Over my multi-decade career as a technical writer, I’ve learned about radars, mainframe computers, weather satellites, Chinook helicopters, air conditioning systems, furnaces, material handling systems, printing presses, cameras, process equipment solutions, and medical devices. And, now I’m blogging on a regular basis. Not bad for an English major from LeMoyne College.
From my perspective, being a technical writer has been a fun and exciting experience. It has provided me with an opportunity to interact with a variety of experts in their field, have a career I enjoyed, travel, take an extended hiatus to raise my children, and then return to the profession I loved for a second full-time career. For the past few years, it has also offered me the flexibility of working from my home office.
In the early days:
When I first came into the profession in the 60s, the primary skills needed to become a technical writer were:
- A college degree—preferably in English Studies or Journalism
- Ability to write well and convey information to the intended audience in an easily understood manner
- Ability to create your own graphics, if necessary
- Attention to detail
- Good interviewing and listening skills
- Ability to interact with engineers, scientists, illustrators, typists (we wrote our drafts in long-hand back then), and printers
- Patience (turnaround times were really slow)
How things have changed:
The worlds of communications and technology have evolved dramatically in the past two decades. Advances in computer and communications technologies have allowed technical writers to work from almost anywhere—home, office, even on the road—as well as interact with people from around the globe. As a result, the modern day technical writer must be able to assimilate complex information quickly and be comfortable working with people from diverse professional and cultural backgrounds. Their ability to work under pressure and in a variety of work settings is also essential.
In addition to excellent writing and communication skills, technical writers must now be able to express ideas clearly and logically in a variety of media. They need to be proficient with electronic publishing, graphics, and sound and video production. Also needed is knowledge of computer software for combining online text with graphics, audio, video, and animation, as well as the ability to manage large, complex, and interconnected files.
6 Skill Sets Every Modern Day Technical Writer Needs to Succeed
Like any profession, becoming a technical writer requires a mastery of certain skill sets. The following is a sampling of what a modern day technical writer needs to bring to the table to be a successful technical communicator.
- Write clearly, concisely, and precisely. The ability to write well and convey information to the intended audience in an easily understood manner is still the primary prerequisite.
- Be proficient in using the tools of the trade. Knowing your way around computer systems is a given. You also need to be able to learn quickly and become proficient using computer applications associated with producing your documentation such as Adobe FrameMaker, MS Word, MadCap Flare, RoboHelp, Photoshop, and Illustrator.
- Be able to select the proper support visuals needed to enhance the written word. To a growing extent, the technical writer needs an appreciation for graphics and formatting as well as illustration skills. For many organizations, the technical writer must collaborate with the subject matter expert (SME) to obtain engineering drawings and the illustrator to design and develop the needed support graphics. Technical writers are often responsible for taking their own photographs too.
- Have a natural curiosity for exploring things technical and learning how they work. The technical skill of a technical writer depends greatly on the subject matter, product, or service that requires documentation. Most writers expand their knowledge through experience in the profession or by taking specialized technical writing training.
- Know how to ask questions and learn from the answers. Interacting with SMEs is one the most overlooked skills. You have to be part journalist and part investigative reporter. And, you can’t be too proud to ask the "dumb technical questions" that make engineers do double-takes. When setting up an interview or review, consider the personalities and preferences of your SMEs. Make sure you have all your questions ready up front and that you understand the answers before you leave the meeting. If a follow up is needed, schedule it then.
- Refine the art of patience and persistence. Unless you have patience, you’ll never make it as a technical communicator. I hate to say it, but most SMEs tend to drag their feet when it comes to a timely turnaround for reviews. It’s a delicate balance, but with a little persistence, they can be trained.
Technical writers and communicators add tremendous value to a documentation project and to the organization that employs them. They make information more useable and accessible to those who need that information, and in doing so, they advance the goals of the organization.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Technical Writers
Society for Technical Communication, Inc., About the Profession
What skills sets do you think are also critical for the modern day technical writer? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Is your company lacking these skills sets that are critical to support your customers with user-friendly documentation?