Important Skills Technical Writers Need for Success (Part 1)

In this multi-part series, I’ve compiled a top list of skills that are important to be an effective technical writer and technical communicator. This isn’t an exhaustive list but a basic outline of what most employers look for. Don’t underestimate simple concepts. Keeping things simple makes your job easier.

Don’t underestimate simple concepts.

Many people think they are really good writers but are they? Some writers are masters of prose, others are skilled in non-fiction and essay writing. That’s fine to think of oneself as a really good writer, but not all writing is the same. Anyone who writes for a living across multiple types of writing will tell you that. What you have to ask yourself is; can you write well as a technical writer?

Technical writing is different than prose or fiction. It is also different than business, textbook, or essay writing. Why? The goals of technical writing are different. Even though all types of writing have some things in common, the goal of what is being written is important. The goal of technical writing is to take data, whether raw or correlated, and decide what is important (and order of importance) and what isn’t important. Then turn it into coherent and cohesive information in a clear and concise written manner so that the reader can gain the knowledge they need. 

The goal of technical writing is to take data, whether raw or correlated, and decide what is important (and order of importance) and what isn’t important.

Excellent Writing Skills Are Important

I am often asked by students what kind of skills they need to be a technical writer. The first thing I say is “A technical writer requires excellent writing basics.” This covers two aspects or sub-skills.

  • Grammar and usage (including ability to edit)
  • Ability to turn data into information that a reader can use to create knowledge so that the final outcome is to perform a task, learn, or make a decision

The first is grammar and sentence structure. This is basic and almost anyone could guess why good grammar is important. Knowing grammar and sentence structure is the first step to writing a great document.  It also allows a technical writer to be able to edit material that comes to them as well as edit what they write themselves.

Do you know what an Oxford comma is and when to use it? What’s a run-on sentence? What is a gerund? These should be simple questions to answer. Remember, employers may ask about your skill sets, or even better, they will test you on it.

Catching Mistakes

Catching mistakes on documents is especially important in situations where catastrophic failure can result in injury, loss of property or life. For every poorly written technical document, there are repercussions even if there isn’t a catastrophic issue, an organization can still suffer a loss of revenue because of deficient documentation. If you have ever bought a product because you read it could do something, and then the product failed to follow the listed specifications, you understand.

The second is the ability to turn data into information that a reader can use to create knowledge. The outcome for the reader is to have enough knowledge to perform a task, learn, or make a decision. The ability to convert data into information for a targeted audience so they can skim for basic information, scan for a particular piece of information, or read word-for-word to learn as much as possible takes practice. All of these methods provide knowledge to the reader. The reader applies that knowledge so that they can decide how to take action. That action may be as simple as performing a task, learning something new, or making a decision.

Performing a task can be simple. How to load software on your computer, assemble a piece of furniture from the local box store, or execute a standard operating procedure (SOP). It can also be complex, such as a SOP that provides a safe method for taking a boiler offline for maintenance, learning what instrument readings to monitor to prevent an explosion, or setting up a temperature transmitter in a hazardous environment.

Learning can take many forms and can be tied to task performance or decision-making. Learning can stand-alone as well. A person can learn for the sake of learning or to build future skills. For example, reading on updated industry certification standards for equipment or learning a new computer network technology. Learning can easily be tied to a variety of technical writing formats. Learning can also come from video, interactive applications, podcasts, or other media. Have you ever watched a video on a newly released phone, tablet, or device just to learn what all the buzz is about? Then you have watched technical writing in action.   

Decision-making for a reader is probably one of the more complex aspects of document usage in technical writing.

Many users will need to make a decision on spending money, procuring a service, or taking (or not taking) an action. For example, many process industry engineers read specification sheets to determine if they will recommend the purchase of a particular brand and model of safety device. CTOs may read up on particular enterprise-wide software or hardware investments. Organizational leadership receiving an environmental report passing EPA requirements for environmental hazards may decide no further action is necessary until the next required testing. Still others such as human resources could read a SOP and determine it is missing a newly updated safety standard required by regulators and will take action to have the document adjusted.

