Do You Have What it Takes to Become a Technical Writer?
by Brett Hau
You can’t answer this question until you know more about what being a technical writer involves. This article shows you what a technical writer’s skill set might look like and what skills they need. As you read, you may find that a technical writer looks very much like you.
Technical writers create documents to communicate complex and technical information simply. The specifics of the job vary from company to company and industry to industry. But, broadly stated, a technical writer creates or gathers information and then organizes and presents it in a user-friendly manner. This could come in the form of a web page, in-software or in-app help, a video tutorial, blog, wiki, and more.
Do you already have what it takes to be a technical writer? Read on and see how many of these characteristics fit you:
Love of learning
If you enjoy technology and finding out how things work, you have the aptitude for being a technical writer. Maybe you always have the latest gadgets, but never even look at the manual. You don’t read manuals when you start using a new product, device, or app—you just expect to figure out how it works. Why? Because you like to investigate, explore, and figure out what it does. If you have had previous experience figuring out how products and technology work, from problem-solving to creating new products, this shows that you have the mindset to learn new things.
Teach and give directions
Being a technical writer means that you need to be able to break down complex information and make it simple. You have to know how to use language to give the users exactly what they need when they need it. Perhaps you have experience in teaching a course, conducting user training, or supporting new products. These all show you have the skills to break down a process to pass on information and give direction.
Attention to detail
As a technical writer, you have the natural ability to follow up on details. You’re the one who finds the one typo in an article or notices when someone misuses words. These traits will help you produce quality documentation on the job. As often as not, you will be also doing reviews, proofreading and editing of your own work, as well as others. Think about the work you have done. Have you helped your boss edit presentations? That may be technical editing. Do people come to you to get emails and reports checked? That’s proofreading.
Work well with many different personalities
Technical writers often depend on others to provide critical information. It’s important that you are able to get along with and communicate with your colleagues. You will be interfacing with multiple teams or departments, more often than most other roles. You have to be part journalist and part investigative reporter.
You can’t be too shy to ask the “dumb questions” that make engineers really think about their answers. You have to work with everyone at the level necessary for successful communication and collaboration. Sometimes that means you have to know that one person talks a lot about random subjects when you’re trying to get information. Another person’s short answers aren’t anything to take personally; they are just shy.
Have you often had to deal with customers, or talk and work with many people from different teams in your current company? This can show you have the skills to work well with others as a technical writer.
If one had to choose the most important characteristic a technical writer could have, it would be flexibility. If you’re not able to roll with the punches, you’re not going to be able to stay sane. You shouldn’t break a sweat when you’re asked to change from one “emergency” to another, and then back to the first one. The ability to manage your own time and keep many balls in the air and to know which ones need attention, regardless of what anyone says, will be key wherever you work. Do you have experience working on many different projects at the same time? Are you able to decide which order “emergencies” should be dealt with? Having these strong personal time management skills are a huge benefit for you as a technical writer.
The final skill of any technical writer is to write. But, unlike some of the other skills or traits talked about in this article, this skill can be learned. Yet, your core job will consist of taking technical material and trying to explain it in easy-to-understand ways. Writing about something requires you to understand it thoroughly. You need to enjoy being able to make the reader feel smart. Think about your past work – have you written personnel guidelines? That’s procedure writing. Developed flowcharts or reports? That’s related to document design and procedure analysis.
Because of the nature of the work, technical writers come from many different walks of life. Most technical writers usually started out with one of two things: an aptitude for writing or an aptitude for technology. If you can write, be prepared to learn the tech skills. If your aptitude is for technology, you have an important skill to offer employers. But, you had better brush up on those writing skills. What makes you an employed technical writer is the ability to convince an employer that you can do the job well.
Have a look at your past experience regardless of position or job title. Emphasize everything you’ve ever done on any job that relates to technical writing. There is no such thing as a perfect technical writer. But, if you find that you have many of the traits we talked about, you might just have the right stuff to be a great technical writer.
About the author
Brett is a former Pixel Pusher and Code Slinger, turned Technical Writer. An Aussie expat living in South Korea, he has more than 10 years of technical experience across multiple organizations from a variety of industries. You can connect with Bett through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or [email protected].