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.

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).

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

Try Technical Writing by Taking the Advanced Tech writing Course at CSUDH

IMG_0720 Do you like to write and would love to do it for a living? Try technical writing. No need to be a ‘techie’ or scientific guru. With practice, you can find out how technical writing is a great tool in a writers tool box.

Students who want to take the Advanced Technical Communication course so they can get right to creating portfolio pieces (before they take the Introduction course) are welcome to do that. The class is immersive. I teach the Advanced course and we focus on creating a portfolio of pieces (which is normally requested by potential clients and employers) and are a great way to learn how to write even if you want writing as your secret weapon in your job. We write a lot.

Some of the things I cover in the advanced class include presentations, reports, proposals, and step-by-step instructions. Check out my FAQ page for answers to the most asked questions I get in the course. The class is totally online and you will come away with several portfolio pieces. I’ve had students get jobs before they finish the program.

For more detailed info, check out California State University Dominguez Hills’ web site at:

http://www4.csudh.edu/ceie/Technical-Writing/

Welcome to the New Year and check out classes at CSUDH

It’s a new year everyone and I wanted to take the time to wish everyone an exciting and fresh start. I’d also like everyone to know that a new semester at California State University Dominguez Hills starts next week on 1/12/15 and I will be teaching classes for the College of Extended & International Education.

If you are looking to kick off the new year with adding new skill sets in your writing, getting a certificate or just a refresher and would like to learn online instead of driving to a University then check out the classes offered in the completely online certificate program in Technical Communication at CSUDH.

I teach the Advanced Technical Communications course and the Information Design course where we work on portfolio pieces providing the student with samples to present to potential employers as well as practical learning experience. I’ve had the privilege of having both international students from other countries such as Russia and Japan to local SoCal students so please take a moment to check out our program.

CSUDHLu Kondor has worked in engineering and technical writing at major visual motion picture and visual effects studios with more than 25 years experience in the entertainment industry. She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Society for Technical Communication, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and Delta Mu Delta International Honor Society in Business. Lu holds a doctorate in business management and has taught as adjunct faculty at CSUDH since 2007.