What Does It Mean to Know How to Write?

A lot of people feel confident in their writing abilities in an organization. And many times one’s writing skills are perfectly suitable for the task. Other times they are hopelessly below readability. Why do so many people think they can write when they really can’t?

One reason may be context. A person may be skilled at writing e-mail, but writing an 800 word article is another matter. A person may be skilled at noting steps to reproduce a bug, but articulating a complicated help procedure requiring multiple sequences and prerequisites can be more difficult. A person may be good at coming up with 140 character tweets, but organizing 1,000 help topics in a structure that makes sense to a variety of users with different skill levels is another task.

It seems that writing is a spectrum skill, so you have people who get by all the time with email, Powerpoint presentations, and other written content. This leads them to believe they can write in any situation. But that is only one end of the spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum we have original idea development, organization of lengthy arguments, style and flow and voice, and a host of other elements that require more advanced abilities.

The Writing Spectrum

It’s kind of like miniature golf versus real golf. Should a person who excels at miniature golf expect to excel at real golf, exclaiming proudly that he or she golfs? Should someone handy at putting on bandaids feel confident about handling an emergency room situation with scalpels and needles?

The argument can even apply to technical writers themselves. Just because one is a technical writer, it doesn’t mean the ability to write extends beyond help material. We have to remember that writing ability is relative to the task. When you move from a help manual to something else, like an op-ed in a newspaper, or a lengthy critical essay, or a book or novel, at some point the writing ability is strained.

In fact, writing help itself has several levels to it. On the outset, it seems like a simple formula: identify a task, explain why a user would want to perform the task, and then list the steps required to complete the task. But on a deeper level, how do you identify all the tasks your audience needs to perform? How do you organize all the information in an easy-to-find way? Why is it when users go to help, they rarely find the information they need?

So even technical writing has a variety of writing skill levels, and while one person may confidently write a help topic, the ability doesn’t necessarily extend to organizing a useful help system.

What’s concerning about the belief that “anyone can write” is that it persuades people with deeper writing abilities to look past writing and seek other skillsets. I’ve moved in the direction of screencasts, layout and design, and content strategy. But my greatest strength is not doing any of these. It’s writing. That’s my core talent. And while at the lower level, anyone can write emails and come up with okay interface text; they can write simple help topics and product announcements. If you need something more difficult, like an engaging corporate blog post that attracts new community members, or an in-depth report for senior leaders that keeps their attention, or a how-to course to teach people to use a complicated system, you actually need someone with more advanced writing skills. If these people have moved on to other specializations that are more valued in the long run, they do their company and themselves a disservice.

Sep 19 update: For a better exploration of this topic, check out Mark Baker’s Three Components of Writing Skill. Also check out Ellis Pratt’s response.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, DITA, and more. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog.Email

62 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Know How to Write?

    1. Tom Johnson

      Dang, I should have included that one but it wasn’t on my mind. I’d put copywriting right near the top (requiring a lot of writing ability). I can never come up with good taglines or catchy copy.

      Reply
  1. Ellis Pratt

    In that situation, you have the opposite side of the coin to your statement: “A person may be skilled at writing e-mail, but writing an 800 word article is another matter”

    A person may be skilled at writing an 800 word article, but writing a catchy three word phrase is another matter! :)

    Reply
  2. Marilyn Canna

    Very thought-provoking piece, Tom. To Ellis, I would just like to suggest that many good writers are also good editors–of themselves as well as others. And, that copywriting can actually improve one’s writing and work ethic (concision, deadlines, not owning one’s content). Many of us writers who learned our craft 10-15 years ago are lost in the current delirium that passes for communication and strategic content generation. I just read a review of the new film, Contagion, that has an apt comment–certainly not meant for all online writers. In it, a physican played by Elliott Gould tells a blogger, played by Jude Law, that blogging is not writing; it’s graffiti with punctuation!

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks for commenting, Marilyn. It’s unfortunate that there are so many bad blogs, graffiti passing for punctuation, because it then gives a black eye to the whole blogging genre, not too unlike the way poor help content gives the help genre a reputation for uselessness.

