While reading through the instruction manual or documentation for a new software or hardware, have you every stopped to think of the professional who wrote it … a Technical Writer?
Technical writers have to document systems, processes or product / software features in such a way that anyone reading the material can understand it with little or no additional outside help.
Technical writers may write or describe a very technical system to a general, less-than-technical audience.
At other times, technical writers may even write for a highly specialized, skilled or technical audience.
Regardless of whether a technical writer is working on on-line help, user manuals, proposals, web pages, newsletters, white papers, design specs or system manuals, his/her goal is always to communicate clearly with the audience.
The rest of this post is devoted to giving you a lot of detailed information about the skills, career. job prospects and mindset of successful technical writers in addition to answering questions such as:
- What is a technical writer?
- What is the job of a technical writer in an Information Technology (IT) setting?
- What is the job outlook and compensation for technical writers?
- Who Hires Technical Writers?
- What Factors Drive The Demand For Technical Writers?
- What Does A Typical Day In The Life Of A Technical Writer Involve?
- What Are The Soft Skills, Personality, Hard Skills, Training And Education of Technical Writers?
- What Are The Toughest Challenges Facing Technical Writers?
What Does A Technical Writer Do?
A technical writer in the Information Technology industry communicates technical information clearly in written form to technical professionals like business analysts, project managers, software developers or less than technical end users or customers.
This typically means writing user manuals for software products, creating documentation for projects, documenting processes or system designs or even preparing technical specifications documents.
The duties of a technical writer involve more than just writing documents.
It usually starts with research and then goes on through several editing cycles before the technical writer’s documents are ready to be published or distributed to consumers or end users.
Research As A Technical Writing Skill
When the technical writer is assigned to a project, the first step is to thoroughly research the subject material.
Once enough research has been done, the technical writer will then create a document which communicates information in clear, useful terms. This document is usually tailored to a specific audience.
If it is an end user manual, it will be written in using simple, common terms terms, for instance, than a document written for a technical expert who actually enjoys reading or thrives on highly technical literature.
Editing a Technical Writer’s Work
After a document is written, most technical writers will submit it to editors for review and approval.
This review may be done by one’s peers, an editor who specializes in technical editing or even by a manager.
The editor will check for basic things like proper spelling, grammatical errors, citation and reference style etc.
The editor will also confirm that the document is detailed and clear enough for the audience that it is being created for.
Publishing a Technical Writer’s Work
Once a technical writer’s work is approved by the editor, it is ready to be published;
- As a user’s manual along with the software or hardware it describes
- As an online help site for a web-based or intranet audience or
- As part of a trade journal
What is the job outlook and compensation for technical writers?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job prospect for technical writers is on the increase even in the current economy.
One reason why the demand for technical writers has increased is that online services or publications are hiring more skilled or professional technical writers as the e-businesses and online communication section of the economy continues to accelerate and play a bigger part in our global economy.
Who Hires Technical Writers?
Software development firms hire technical writers to help with developing software / user manuals and online helps.
Web marketing companies and e-businesses hire technical writers to help with releasing their products.
What Factors Drive The Demand For Technical Writers?
The demand for technical writers is driven by the growth of online services and publications.
There is a demand for skilled technical writers who can convey highly technical or specialized concepts to end users who are not familiar or skilled in the technology, product, system or process that is being described.
A Typical Day In The Life Of A Technical Writer
The first thing in the morning, that a technical writer may have to do, is check their calendar to see what is scheduled for the day, such as meetings.
Next, they will prioritize each task to make sure that tasks with the highest priority are done first.
Meetings are usually top priority because of the information that may be gained by interacting with stakeholders, users, clients and other professionals like business analysts, subject matter experts, computer programmers or project managers.
The number one rule for a technical writer to be successful is to know their audience well. with that said, meetings are important to a technical writer’s career because they are useful for gaining new perspectives and additional knowledge.
If there are upcoming software or product releases, then technical writing tasks may even take high priority at the project level because the technical writers’ work (documentation) has to be ready or accompany the product that is being shipped or released to the market.
Research and Analysis Skills for Technical Writers
The first step in a technical writing project, often a research task, is characterized by reading lots of technical specifications or program literature
Research for technical writers may also involve using beta mode evaluation of software / product for a better hands-on, first-hand knowledge.
