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How Important are Specific Software Skills for a Technical Writer? 

Software Skills for Technical Writers Post Image

Being a technical writer requires an individual to have a variety of skills, not the least of which is a strong sense of communicating to a target audience. However, many a technical writer has been passed over for employment because the tech writer lacked experience with a specific piece of software – such as Adobe’s Framemaker. Unfortunately, this can extend so far as insisting on experience with a specific version of the software or else that candidate can be vetted out of the hiring process very quickly.

While in some cases insisting on experience with a specific software tool may be justified, employers shouldn’t overlook the fact that technical writers are skilled in learning and then passing on what’s been learned to others. If the technical writer doesn’t fully understand the product or software he or she is charged with documenting, presenting information about that product or software in clear terms is impossible.

In the case of technical writers who specialize in software documentation, the tech writer is charged with reading about and using the software, consulting whatever existing documentation is available, and then discovering the software’s hidden nuances and intricacies. Additionally, the same tech writer may not have had experience with a specific software tool being used by the employer or client, but may have had to learn to use an equally difficult or even more complex software tool in his or her past.

How much of a stretch is it then to think that such a tech writer wouldn’t be able to pick up on learning a new software tool quickly and soon become an expert in its use?

Use It Or Lose It – The Technical Writer’s Dilemma

In some cases, a technical writer may have had training on a specific software tool. In fact, he or she may have had more training than someone who is currently using the tool but who is not yet making the most of its available features. However, because that perfectly capable tech writer does not yet have experience using the tool on a project, the writer is turned away. Without direct experience on a project where the tool is used, it’s likely that this tech writer’s training will soon prove to be near worthless. In using and mastering a complex piece of software, the old “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” saying can be painfully true.

Ten Years’ Experience or One Year Times Ten?

Just as there are technical writers who have no experience with a documentation tool like RoboHelp, there are those who have used RoboHelp but still don’t get it. They don’t know much about the software and have never taken the time to master it – they are using it in a robotic manner because they are told they have to. Whenever they run up against a problem they have to find help. Ironically, some won’t even take the time to look for an answer within the tool’s own documentation.

The question then becomes: “Would you rather hire the tech writer who has experience with a specific software tool who could care less about mastering it, or a technical writer who doesn’t yet have experience with the tool your department is using but who is curious and eager to learn? Especially if that writer has a strong knowledge of the underlying technology that the tool uses – such as a knowledge of XML or HTML.

Other Skills Can Trump Software Knowledge

A very strong technical writer who has great writing skills, strong technical skills in other areas, good interviewing and listening skills along with good people, time management and project management skills is often a far better match for a documentation project than one who is deficient in some or all of these areas but is experienced with using a specific piece of software.

Additionally, a technical writer who has experience with a prior version of the software tool should also be considered. Differences between versions are typically not at all difficult to overcome – especially for someone who by their nature has a sense of curiosity about how things work.

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8 Comments

  1. By Daceyon 31st, May 2011 at 4:47 am

    Software skills are very necessary for technical writer because technical writer writes the documentation related to software then he must have the software knowledge.Nice post

  2. By editoron 31st, May 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Dacey:
    Thanks for your comment. I agree that if the writer is documenting software he or she needs to know that software. What the post was referring to was specific technical writing tools, like MadCap Flare, RoboHelp or Framemaker. Most competent technical writers already know how to learn how software works on a quicker than average basis. The question is, if you found a very competent Tech Writer who didn’t know Framemaker would you reject that person for another, possibly less talented or capable Tech Writer who was familiar with Framemaker?

  3. By Maion 26th, December 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Excuse me, i need to ask .. which the most important programs the technical writer needs in his career to progress ?? .. thanks

  4. By WAI_editoron 31st, December 2014 at 10:33 am

    Ask 5 technical writers and you’ll probably get 5 different answers to that question. Many beginning technical writers start with a strong knowledge and skill set with MS Word. I doubt you’d get noticed much without at least that skill. Beyond that, it really depends on the specific employer and what they want. MadCap Flare, RoboHelp, Framemaker and Adobe Acrobat seem to be most in demand and have been for several years, at least for software documentation. I’d suggest you look at job postings in your area to draw some conclusions as to what is most in demand for the types of companies and type of writing you’re most interested in.

  5. By Maion 2nd, January 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you WAI_editoron .. you answer was helpful so much ..

  6. By David Bosson 10th, December 2015 at 9:37 pm

    Adobe InDesign is fairly common these days as well. You also typically need photo editing software (Photoshop) and drawing software (Illustrator),

  7. By Gabrielle Fletcheron 8th, August 2016 at 5:08 pm

    I just found this website & enjoyed the article. I teach college composition & will be teaching a technical writing class in the spring. I was wondering if some of your writers might be interested in participating in a collaborative project? In one of my composition courses this fall, I am having students contact specific published academic authors (the course is based upon a specific topic) to discuss the author’s writing process, style, and challenges. I believe “real world” authentic experiences typically are highly successful, & I think I could incorporate something similar to this with technical writing, if I had a cadre of interested tech writers willing to help! What say you?

  8. By WAI_editoron 10th, August 2016 at 9:33 am

    Gabrielle
    Thank you for the comment and the compliment. Our best suggestion would be to contact the Society for Technical Communication (https://stc.org/). Someone from Writing Assistance, Inc. will reach out to you directly.

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