The role of a technical writer is a challenging one: creating manuals, articles, instructions and other supporting content that communicates technical information and processes in a comprehensible way. In a nutshell, a technical writer simplifies the complex.
But breaking things down and explaining them simply is easier said than done. Therefore, I’ve put together a list of must-have skills that every professional technical writer needs to continually master.
- The Art of Asking Questions: Getting the information you need isn’t always easy. In fact, there are times when you feel more like an investigative reporter than a technical writer. Interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) can be a challenge. They have a lot of information but are not always the best at communicating what you need to know and leaving out what you don’t need. You need to manage this and represent the interests of readers.The best technical writers come to SME interviews well prepared having already read the background information available and with questions ready. You can’t be afraid to ask “dumb” questions and be sure to repeat back anything they explain to you to confirm that you actually understand what they have told you.
- Writing Simply: The ability to write concisely is essential for every kind of content, including technical writing. Keep your main communications goals in mind and stay focused on what readers absolutely need to know using as few words as possible.Not sure if your writing skills are up to par? Give yourself a quick test: Choose a topic that you already know well and try to explain it in writing to someone who has no knowledge of the subject. If you have a hard time communicating your knowledge in simple terms, a great resource is the classic guide On Writing Well by William Zinsser. The book was published in 1976, but Zinsser’s ideas are as relevant as ever today.
- Conveying Information Graphically: The written word is just one element of technical documentation. Most people are visual learners, so being able to conceive graphics, diagrams, photos and other easy-to-understand visuals can make a huge difference to the users who rely on technical documents.
- Usability and Testing Skills: Many clients invite technical writers to participate in testing or to work with the user experience team. This is a great opportunity to get in the mindset of users and go through the sequences that they will need to go through. Getting actively involved can help improve the quality of your documentation and ensure it’s focused on the needs of end users.
- Patience and Perseverance: Most veteran technical writers will cite patience and perseverance as two of the top traits you need to succeed. It can sometimes be difficult to get hold of the SMEs and developers you need to interview. Other times, there might be one elusive piece of information that you just can’t seem to track down. Don’t give up when these frustrating situations crop up – keep your goal in mind and power through!
Whether you’re new to technical writing or a veteran, continuing to master these skills can help you continue to land technical writing jobs. The key is to not lose focus on the end goal of your document or your readers. If you do, you’ll find that you’ll be able to produce one of the more challenging types of content that’s always in demand.