I’ve compiled a list of skills that are important to be an effective technical writer and technical communicator. In the first post of this multi-part series, skills discussed were grammar, usage, editing, and the ability to turn data into information that a reader can use to create knowledge. In part 2 we look at additional skills technical writers need for success.
Know Your Target Audience
An underrated skill in technical writing is being able to determine your audience and understanding how to write for them. This starts with a basic overview of the primary audience. Are they the general public or a specialized smaller group such as scientists? Is the target audience all ages over 18 such as a medical provider or is there a specific targeted age group? As a writer define the primary reader for the document and then determine the secondary audience. Who else might read the material either in the future (will the document be archived) and what do they want from it?
Determining targeted information is a great way to write for your reader. Knowing the audience will allow a writer to target the proper age group and education level and increase the readability of a document. A reading index is a great tool on grade and reading level for readability.
Understanding Complex Concepts and Processes
This seems like a basic principle. A technical writer needs to be able to grasp technical concepts, clearly and concisely. In the classes I teach on technical communication, students know I always comment on how clear and concise their work is. Clear and concise writing is extremely important.
How can a technical writer write about a concept if they don’t understand it clearly and concisely? If a concept isn’t clear to the writer, it will come out in the writing. If the writing isn’t concise, you will lose the reader. Remember, more isn’t better in the case of tech writing. It is just more. Too much explanation usually means the tech writer does not understand what they are writing about.
Quality and Accuracy
Writers need to be concerned about quality. To be more precise, accuracy is important. There are times where the work must get out and so some quality is sacrificed. Accuracy should never be sacrificed, otherwise, there can be issues or failures related to the document. This in turn can be catastrophic in a safety or critical process. Injury, harm, or damage can occur to people and property. Can you imagine a mistake on a technical manual for a nuclear power plant or Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for an industrial chemical process?
Style Guide Knowledge
Style guides are important, especially if a technical writer creates documents for conferences, symposiums, or academic white papers. The use of a particular style guide varies depending on a client/employer, conference, symposium, academic paper, or knowledgebase article. Technical writers should know the difference between APA, CMOS, MLA, and other guides. I’ve even seen the AP style guide used depending on the technical writing assignment.
Did you know there is a style guide for Physics? It’s called the AIP style guide. AIP Style refers to the citation format established by the American Institute of Physics. There are other style guides by the American Mathematical Society, Geological Society of America, American Medical Association, American Chemical Society, and more. Remember, style guides are your friend. They give clear guidelines on how to write for publications and companies. Do some research and see.
Interviewing Skills, SMEs, and Researching
A very handy set of skills any technical writer can possess includes interviewing, interaction with subject matter experts (SMEs), and research. I have met too many people who think writers of any kind sit pensively thinking out the perfect document and work alone, producing masterpieces all by themselves. Too many beginner tech writers feel they can do it alone in the first draft for manuals and then are shocked to find their materials are flawed, grammatically incorrect, or missing information. I have yet to find the perfect assignment handed in after more than a decade of teaching tech writing. Writing just a single draft is not going to lead with quality or accuracy.
The idea of a lone writer is silly. In many of the jobs I’ve held, I was the only writer but I always worked in teams with experts, inventors, engineers, management, certification consultants, and dozens of other stakeholders. So interviewing skills, especially with experts is important. Learn how to interview people. Practice is the best way to learn.
Here’s where research comes in. Not only is research necessary for documentation, but a technical writer should do their homework and research the topic they are interviewing the SME for before the interview. That way they don’t ask basic questions they could find the answer online and waste the short amount of time allotted with the SME. An SME may get frustrates and end the discussion early, refusing to discuss more. That situation makes technical writing more difficult.
Ethical obligations are a part of technical writing. A big part. Ethics is in everything from representing technical information efficiently, clearly, and concisely so that the reader doesn’t feel like they have been tricked to avoid major safety concerns and potential loss of life. I consider ethics a skill because not only do you use common sense, a technical writer needs to learn legal implications as well as corporate culture in the organization that they work for to apply a broad scope of ethics.
Think about all the considerations there are for certifications in hazardous environments and what a business or technical writer needs to learn to work in certain industries. Diligence in making sure information is accurate affects all industries from pharmaceutical, oil and gas, nuclear, chemical, utilities, baby furniture, car seats, automotive, etc. Can you imagine incorrect procedural documents in the utilities or nuclear industries? There are also obligations to keep employers’ trade secrets, to the environment, the public, property, copyright, and liability laws. This list can go on and on. Remember, there can be legal repercussions to the technical writer if ethics are ignored.
This wraps up the two-part series on important skills technical writers need for success. There are other skills like software but the type of software used varies from organization to organization. So every writer must decide what they need to learn.
Lu Kondor has worked as a technical writer for more than 20 years for major corporations. She has a Doctorate in Business Management and has worked in a large variety of organizations including entertainment, software, electric utility, manufacturing, oil and gas, chemical, and nuclear process industries. She is an adjunct lecturer in Advanced Technical Writing as well as Information Design for more than 14 years.