The next step is analysis. The technical writer must restructure all the new information as well as existing documentation after research is completed and before writing begins!
The writing starts with preparing a draft document that includes existing writing.
The document may highlight all the areas which have been changed or newly added so that the editor can quickly scan the document for changes and not have to review the entire document.
Technical Writers – Stay Ahead of the Technology Curve
In addition to daily writing or meeting tasks, technical writer have to stay up to date on technology by attending professional meetings and technical training that helps them understand their products, systems or processes function.
They may have to read a great deal and even participate in support calls from users of the product so that they understand better, the challenges facing the users of their products.
Technical writers have to attend additional classes, webinars, conferences or even watch educational television or other videos on the topics they are writing about.
Technical writers also have to be involved in gathering business / product requirements and in software or product testing as this helps further their knowledge of how the product or software works.
In addition to this, technical writers have to stay up to date on the skill / training requirements from their employer’s Human Resources (HR) or Information Technology (IT) department.
What Are The Soft Skills, Personality, Hard Skills, Training And Education of Technical Writers?
The skills needed to become a technical writer include strong written communication skills, a strong desire to instruct people and the ability to read or understand new technical literature in a short time.
A college degree in journalism, English or communication is a good place to start for the technical writer’s educational qualifications.
A technical writer needs to be patient while researching a topic and also show the ability to receive criticism because a writing piece may be revised, reviewed or edited multiple times before it is approved.
Finally, a technical writer must be a good teacher or be skilled at explaining information in a step by step manner.
Why Knowledge of Computer Programming Is Helpful to Technical Writers
While knowledge of programming languages is not required for technical writers, they may need the ability to read flowcharts or logic flows, the ability to review or document application program interfaces (API) or web service methods and the ability to read or code in HTML, XHTML or even CSS! because that is helpful for creating online or web-based documentation.
Technical Writers Are Detail Oriented
A technical writer needs to be detail oriented. Generalizations are good to sum things up in a hurry, but the purpose of a technical writer is to provide detailed instruction and information.
If a step is overlooked in the writing process, it can mean the difference between success or failure for the end user or reader of the document.
Depending on what the technical writer is writing about, this could prove to be disastrous on a number of levels. The least of which could be confusing the reader by leaving out an important step.
Technical Writers Need The Ability To Prioritize
A technical writer also needs to have the ability to prioritize.
Accomplishing the most timely tasks first is of utmost importance.
If a technical writer misses a meeting, for instance, he / she also may miss many important updates or new information that is vital for finishing the project.
So, meetings are usually high priority for technical writers. If a technical writer misses an important meeting, the end result may be an inability to understand or document “how to the system works in a critical place”.
Technical Writers Need Critical Thinking Skills
There are college courses and books that can be used to develop critical thinking as this is a wonderful skill for technical writers to have.
Critical thinking is used every day in the life of a technical writer.
Technical Writers must be skilled at asking questions about what readers or end users must know or learn from the documentation to achieve their goals.
Other questions that technical writers ask may include:
- Where should this information be included that’s best for the user?
- What will be most confusing about the process you are writing about for the end user?
- How can you make it less confusing?
What Are The Toughest Challenges Facing Technical Writers?
Technical writers may sometimes have to deal with feeling as though their time is being waster or that their work is futile or tedious
Sometimes a technical writer may have to erase their work and start from scratch based on feedback from editors or end users.
Sometimes changes may be requested at the last minute or for insufficient reasons as far as the technical writer is concerned.
So it’s important for a technical writer’s career that he / she stays patient or manage their personal feelings of frustration or discouragement during the editing process and not feel like the editing is a judgment on their entire life.
Final Thoughts on The Technical Writing Industry
Don’t be fooled, while a technical writer’s job may sound somewhat tedious or boring at first, it involves a great deal more just than sitting down to write technical documents.
The readability or ability to write in a way others can understand has a huge impact on the work flow of other Information Technology workers who use depend on the technical writer’s work. This includes business analysts, software developers or project managers.
To do a good job, a technical writer needs to be not only a great writer, but a great communicator in every regard.