Five Skills Every Technical Writer Needs

A listener to the Tech Writer Voices podcast suggested I do a podcast on the following:

Give ideas to people who are just starting out in technical writing. What is the base of knowledge that every technical writer should have?

And so in preparation for the podcast, I offer these five skills or characteristics as absolute musts for the technical writer:

1. Facility with technology

You have to be somewhat technical, although there are many different kinds of technicalese. You may have a bent towards one of the sciences, and can understand the inner workings of cells or atoms. Or you may be web savvy and know how to interpret code. Or maybe you’re just curious about how things work. You can learn technologies you don’t understand, if you have the motivation. I personally enjoy learning about complicated systems. This understanding brings a sense of achievement and knowledge that is rewarding at the end of the day.

2. Ability to write clearly

The essential skill of any technical communicator is to disambiguate (to use a word my father introduced to me the other day). Your core job will consist of taking complicated things and trying to explain them in easy-to-understand ways. You can’t just pass off an explanation you only half understand. Writing about something (as opposed to talking about it) requires you to understand it thoroughly. Avoid passive sentences and long constructions. Go from old ideas to new. Define acronyms and avoid assumptions about what the user knows. Make the reader feel smart.

3. Talent in showing ideas graphically

I underestimated the importance of using Visio until just a few months ago. Any time you can show an idea graphically, you score a hundred points with the reader. Almost everyone is a visual person. People understand better when you can communicate your ideas visually (and I’m not just talking about screenshots here, although they do count for something). It is surprisingly easy to create half-decent diagrams in Visio. They go a long way toward making your writing clear.

4. Patience in problem-solving/troubleshooting

Unless you have patience, you’ll never make it. I think 80 percent of IT work consists of problem solving. What do you do when you can’t figure out how to do something? Do you slam your fist into your keyboard? Do you scream and curse when you can’t immediately figure something out? It’s amazing how you can see a seemingly impossible problem through with patience and persistence.

5. Ability to interact with SMEs

I talked about this in my last podcast on Tech Writer Voices. Interacting with SMEs is one the most overlooked skills in technical writing. You have to be part investigative reporter, part journalist. You can’t be shy about going after certain people to extract information. And you can’t be too proud to ask the “dumb technical questions” that make engineers do double-takes. A lot of this interaction can come about if you’re lucky enough to simply sit near SMEs.

I know I’m missing a few more essential qualities. I’d like to add a few more here. Any ideas?

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

29 thoughts on “Five Skills Every Technical Writer Needs

  1. Scott

    You can add the ability to learn quickly — either to gain an understanding of a product or concept, or to ask (semi-) intelligent questions.

  2. roGER

    Something that is really important is a lack of ego, or at least keeping your ego under control.

    Nobody writes a perfect first, second, or even third draft. You must be able to accept and welcome comments and criticism of your work by other people, especially those who edit your work.

    It’s always surprised me how many technical writers appear sensitive to criticism, even when it’s friendly and well intentioned. They take it personally which is an amateur approach – a professional is simply glad that the end product is better.

    Your list is good, but actually I disagree about the technology thing. The closer and more comfortable you are with technology, the easier it is to make a series of false assumptions about the skill level and motivation of your target audience.

    Remember we generally teach people how to drive the car, and what the various instruments and warning lights mean and what action to take if a warning light comes on.

    Fascinating stuff like how the internal combustion engine works, how the transmission works, and how the suspension copes with a variety of forces and conditions is irrelevant and boring to most drivers.

    In fact, yet another skill of technical writing is deciding how much information to leave out – SMEs often have a problem with that.

  3. Janet

    Interesting comments, Roger, and I’m inclined to agree. I edit a fair amount of computer documentation, including docs for IT people, and people regularly ask me whether I understand it all. In fact, I don’t, at least not to the extent that you’d want me in your IT department. But in some ways I think my ignorance is an advantage in identifying inconsistencies and places where information is missing.

  4. Heidi Hansen

    This goes along with patience, but Task Analysis skills are a must. If you do not have the patience to weave your new feature into existing concepts and existing procedures, you fail to think about your persona and their task. You can understand the technology and provide graphics all day (and those are great), but unless you can create a task that catches the persona’s eye to guide them to your procedure, your Help is probably inferior. You need to be patient enough and analytical enough to create a brief task (or alter an existing task) and possibly a new concept that give the persona exactly what they want after they search in your Help system. Your critical thinking skills are essential here, too, because you must always be asking yourself questions, such that you provide the bigger picture as well as the details to help them (questions such as “If XZYPersona arrived at this topic, what would their FAQs be, and does this topic answer those?”).

    Glad you’re back to posting frequently again, Tom. Great stuff.

  5. Tom

    Thanks for your thoughts Heidi. You make a good point about the task analysis.

    Utah is a great state — I just got back from camping in the mountains. It started snowing right before we left, and it’s still snowing now. I haven’t seen snow for a long time.

  6. Daniel

    I think at number 5 you should add the ability to insist on getting the information you need from the SMEs, especially when working in a company where technical writing is perceived as a side activity. Maybe it doesn’t seem too important, but sometimes it’s a real struggle to get the SMEs understand that I need information to get my job done.

  7. michaelevan

    Tom,

    I love your column, and by dint of your nature, you have created that which previously you may have lacked: an organizational knowledge base (i.e., “wiki”). (That’s a magical quality to have too, you know: being a “quick study” as they say.)

    Perhaps another one that is missing from your list: project management skills. I cannot count how many times that I have intended to publish something but was held back because of my boss/editor grudgingly admitted to being a “bottleneck”. How do I keep track of all those documents that I have in progress?…I won’t even begin with stories here as there are too many to tell.

    So, ahem, yes. Project management skills are a must!

