Kristina is a senior User experience strategist and writer based in seattle. She also edits the online magazine uxbooth.com.

Science Writing vs. Technical Writing: What's the Difference?

Hi! Note about this article: I wrote it years ago, and it met a happy reception. Sadly, it was lost during a life change. I'm bringing it back because I was asked about this topic again. So, please forgive any references that are no longer relevant. Hopefully light on memes.

There are two things I can't shut up about when I meet people or connect with old friends. One is my experience in MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing, which destroyed and rebuilt me as Kristina v. 2.0. The other is my current job at a little company that focuses on making people's lives better through technology. I'm a professional writer/storyteller, and I couldn't be more excited about that.

When friends (and some strangers) hear my excitement, I often hear one of two questions:

I’d love to get into tech writing! Any advice?
I’d love to get into journalism! Any advice?

Whoa now, hold on. Who said anything about tech writing? Or journalism? Sure sure, I spent several years between ages 18 and 23 writing and editing airline manuals — which is most certainly technical writing — but science writing does not a technical writer make. Nor vice versa.

Instead of spending 30 minutes explaining the differences in emails each time I receive these queries, let's explore the difference between technical writing, science writing, science journalism, and so on. And then, a little look at breaking into both.

What is technical writing?

Technical writing is all about documentation. Technical writers write manuals. They write white papers. They help write and edit journal papers. They often work within organizations that are producing or operating technologies of some sort:

  • Airlines
  • Government agencies (like the CDC, FDA, or FAA, for instance)
  • Legal agencies (like law firms or regulatory bodies)
  • Medical companies (like pharmaceuticals or producers of medical-related machines)
  • Electronics companies (like Samsung, Sony, or Bose)
  • Software and hardware companies (like Microsoft, Oracle, or Nvidia)
  • Universities and research institutions (like MIT or the Mayo Clinic)
  • Web-based companies (like Amazon, eBay, and Facebook)

The primary directive of a technical writer is to provide documentation of a product, technology, or service to avoid ambiguity and is as concise as humanly possible. There's little room or need in technical writing for creativity — especially if that documentation involves any legal implications at all.

A technical writer must also learn/adopt the given form and style of writing of the industry in which she works. If she's working in a research institution and is helping create a scientific journal article on the, say, recent (possible) Higgs Boson discovery, she must write said paper in the same language and format as other journal articles in the field. She isn't going to be creating a comic book for this purpose.

Like with any communications-related gig, technical writers must write for their audiences. They must write to serve a very specific purpose. And they tend to be heavily involved with collaboration; technical writing isn't about the author of the document ‐ it's solely about the clear communication of a technology, service, or product.

Examples of technical writing

You probably see some form of technical writing every day (and others, you'll likely never see). You'll usually recognize it by its seriousness.

Lipitor safety information

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A perfect example of medication documentation. This particular manifestation lives on the Lipitor website.

Ultralight testing handbook

Issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, this is a no-holds-barred handbook (PDF) for assisting Ultralight plane builders to develop flight plans for their aircraft. Not something you'll see every day, probably.

Specs for the Mac Book Pro

Because I'm a jerk who has far too many Apple products, here are the new retina display Mac Book Pro technical specs. Definitely tech writing.

Amazon Kindle publishing guide

Amazon has some great, thorough technical writers documenting the process involved in getting your e-book published for their Kindle. Most technical writers I know are doing things just like this these days.

What is science writing?

Science writing, in an itty bitty nutshell, is writing about science for non-scientific audiences. It's a field in which creativity makes a writer shine — sometimes more so than their ability to actually understand the science at hand (an unfortunate problem, but I'll save you the rant).

Sometimes it's journalism, sometimes essays, sometimes documentaries. I'll stress again: it's any telling of science or technology that aims to provide understanding to the broadest of audiences. Almost always, science writing tells a story.

This may sound similar to technical writing, but it's not. Technical writing sheds truth; science writing breeds understanding. It's a fairly delicate distinction, but not really.

I learn best by example, so here are some notable examples of science writing.

Not Exactly Rocket Science

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Run by science writer Ed Yong over at National Geographic, Not Exactly Rocket Science is always one of my go-to examples for people trying to understand what science writing is. It's (in this case) journalism. It's story. It's fun. Google him to find his best-selling books, too. Seriously, the guy rocks.