      Reply
  3. Marcia Johnston

    Hear, hear! I like your analogies to golf and first aid, Tom.

    So much of the conversation among professional communicators these days is about everything but the writing. It’s about content strategy or information architecture or usability or findability. All of those things are important. But writing is the sine qua non. Good writers with those “deep” skills are rare and undervalued.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Marcia, I completely agree. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the technology and to overvalue tech skills at the expense of writing skills. The idea that “anyone can write” has been damaging, because it persuades people who really can write that their skill is valueless.

      Reply
  4. Craig

    What I find fascinating is that people express polite interest when I tell them I work as a technical writer. They express HUGE interest when I tell them I can fix toilets.

    I’m no plumber, but I’ve gotten my hands dirty inside enough toilet tanks to know how to fix them.

    I say I’m a tech writer. They say, “You’re a what?”
    I say I can fix toilets. They say, “WOW! That’s great!”

    It certainly made me stop and think.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Craig, excellent example. I do freelance wordpress consulting on the side of my regular job. Few people have ever asked me to create content for their site, yet in creating a site, that’s the most important element. As you say, people value the technical.

      Reply
  5. Vinish

    An important point is that if a very good technical writer often writes ordinary or poor emails, is it because of poor email writing skills or that the *weightage and respect* is not given to good email writing skills?

    Two, I would say that there are some writing areas that need *training, and/or experience, and/or skill* like fiction writing, copywriting, and essay writing. However, there are some writing areas that should be strong areas of all technical writers such as *writing emails, and presentations*.

    BR
    Vinish

    Reply
  6. Mark Baker

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I think you are exactly right that there is more to the art of composition than is often implied by the word “writing”.

    However, I’m not sure that abilities of this kind can be plotted on a single scale. Let me illustrate by way of an analogy (one of those skills of composition that is not necessarily implied by “writing” alone!).

    I know how to program. I understand the fundamentals of programming and I have a pretty good grasp of the basic programming models (procedural, functional, object-oriented, etc). I know a fair amount about a number of languages, can program in several or them and can read a few more. Does that qualify me to be a software developer? In the general case, at least, no.

    There is more to being a software developer than knowing how to code. You also need to know algorithms, architectures, and design patterns. I was not trained in computer science and so I don’t know the full set of algorithms, architectures, and design patterns that a person with a degree in computer science should know.

    What I do know, and know well, are the particular algorithms, architectures, and design patterns related to text processing and content management. In that particular field, I am a good programmer and a good software designer and architect. Ask me to build an embedded system or a device driver, however, and I have nothing to offer.

    It would make no sense to try to position text processing and device driver development one a single scale. To do so would imply that you needed the skills to do the one lower on the scale in order to do the one higher on the scale, and that is not true. They are actually completely different skill sets, with only a basic shared computer literacy to connect them. You can be a world-class expert in one and yet know bupkis about the other.

    So it is with writing, I believe. You can be skilled to a very high level in the algorithms, architectures, and design patterns of one kind of writing, and know nothing about those of another kind of writing.

    This means, of course, that the modifier “technical” in “technical writer” claims knowledge of a particular set of algorithms, architectures, and design patterns for creating technical guidance information. Everyone may know how to write, but not everyone has the specific domain expertise of technical writing.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Mark, good point. I think you’ve highlighted where my model breaks down. One doesn’t progress linearly from one writing skill to another. Still, I would like to think that if you master one type of writing, it will make the other types of writing easier.

      Reply
      1. Mark Baker

        Hi Tom,

        I agree. Text processing skills have nothing directly to do with device driver programming skills, but they both build on a common base of programming knowledge and skills which would certainly make it easier to transition from writing text processing applications to writing device drivers than it would be, say, to transition from pottery to writing device drivers.

        Similarly with writing, writing novels and writing technical manauls may have little speicific in common, but the shared ground of oranizing and managing large writing projects would certainly make it easier for a novelist to transition to writing tech manuals than for a cake decorator, say, to make the same transition.

