An Idiot's Guide to Technical Writing

Author: Richard York
Posted: Jun 7, 2016

Topics: Copywriting

As a young college student pursuing his degree, the scattered interests of my youth were narrowed down to one specific area of focus: Copywriting. Not engineering. Not medicine. Not finance. I took all those irrelevant topics out back and put them out of my misery. What could a right-brained writer possibly need with such extraneous knowledge? Well…


Turns out advertising copywriting isn't all cute headlines, clever turns-of-phrase and thought-provoking puns. Sometimes left-brained clients in left-brained industries have very left-brained products and services to sell. And it's partly the job of this freewheelin' artiste to figure out how. So here's a step-by-step guide.

  1. PANIC! A meeting is scheduled by the Marketing Strategist whose client (like a hospital or a bank, or maybe a hospital bank, if that’s a thing) has a complicated service to sell — a service that darn-near confounds me. The MS brings along an overwhelming abundance of materials from the client that attempts to clarify the complication: strategy proposals, competitor materials, flowcharts, spreadsheets, memos, discarded napkins, etc. The MS does a great job encapsulating this information into something that's as simplified as something this complicated can be. Still, as things are verbally explained, I try to keep my eyes from glazing over by occasionally nodding my head in faux-comprehension. I’m not too proud to say it can be a tad overwhelming.
  2. RESEARCH! After the meeting, my research process starts off pretty much just like this:

    Once I collect myself, it's time to dive in. First, I take the MS's distillation and read it several times, deciphering not just the content, but the intent. What are they REALLY asking for? Once I feel I've started to comprehend these materials, I realize I'm left with only surface knowledge. Then feelings of insecurity set in. Do I know enough? The good news is, there's still all that material from which the distillation came. Might as well read through it. If I don't over-research, will I ever truly understand? After all, the more I know, the better I can…
  3. DUMB IT DOWN! Now that I'm filled to the brim with information about something that, one day ago, was as foreign as the core of Saturn, it's my turn to distill. I sift through the minutiae, eliminate all the background research that'll never fit into a print ad or tri-fold brochure and whittle it down to the core idea: what the service is and how it will benefit the intended audience. Intended audience…oh right. Those people are smart. They probably know way more about this topic than I learned in a day. Did I dumb this down too much? I guess I'd better…
  4. SMARTEN IT BACK UP! All that dumbing down I did? That was for MY benefit. The last thing the agency or the client wants is to insult the intelligence of the target. So the dumbing down and smartening up is mostly about finding a balance that conveys, in the most economical of ways, the elegance that can be gleaned from the complexity: A perfect headline. A glorious summation of the service. A call to action that can’t be refused.

When you nail it, you know it. Actually, when you nail it, the client will let you know. And when they do, it feels a major accomplishment and brings about a rare sense of satisfaction. It’s enough to make any idiot feel like a genius. 

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