    Another quick thought: How about replacing your header(above)for number 5 with: interpersonal skills or personal mediation skills?

  8. Tom

    Michael, thanks for the comment. You’re right about the need for project management skills. I’m planning to do a podcast on this topic something in the coming weeks, and I’ll be sure to include this point.

    While project management skills cross over into tech writing, some aspects of project management seem beyond the scope of what most tech writers do. While tech writers need to keep track of dates and deliverables and push through editorial bottlenecks, is it the tech writer’s role to hurry along developers? Or to try to stick our heads into other departments (for example, Q&A) and ask them what they need to complete their tasks? I guess we do need to interact with other departments more than we are inclined to, so I agree with you in part.

    One common theme uniting project management with tech writing is the ability to see the larger picture. Both project managers and tech writers get the birds-eye view of the project, whereas many developers only create a small aspect of the whole.

    I didn’t see your blog URL. Do you have one?

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  10. michaelevan

    Tom,

    I guess you are right. In some tech writing jobs more than others, project management is required. (God help the tech writer who works in a vacuum.)

    In general, however, I find this skill to be largely underestimated. By both employers and employees. It’s not just tracking the document’s progress, but also keeping it on track–i.e. assuring that you (the writer) meets a deadline, regardless of another’s inability to respond.

    No blog. No time. Other interests.

    I did visit Utah lately, though. Late last July, my girlfiend and I drove through, and we made enough time to visit the Canyonlands National Park. It was quite beautiful. I have travelled a fair amount, and I have never seen such a rare collection of rock formations in one place.

    Be well.

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  12. Craig

    Interesting points from both Tom and Michael regarding project management.

    Technical writers may not need to keep developers on task, but they might be expected to do so with other writers when working as a project lead. For large multi-writer projects, the lead writer may be responsible for setting the pace of the entire project, coordinating boilerplate changes and sharing them with all writers, filtering comments from SMEs, and handling negotiations with development managers.

    Often mentoring relationships among writers are used for passing the project management torch, and the lines can get blurry. Sometimes there is no formal difference in rank or job title between writers, but the experienced team members step up and handle project management roles until newer writers get a grasp on the project.

    I think that project management roles can get fairly complicated, even for a technical writer. Project management skills should definitely be on the list.

    Great post!

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  14. Cliff

    I alomost agree your comments.TW should have the skills.

    But how to get the skills ,in other word,the learning path,is not mentioned in your column.

    And what is the TW total skill map is very important for the IT industry,especially in China.

  15. Sandy

    Hi. That’s an interesting read. However what do you think of the employability as a TW for someone who has never had hands on experience in the IT field? I’ve been an HR Generalist for five years and is currently attached to an IT company but my interest for writing and to become more “technical” is growing and hence the consideration to switch my career path. Any advice on how to get started at all will be much appreciated. Also, what do you think are the transferable skills to becoming a TW, interest aside? Thanks.

  16. Sand

    Hi. That was an interesting read. However what is the employability for someone who has never had hands on experience in the IT field? I’m an HR Generalist for five years and am currently attached to an IT security company. I’m not technically sound but my interest for writing and to become more “technical” has fueled me to consider changing my career path. Any advice or recommendation to get started in this profession? Also, what do you think are the transferable skills that i can brush up on to prep myself for this challenge? Thanks. Much appreciated.

  17. Sandy

    Hmm my browser hanged for a while, and i thought the first post didn’t go through. Sorry for the repetition. :)

  18. Cliff

    you can add the some topics how to how to evaluate the delivery carried by a TW. To evaulate whether a product O&M function is good or not, the ITUT standards can explain it through FCAPS.As I know ,so far, for the documets,there is no a general quality model and index to evaluate.

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  20. Fran

    Good article! Thanks as it was so relevant today (12/3). Just left my manager’s office where we discussed an email thread that appeared to say I was out-of-line by requesting a software change but not through the normal challenges. Actually, all I did was ask why something worked the way it did and stated it needed to be changed. I discovered the discrepancy while writing a functional analysis for a new project.

    So add self-confidence to your list of skills. Because I am self-confident and very organized (not naturally but by experience), I was able to show my manager my actions through emails. As it turns out, the IT person involved is not self-confident and has a huge ego so I got the blame in a very long email thread where I was not copied. My manager knows me and just wanted me to be sure he knew about the isse. Still it was good to be able to document my actions and leave his office with my conficence intact.

    Now, back to work!

    Fran

    1. Tom Johnson

      Fran, thanks for adding your comment to this post. I agree that self-confidence is a huge quality to have. I think my self-confidence has helped me get respect and integrate well as a valuable member of projects I’m on. Without self-confidence, I think one wouldn’t do well in this field, especially because tech writers are often marginalized.

  21. gilles

    Do you believe that VISIO is a must for a technical writer, and perhaps an instructional designer.

    It seems to me. Got one cheap? Do you need M Office 2007 for 2007 VISIO?

    gilles

  22. Ceri

    Good read. I’m reasonably new to Tech Writing (about 15 months into a role as a TW after 15 years in technical support) and I’m learning that organisation skills are crucial. I’ve never been very organised. In fact, I’ve been diagnosed as dyspraxic, dyscalculic and dyslexic; the dyspraxia diagnosis has very much opened my eyes to how difficult I find organising anything!

    Not only are organisational skills important for the Project Management side of things that was mentioned in previous comments, but it seems to me that an important part of technical writing is about organising topics into a cohesive and logical whole (or ‘book’).

    1. Tom Johnson

      I’ve been diagnosed as dyspraxic, dyscalculic and dyslexic

      Wow, seems like life would really be challenging with this conditions. I’m not sure that organization in life translates to organization with content, though. Might be like apples and oranges. My desk drawer is messy, for example. But I hope my thoughts in writing are clear.

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