So you want to be a technical writer?

A light-hearted look at what makes a good technical writer.

Technical writers come from an eclectic range of backgrounds. The role call of technical writers includes psychologists, linguists, scientists, worm farmers and so on. Regardless of where they come from, a good technical writer will have a range of traits that allows them to churn out beautifully rounded, meticulously researched, eminently readable documentation at the drop of a hat.

When you consider the myriad array of work technical writers are involved in, it is no surprise that they need an equally varied array of skills and attributes, technical, personal, and artistic.

Technical writers distil complex scientific or technical information into a form understandable by a non-technical audience. They produce user guides, installation and maintenance manuals, training material, marketing materials, presentations, proposals, technical reports, product advertisements, pamphlets, brochures, in-house publications and so on. They use a range of tools to generate help files, web pages, multimedia presentations. They can manage the inclusion of illustrations, photographs, diagrams, and charts. They can work with a business to understand and document their policies and procedures. They can enhance their documentation with navigation controls, tables of contents, indexes. They can produce ergonomically designed layouts, and assist with user interfaces. They can contribute to technology magazines and web sites. They can work in a diverse range of environments, deal with people at all levels in an organisation, and cope with multi-fold crises with aplomb.

A good technical writer, as you can see, is the da Vinci of the current age.

This article provides a checklist of a range of useful, sometimes requisite, traits and attributes for aspiring technical writers. Read through the list and see which of these traits you think might apply to you. Then check the result against the scoring that follows to discover if a career in technical writing is your cup of tea.

Empathy: Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. This is a critical trait. Most writing projects involve the writer putting themselves into the shoes of their intended audience, and understanding the world from their perspective. Without this the writer may well describe a product, such as a piece of software, from the software side of things, completely failing in writing instructions that address the audience’s needs. Empathy helps also when the writer is interviewing the ‘knowledge experts’, to fully understand their needs and capabilities.

Precision. As a technical writer you need to have a good grasp of the facts. Facts can be a bit slippery so you need to describe them accurately, precisely, allowing little room for misunderstanding. Quite often you can only ascertain the facts from your own research, rather than relying in hearsay. If someone tells you that the X button prints a report you need to go and press the X button and see if this is in fact the case. Your description of the facts needs to be relatively precise. You need to call a spade a spade. Rather than saying, “the report prints pretty quickly”, you would say “the report prints within 15 seconds”. A good writer therefore can breakdown the world into its components parts, understand how they work and describe their workings precisely and accurately to the reader.

Logic. These facts you have gathered through methodical research need to be bound together with the string of logic. If A, then B otherwise C. This flow of logic underlies most technical documentation, and is fundamental to a writer’s skill set.

Effective communication. Obviously written communication is the bedrock of documentation. However, as a writer you also need to be able to convey your ideas and requests verbally while gathering material. Equally, you need to be able to listen, take cogence of what people are telling you, master the art of note-taking and be able to read your own handwriting.

Degree. Some tertiary degrees may seem more apt than others for someone pursuing a career in technical writing: English literature, languages, journalism, science and technology for instance. Degrees that provide a broader range of knowledge also tend to breed good technical writers: psychology for instance. A degree that combines writing and technology is particular enticing to employers. None the less, simply having a graduate or post-graduate degree in itself is indicative of: an aptitude for learning and research, an ability to write at least reasonably coherently, an ability to focus on a goal and persevere to achieve that goal, and a general set of skills without which you would not be able to get a degree. The lack of a degree would probably need to be supplemented by a greater level of experience.

Domain knowledge. Specialised knowledge of a particular industry such as health, finance, worm farming and so on can complement a writer’s basic skill set.

A good grasp of grammar. This may seem like a given: the ability to write grammatically correct and logically constructed sentences. Knowing the difference between a “dangling gerund” and a “circumstantial adverb”, or the meaning of the word “theomania” (belief that one is a god), and other grammatical nuances is useful.

You can write well. While anyone can learn the basics of grammatical construction, the proven ability to be able to write simple, elegant English is something you either have or don’t have, like charm. Consider the following extracts (the authors and novels should be obvious but are given at the end of the article):

“There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor- boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.”

Or this:

“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness; the wood-cutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of a twig would make you start. We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.”

