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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.