Many users will need to make a decision on spending money, procuring a service, or taking (or not taking) an action.

There are a number of reasons why users need to make a decision, perform a task, or learn something new. This concept ties in with knowing the target audience of the document and their needs. That is why the best way to begin is to start with the basics. A technical writer that has a strong knowledge of grammar, sentence structure, and the ability to take a broad range of data and organize it in a coherent and readable fashion is at an advantage. But remember, a document needs to be designed not just for the readability of the document’s target audience, but it must adhere to any rules, regulations, and ethics required to make the document clear, concise, and accurate for the user. Lives may depend on it.

Coming up: Part 2 of Important Skills Technical Writers Need for Success includes a style guide discussion, knowing your target audience, quality control, interviewing subject matter experts, and more.

Try a Reading Index to Check Your Readability

What is a reading index? I’ve been asked that many times in the past. A reading index is a way to calculate writing to see if the text matches a reader’s grade level. This is also known as readability.

There are a number of reading indexes out there including Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Flesch Reading Ease, Gunning Fog Index, SMOG, Automated Readability Index, and more. If you use Word, you are probably familiar with Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Flesch Reading Ease. You can see this by using grammar and spell-check. If it doesn’t show up after you have used spelling and grammar, select it in the options (for the reading index) in the preferences and get the results for your document every time you run spelling and grammar.

Results from Word (for Mac) showing Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level & the Flesch Reading Ease

Rudolf Flesch worked on the Flesch Reading Ease in 1948 and later co-created the Flesch-Kincaid grade level in 1975 (Readable, 2021).

The Flesch-Kincaid grade level is calculated using a simple formula.

Flesch-Kincaid grade level formula

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Flesch Reading Ease are arguably the most popular reading indexes, although some organizations prefer using other choices such as the Gunning Fog depending on usage. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level is for overall general usage while some reading indexes are focused on other types of documentation such as education, healthcare, and business. The Gunning Fog is generally used for business and health (Boztas, 2017, et al.) as well as government.

While there are plenty of online reading index calculators, a writer can do the math themselves. The Gunning is calculated somewhat like the Flesch-Kincaid grade level.

Gunning Fog index calculation

A reading index is just another tool a writer can use, just like a spelling and grammar checker. Remember, it provides a method to calculate the complexity of written materials to match the intended audiences’ reading level. Be aware that reading indexes are useful but not perfect. Whatever formula you decide to use, a reading index is helpful if used correctly.

References

Boztas, N., Omur, D., Ozbilgin, S., Altuntas, G., Piskin, E., Ozkardesler, S., & Hanci, V. (2017, November). Readability of internet-sourced patient education material related to “labour analgesia.” PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5690750/

Readable. (2020, November 10). The Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. https://readable.com/blog/the-flesch-reading-ease-and-flesch-kincaid-grade-level/

Usability Testing is a Great Way to Understand if Your Technical Writing Works

Usability testing is one of the best ways of evaluating the quality of a document. A technical writer can use usability testing to ensure user-centered writing. Testing validates documentation by examining successful task completion, identifying any critical errors, determining the time it takes to complete a task, reader satisfaction using the document, and collecting recommendations for necessary improvements.

Usability testing is a great way to understand what works and what doesn’t work in a document.

The metrics defined and collected by the technical communicator will determine how to evaluate successful comprehension and task completion. These metrics are generally both qualitative and quantitative depending on how the information is collected and measured. Set up goals for data collection, metrics, and analysis before usability testing. Consider that documentation can be tested using a variety of delivery methods such as smartphones, tablets, computers, printed versions, web pages, etc. Ask yourself how will your end-user most likely use the document?

User observation can be collected using qualitative methods letting a test administrator see how a user will react to the instructions in the document. Are they struggling and need to scroll back and forth? When the tester provides feedback, are they reflecting this in their observations on your document? Each person who tests your document may, or may not, feel that a qualitative aspect is important.

