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.

Read 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.

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/

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.