Yes, being able to write is a basic requisite to being a writer. Aspiring poets or Pulitzer Prize winning novelist may not be able to resist throwing in similia on top of metaphors in rivers of eloquent and thought provoking rhymes. Yet, strangely enough, company mangers and their ilk do not expect their policies and procedures, or marketing collateral, to read like the third act from MacBeth. Technical writers need therefore to curb their latent excess of prose. If they can do that, and write in a clear and simple style they are well on their way to earning a living based on putting words on paper.

Informed. A writer should have a curiosity about the world at large. They might know, for instance, that a “jiffy” is an actual unit of time for 1/100th of a second, or that Tibetans, Mongolians, and people in parts of western China put salt in their tea instead of sugar. Particularly they should be able to keep abreast of developments in their area of interest, such as the current trend in mobile phone technology or the latest advances in superconductors.

Interpersonal skills. Like communication skills, a pleasant affable personality and ease with other people goes a long way in the field of technical writing. You may have to interact with a lot of employees with different roles, such as programmers, engineers, managers, and the like. The fact that they feel comfortable talking to you in the first instance makes everything else a lot easier.

Temperament. The flipside to social interaction, is the ability to spend long hours at a desk in a dark room, working on your own, unsupervised, to a deadline, and not crack up. Or you might find yourself in the middle of a war zone, with projects running late, missed deadlines, juggling multiple tasks, the coffee machine not working, and still be able to keep your head above water, to exude an appearance (on the outside at least) of calm fortitude. A composed, even serene temperament will help you ride out these long nights of the soul or moments of turbulence and choppy waters and other maritime analogies.

Professionalism. Technical writers for the most part live and die on their reputation as ethical, reliable professionals. You need to be able to garner the trust of your clients who have faith in your ability and commitment to produce quality material in a timely and cost effectively manner. Betray this trust and your reputation will surely precede you.

Organized. A writer’s desk may look like the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo, but underlying its outward signs of rampant chaos will be a logical and structured organisation. As your desk may reflect the inner workings of your brain, a writer will need to be able to organize themselves and their oftentimes complex work in an affective, productive manner. A disorganized approach to things will quickly lead to the unravelling of any writing project that has a modicum of complexity. On the other hand, an obsessive-compulsive personality, where you need to feel a need to hone your writing to the nth degree may be counter-productive as the real world intervenes.

Aesthetic appreciation. Quite often your beautifully constructed sentences will need to be given some design considerations, such as font selection, colour use, page layout and so on. Like writing ability, aesthetic style is for the most part God-given. If you weren’t one of the chosen ones then leave it to the experts.

You don’t want be famous. Strange as it may sound, there are no famous technical writers (except perhaps Robert Pirsig “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – but then no-one knows he’s really a technical writer). Technical writers work away in the background and rarely get any cachet. All technical writers are, of course, writing a seminal novel, so may still become famous in their own lunchtime.

Good pair of shoes. Aspiring writers may see themselves hunched over their computer keyboard banging out rivers of words, filling up forests of paper and punching holes in the ozone as they burn the candle at both ends late into the night … but in reality a large part of the work of a technical writer is walking about tracking down disparate bits of information, cornering staff and eliciting information out of them (diplomatically of course), and generally running about. Thus the need for a good pair of shoes. You do get to sit down and write from time to time but that’s a luxury.

Sense of humour. Along with everything else, you need a good supply of coffee, a comfortable chair and a sense of humour. So we finish this foray into the prerequisites required of a good technical writer with a description from the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (reproduced from the BBC’s H2G2 site):

“Technical writing is the art, craft, practice, or problem of translating that which is logical into that which is grammatical.

Technical writing forms a bridge between the logical (the primarily binary concepts understood by computers, robots, lawyers) and the illogical (the haphazard, inconsistent concepts misunderstood carbon-based life forms, highly intelligent computers, lawyers) via the medium of the grammatical, the haphazardly logical system incomprehensible to both.

The practice of technical writing presupposes that you, the illogical, actually want to learn about the logical subject, which of course is in all cases false. This basis in a false presupposition makes technical writing a pursuit typically favoured by those with arts degrees from obscure universities.”

Scoring:

12-17: You are God’s gift to the world of technical writers. Works of literary art flow from your fingertips and people stand back in awe as you sashay by.

6-11: Yes, the world of the technical writer is for you. You may hit a few speed bumps along the way but mostly it should be plain-sailing (to mix metaphors).

0-5: Don’t despair – this is not a scientifically constructed questionnaire, so, with a bit of effort and dollops of experience, you too may well one day join the blessed rank and file of technical writers.

Extracts: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1926), and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).