CDC's General Resources

The CDC has done a great job of explaining all sorts of complex medical and health-related issues to the general public. Here's their entry on Coronary Atery Disease as an example.

Books like the Poisoners Handbook

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One of my favorites, The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum makes chemicals far more interesting than they ever were in high school chemistry classes. How better to learn about chemistry than through Prohibition-era murders and intrigue? A great example of science through storytelling.

Books like Mr g

Not all science writing needs to be nonfiction. Alan Lightman (full disclosure: he was my graduate thesis advisor) takes physics and complex philosophical ideas intrinsic to the field, combines them into a creative exploration of god and science and blows everyones minds.

The common element to all of these examples? They're all communicating complex ideas to wide audiences. They avoid complex language and field jargon, and they help provide a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.

Breaking into both

Now that we've looked into the difference between technical and science writing, we can take a look at what it takes to get into both. In this case, both approaches are similar .

College

As I mentioned, I got my Masters degree in science writing. Did it help me in my career? Most certainly yes (even though I may not be the type of science writer they were hoping to produce). Is it expensive? Yes, it can be. Is it worth it? Most certainly, if you have the resources. Is it completely necessary? Nope.

The best thing about going to school for either science writing or technical writing is that it provides you with crash-course exposure of what its like to work in either field. These programs can also be very helpful with job placement upon completion.

The good

  • You get to work with peers in a safe, critically productive environment
  • You learn from the best in the field
  • You have credentials upon completion
  • You have plenty of wonderful networking opportunities

Potential drawbacks

  • When you're in a program, you're probably not working directly in the field
  • Some programs are very expensive

Internships

I love internships. I had 7 throughout my undergraduate and graduate career. Internships provide you with real-world experience, invaluable to getting a real gig later on.

The good

  • Real-world experience
  • The ability to work with and learn from peers
  • You get paid, sometimes!
  • You often exit with a portfolio or something to show for your work

Potential drawbacks

  • Sometimes you're not paid. And that sucks
  • Many internship programs only seek students
  • Some internships devolve into grunt work, not always relevant to your desired career (I can think of one in particular right now. If you'd like to know which one, email me.)
  • You're almost always underpaid

Applying for jobs

If you have an idea of what you want to do, you can always just, you know, apply for jobs. Theres that.

To be successful with this route, it takes a whole lot of willpower, motivation, and self-control. You'll need to:

  • Be confident and (mostly) unwavering in your determination
  • Do lots of research into your desired field
  • Develop a portfolio on your own, be it through freelancing, contracts, or blogging
  • Be active in the existing communities
  • Read, read, and read in order to learn best practices and current trends
  • Network with folks in your field, online (Twitter, blogs, etc) and off (relevant Meetups, conferences, etc.)

Basically, when you're going at it on your own, you'll need to do all the things both college and internships help you with, but go it solo. It can most certainly be done, but again, it's not always easy.

The good

  • It's cheaper
  • You can do it from home, for the most part, on your own schedule
  • You can construct your own path, and tailor it specifically to your desires
  • It's empowering when it works out

Potential drawbacks

  • It's sometimes hard to keep up motivation
  • It takes dogged determination to break into existing professional circles
  • You have little critique or feedback for your early attempts
  • If you're relying on freelance, you're rarely sure where the next paycheck is coming from
  • It can be lonely

You can do it

Whichever path you choose, it's important to know that you've got to keep your spirits up. As with any career path, there are challenges. There are soul-sucking experiences. You will be demeaned at some point, or at least feel like it.

Be open-minded, too. Sure, when you start out, you'll have an image in your mind — the fastidious journalist, scrappy and cut-throat and ready for her next big lead; the attentive and obsessed technical writer who becomes a subject matter expert and top in her field; the Thoreau-esque essayist who ponders on the wonders of the natural world.

Allow these images to drive you, to motivate you, but don't let them pigeonhole you and seduce you away from opportunities. Science and technical writing exist on a spectrum — sometimes it's the stuff in between in which you'll find your perfect happy place. Thats where I found mine.

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