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Essential Skills for Technical Writers
Getting Started in Technical Writing
If you are a new or aspiring technical writer, you've chosen a profession that is in demand, interesting, and rewarding for many personality types. Yet you might still have questions, such as 'What skills do I need to do well?' or 'What knowledge do I already have that I can use in tech writing?' In this article I discuss some of the things that I wish I had known when i first started out.
I have experience in software documentation, so this article may be most relevant to technical writing in that field; however, you may find it applicable to other fields and types of writing, particularly the section on Transferable Skills.
Writing Well is Just the Foundation
Let's debunk a myth about tech writing: having the ability to write a newspaper article or a haiku is no guarantee of similar success as a technical writer. Technical writing requires specific skills, of which a solid grasp of the mechanics of English is just one aspect.
Most technical writing positions require a degree in English or a related discipline; however, some technical writing jobs may also require a science degree (Computer Science, Engineering, etc.). These technical writing jobs are not as plentiful as those that require only a writing background, but writers who have both a science degree and a proven ability to write well are often able to command a competitive salary because they possess a rare combination of skills.
In addition to a science or technical degree, experience that would look good on a technical writer's resume are fluency in foreign languages, technical experience, and certifications in writing or fields such as project management. In other words, it's not just about the writing! With their varied backgrounds and interests, technical writers bring a wealth of insight and knowledge to their work.
Tools for Technical Communication
To keep content consistent and in accordance with corporate and legal policies, most companies have in-house style guides, which both writers and editors must use. Companies may also refer to reputable sources such as The Chicago Manual of Style or The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. In recognising a need for a style guide for web-based writing, Yahoo! published a style guide for web content in July 2010.
In addition to making sure that editorial aspect of their writing is up to speed, technical writers often need to be up-to-date with the programs and technical skills they use. The following are some examples of skills and programs used in software documented, with links to online tutorials where appropriate:
- Authoring: Adobe FrameMaker, RoboHelp, ePublisher
- Graphics: Adobe Photoshop
- Webpage design: Adobe Dreamweaver
- Languages: XML, HTML, SQL (W3Schools has online tutorials on these and more)
Much depends on the field that writers work in, and also the company's processes, but as a general rule, technical writers would do well to be well-versed in different types of authoring tools.
As important as your writing skills and knowledge about authoring tools are, the key to being a great technical writer is having certain transferable skills. A successful technical writer can:
- Work well independently and with others. Most of us are probably better at one than the other, but it pays to be at least comfortable with both. A technical writer usually spends much of the workday in front of a computer writing, reading, and thinking. The rest of the time, the writer may be meeting or interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) for information.
- Be organised. Writing is fundamentally about communicating ideas. Have you ever read a document--whether a user guide, an essay, or a news article--that was confusing or unclear? Chances are, a befuddling piece of writing is a sign of a befuddled writer. If you can't organise your thoughts and turn them into a coherent document, your writing (and your intended audience) will suffer for it. If it's a question of not understanding a certain concept well enough to write about it--ask the subject matter experts! (See point below, "Be a charmer".)
- Be adaptable. No software, product, or industry is static. This means you have to be willing to keep up to date with whatever upgrades and new features are made in the product you support. Perhaps more importantly, you must be able to adapt to changes in company practices. Often, major changes are driven by technological advances. Some of the changes that I've experienced as a technical writer are: a transition from writing in XML to using an authoring tool by Consona; incorporating DITA for software documentation; and augmenting user guides in PDF format with wiki-based content.
- Be a charmer. Well, not quite. But interpersonal skills are a must. Technical writers have to able to get what they need from subject matter experts. Getting timely information is often a major obstacle for technical writers, who may have to deal with engineers, project managers, programmers, and others who either are too busy for you or don't see the value in getting involved with documentation. You have to be persistent and let the other party see the 'big picture' about why their involvement is important.
Technical Writing and Beyond
At the beginning of this article, I alluded to the fact that there is no one ideal personality type suited to technical writing; different personalities can bring valuable insights to a documentation team. It's also true that with the experience you acquire from working on different projects, with different SMEs, and eventually, with different employers, you can become a better technical writer--and also a more employable one.
As you progress in your career, you might want to make a transition into a related field--such as technical editing, knowledge management, or communications--or you might find it rewarding to do something completely unrelated. Wherever your career takes you (or has taken you), working as a technical writer is engaging, dynamic, and can help you achieve your professional goals.