A user’s reaction to document use is important because some users may stop using a document if they need to scroll or turn pages constantly. Others may not. Observation of a document tester is especially important if you are using only a single tester. The smaller the test group, the higher the risk that feedback can be myopic and not reflect all readers’ experiences.

A user’s reaction to document use is important.

Unfortunately, we don’t always have time or the resources to do usability testing depending on project size, project milestones, release dates, and type of technical documentation. Nevertheless, new technical writers and students should consider even single user basic testing scenarios when they can. Usability testing is a great way for new technical writers to understand what works and doesn’t work in their documents.

Large documentation projects may employ usability testing, especially if there is a lot at stake. Usability testing requires buy-in by management to be successful because of the allocation of resources and stakeholders. Not all management buys into usability testing. Unfortunately, most technical documentation projects are quickly written, updated, or reviewed by someone who may not be an editor, and the document goes out to the intended audience without testing. This isn’t a big deal on a small document but can lead to quality issues in large documents. The importance of testing does depend on the document, purpose, and intended update schedule if any.

One of the best ways to think about the value of usability testing is that you are doing a test run with readers to catch catastrophic issues. This is particularly useful with standard operating procedures (SOPs) or any step-by-step instructions for dangerous occupations, hazardous locations, or safety-related situations. Any document can benefit from usability testing, but technical writing failure is particularly visible with SOPs or instructions. This is critical in industries where a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of data and information can lead to catastrophic failure (loss of finances, loss of property, or loss of life).

To start testing, recruit a pool of participants that fit the profile audience of the readers you are writing for. This provides the best results. The usability testing participants, if possible, should perform the testing under the same conditions a reader would use the document. Even a single qualified participant can help identify any clarity issues a document has.

Recruit a pool of participants that fit the profile of the audience.

For students, new technical writers, or small businesses who decide usability testing is for them, I stress using a single reader to save money and time as long as the reader is similar to the intended audience. Only an organization can judge whether they need a large testing sample based on their own usability testing practices and the complexity of their document.

Whatever an organization decides to do with usability testing, remember it is a team effort with all stakeholders. No one works in a vacuum, especially technical writers. The testing process needs both management and the technical communicator’s buy-in to work. Students should use it in their work as often as they can until they get used to writing for a variety of audiences. Remember, if there is a team of technical writers and graphic artists that are designing a document, usability testing can save money by allowing any identified readability problems to be corrected quickly and efficiently before document release. Poorly written documents can reflect negatively on an organization, the technical writer, and ultimately can place a user at risk.

Start Your New Year with a Class in Advanced Technical Writing

Want to be a working writer or perhaps improve your writing for your job? The Advanced Technical writing class starts Monday, January 4th, 2021 at California State University Dominguez Hills. The course is completely online and students learn advanced technical writing techniques along with improving your writing skills. The class is hands-on as we work on putting together a portfolio while we learn. Portfolio pieces are an important aspect of applying for technical writing jobs to show a prospective employer your capabilities.

For this class, students may take it even if they have not completed the Intro course if they have some writing experience. The certificate at California State University Dominguez Hills consists of three courses. Check out the schedule page if you want to see the other classes. The entire program for the certificate is taught online (and will continue to be taught online). Find out more information on the CSUDH web site.

The technical writing certificate program is approved for funding through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

The Importance of Clear and Concise Communication

Recently I was doing a training seminar on technical communication. I reviewed what I wanted to discuss and thought about what technical communicators needed to pay attention to. Of course, the reader was the first thing that came to mind. Then I dug deeper. I realized it was how clearly and concisely any document is written for the audience reading it.

How clearly and concisely a document is written affects the reader in many ways. Readers generally skim, scan, or read word-for-word. It depends on their needs. Skimming lets a reader get an overview of the document. Scanning a document lets a reader find exactly what they are looking for without having to read the whole document.

Mainly these two methods of looking at a document let the reader find data first, such as test results, cost, statistics, or any other organized data. Usually once a reader finds what they are looking for they read word-for-word. Reading word-for-word allows a reader to pick up any details they may have missed and to get a greater understanding of what they are reading.

