDMs and emails, etc.).
What is technical writing?
Technical writing is writing that explains how to use a product, process or technology. That might mean a consumer product (like a TV, phone, computer, car or cabinet), a software solution or app (like Microsoft Word, Tinder, or a process control system), a work practice (e.g. ‘How to apply for annual leave’), a technology platform (like AWS or Google Workspace), or a programming language or library.
Unlike technical copywriters and IT copywriters, technical writers aren’t (directly) trying to promote something or persuade someone. They’re trying to explain something. So they write user manuals, online help, UX copy (aka ‘microcopy’), training materials, PowerPoint presentations and instruction booklets. And some even plan, script and storyboard instructional videos and animations.
What’s the main difference between technical copywriting, IT copywriting and technical writing?
There are two main differences between technical copywriting, IT copywriting and technical writing:
- Copywriting (both technical and IT) is about persuading people and promoting products and services. Technical writing is about explaining how to do something.
- IT copywriting is specifically about information technology products and services, whereas both technical copywriting and technical writing could be about any technical subject.
Which is hardest: Technical copywriting, IT copywriting or technical writing?
For me, both technical copywriting and IT copywriting are harder than technical writing.
Sure, with technical writing, you have to develop a very good understanding of a technology, then describe it in clear, succinct language, in a logical way that reflects the reader’s goals. And yes, you have to have a good understanding of user experience and information architecture. But with technical copywriting and IT copywriting, you typically have to do most of that and persuade your reader to part with their money (or time or email address or something else that’s precious to them)! That requires another level of sensitivity and awareness altogether.
Are technical copywriting and IT copywriting harder than normal copywriting?
Yes, I think technical copywriting and IT copywriting are harder than ‘normal’ copywriting.
But not because it’s hard to make technical and IT stuff sound exciting, if that’s what you’re thinking. Someone who’s thinking of investing in a sophisticated SCADA solution for their factory is typically just as excited about their purchase as a runner considering a new pair of shoes.
No, the real reason technical copywriting and IT copywriting are harder than normal copywriting is because it’s usually harder to get your head around the subject matter. Most of us have run at some point in our lives, and we’ve suffered sore toes, feet and legs from ill-fitting, unsupportive shoes. But most of us don’t even know what SCADA stands for, let alone how it could be considered exciting.
It takes a special kind of brain (and a unique brand of stubbornness) to get inside a SCADA buyer’s head.
What to look for in a technical copywriter or IT copywriter
Other than the special brain and unique stubbornness mentioned above, you should be looking for proof, first and foremost, that they’ve done a good job in the past. Only then can you be reasonably confident they have the chops required to write your technical or IT copy.
So ask to see samples, ask for testimonials, ask who they’ve worked for in the past.
Don’t look for formal qualifications in your field, and don’t worry too much if they haven’t worked with your exact subject matter before. Copywriters with tertiary qualifications in neurosurgery nanotechnology are likely to be very thin on the ground! Instead, look for proof that they’ve been able to handle subject matter that’s at least comparable in complexity to yours.
Beyond that, look for someone who doesn’t appear daunted by the challenge, and who seems excited by the possibilities the technology offers. You’ll see this in the questions they ask and the tangents they take.
Naturally, you also want someone empathetic who seems easy to get along with. Partly because they have to be able to get inside the heads of your readers, and partly because they’re going to be asking you and your team a lot of questions, and you don’t want them rubbing anyone up the wrong way.
Perhaps most importantly of all, look for someone you feel will learn fast. This can be a tricky quality to spot, but if they don’t seem afraid to ask questions and expose their ignorance, that’s a good start. And if all else fails, go for someone who’s been working for themselves for many years. You don’t survive long out on your own as a copywriter if you don’t learn fast, because every day brings something new.
What to look for in a technical writer
Like technical copywriters and IT copywriters, technical writers need at least an affinity for your subject matter, some experience with similar complexity, empathy, a friendly nature and the ability to learn fast.
But what a technical writer needs, in spades, are patience, discipline, a structured mind, a methodical approach and an eye for detail. While these qualities certainly don’t go astray in the world of copywriting (especially for really long, complex documents and websites with hundreds of pages), they’re absolutely essential when writing user documentation of any sort. Readers of technical documentation are often at their wit’s end, and in no mood for mistakes, inconsistencies and meanderings. A great technical writer instils confidence in their reader — holds their hand on a difficult journey.
Why I’m qualified to discuss these terms
I’m all three of these things: technical copywriter, IT copywriter and technical writer. Have been since 1994. And I have the grey hairs to prove it!
Here’s a bit more about me…
If you’d like to know more about the differences between technical copywriting, IT copywriting and technical writing, please comment below or get in touch.