Technical writers turn data into information for their readers.

When creating a technical document, the first thing technical writers receive is data. That data could be test results, program code, interviews, phenomenological research, statistics, quantitative research results, or any number of other types of data. It doesn’t matter if the data is correlated, raw, or analyzed. As writers, we need to make sure when we get data, that we shape it into information so that the reader can skim, scan, or read it word-for-word.

We shape the information by organizing and presenting the data to the reader so that they can gain knowledge. Once a reader has the knowledge they need, they can then make decisions to take the correct action needed. Even if the reader decides not to do anything, the action in that case is deciding to do nothing. For example, test results show that lead levels are acceptable to government standards. No further action for mitigation is required for the report reader. They can schedule the next test if necessary.

This all comes back to writing clearly and concisely. If the writing in a document is not clear and concise, the technical writer doesn’t fully understand what they are writing. In other words, they don’t understand the data, the process, or the procedure enough to write information clearly and concisely for the document’s audience. Unfortunately, the document fails for the reader if they cannot turn the information in the document to knowledge.

New Semester at CSUDH – Study Technical Writing!

The Advanced Tech writing class starts Tuesday May 26th, 2020. The course is completely online and I look forward to meeting all new students. For this class, I allow students to take it even if they have not completed the Intro course. We work on putting together a portfolio as well as learning advanced technical writing techniques. This program is approved for funding through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Find out more on the CSUDH link below. #csudh #technicalwriting #technical #documentation #technicalwriter #writing

CSUDH Program Link

Check out more information at: Technical Writing Courses & Schedule

Learn Technical Writing at CSUDH

Using Technical Marketing

 Working as a full time technical communicator and professor for years, I have received quite a few questions by both my students and by various organizational management on what it means to be a technical communicator versus a technical writer. Yes– I said organizational management. Technical communication is a broad field from white papers to manuals, data sheets, technical blog posts, applications, how-to’s, video training instructions, vlogs and more. Today technical communication encompasses not just documents but all kinds of media and crosses other fields once thought to be silos in the workplace.

I want to discuss technical marketing. Working in this area of technical communication the last several years I have come to realize how much technical marketing relies on technical writing to take complex information and make it succinct.  Fields overlap in technical communication in general, which is why the term technical communication is commonly used today instead of technical writing. Technical marketing is one of the fields where there is even more overlap. Think of it like technical writing meets the marketing pitch. Confused as to how technical writing is used in marketing? This confuses quite a few people, so no worries.

Technical marketing is any type of marketing that concentrates on specifications and key product features that fulfill a need for customers and businesses (B2B) requiring an understanding of technical aspects of a product. Technical writing is used to convert product  information clearly and concisely for a user to gain knowledge. The buyer can make informed decisions on products/services or discover new products/services they might want. Think of technical marketing as a part of a bigger marketing plan in a technology related business.

Generally technical marketing is done in a high tech industry but it is becoming commonplace in fields not considered high tech. Businesses such as oil, gas, manufacturing are using more intricate product that are integrating tech. For example, the process industry is pushing the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). IIoT is being adopted so that instruments that were once siloed at a facility, are on their own Intranet relaying real time information for maintenance and monitoring.

Technical marketing supports customers and businesses who need to get information on the ever-growing complex tech market. Each aspect of a marketing plan can contain technical writing. Marketing automation, for example, can consist of email blasts and educational or nurturing drip campaigns that are used to deliver technical newsletters and key targeted technical information to customers who already have considerable knowledge in their field.

Social media can be used to deliver all sorts of technical content such as instructional videos, technical blog posts, and problem solvers to a wider audience. Inbound marketing opportunities can be created with useful technical examples, such as procedures or processes, posted on a company’s website with links to products to help solve a need.

Today technical communication is more important than ever in creating clear and concise content with the ever growing amount of information on the Internet. Technical marketing plays an important role in bringing products to market and technical information to customers.