        Reply
  7. Mary

    Great post! It’s also interesting that those with the worst writing skills are often the most confident in their writing abilities while more adept writers are more likely to realize their own weaknesses.

    Reply
    1. Heidi

      I personally think, Mary, that inept writers tend to be more defensive about their writing instead of confident, which makes them less open to the type of criticism and practice that would improve their skills. Good point, though!

      Reply
      1. Mark Baker

        I think it this: bad writers write for themselves; good writer write for other people. It is easy to be confident in your ability to write for yourself; less so to be confident in your ability to write for other people.

        Reply
  8. Heidi

    I quote Ratatouille for this… “I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” I find this quote to be widely applicable, in the art of writing as well as that of coding or anything else. I remember one person who told me that he could write, therefore me pursuing a degree/career in writing wasn’t very “valuable.” However, this person lacked the passion for writing that gave me more of the discipline to improve my skills. Am I a great writer? No. Will I be great? Maybe. But, in the mean time, I’m getting lots of practice, and I’m extraordinarily passionate about it. That helps make up for my deficits.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks for your comment, Heidi. I like the quote, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Very true. I think it’s good to keep this in mind. A developer who has never taken an English lit class in his or her life might turn out to be a tremendous writer, or not. Background doesn’t always translate.

      Reply
      1. Tim Penner

        You’re fortunate to find yourself in a situation where long timelines are tolerable. There are those who regard velocity AND final quality an essential combination of ingredients in the production of content. Your reply nearly implied that haste might necessarily yield lesser final quality; but, again, there are those who would brook no such compromise. I refer you to the instructional site of Daphne Grey Grant who extolls prose quality and velocity as conjoined attributes of able corporate wordsmiths.

        Reply
        1. Mark Baker

          Tim has a point. One answer to “anyone can write” is simply, “yes, but not everyone can write fluently”. Fluency comes with constant practice, and increases productivity several fold. Unfortunately, for many techincal writers, lack of fluency in the domain cancels out any advantage that fluency in grammar and composition may give them.

          Reply
  9. Larry Kunz

    It’s not a simple, straight-line continuum, Tom. The ability to write bug notes doesn’t presuppose the ability to write SMS texts, emails, PowerPoints, and tweets. Some writers (like Ellis’ copywriters) are skilled at writing pithy little bits. Others excel at 800-word essays. Still others are best at book-length pieces.

    What makes some people “good” writers is their ability to distinguish themselves in a wide range of these formats. Even then, many (probably most) very good writers will have areas in which they fall short. I think I’m pretty good with technical and persuasive writing. But don’t ask me to write plays or poetry: a couple of long-ago creative writing courses proved conclusively that I simply can’t handle those genres.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks Larry. Another commenter (Mark Baker) pointed out that a similar problem with my argument — that I portray it as a linear continuum. I still like to think that a skilled writer could handle any writing situation, but you’re right, there are significant differences between poetry and copywriting and proposal writing, and mastery of one doesn’t necessarily carry over into the other forms. In a way, though, the point of my post was exactly this point: just because someone excels well in one writing medium, such as e-mail or newsletter text, it doesn’t mean that ability extends into other writing endeavors, such as an essay or help system.

      Reply
    2. Laura Castle

      I agree that the ability to write novels well does not necessarily mean that that person can write technical documentation well. In fact, a novelist will probably have a hard time cutting back and being “less creative”. In my case, I believe I can write technical documentation well, but have a very hard time “turning off” the structure and writing creatively.

      So, in case anyone is keeping track, I agree that all writing skills cannot be compared linearly. But the article was still very interesting, Tom!

      Reply
  10. Tim Dall

    I found this quote from Mark Twain. “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

    Reply
    1. Melanie Blank

      Tim, this is a wonderful quote, thanks.

      (But what the heck is a quire of paper? An antiquated term for a ream, perhaps? Will have to check it out. Reminder to self: excellent Scrabble word!) :)

      Reply
    2. Tom Johnson

      Thanks for the quote, Tim. I like it, and agree that articulating ideas is an art. However, I also think good writing is interesting because of the ideas. A good writer is an interesting thinker. I dislike it when people treat writing as if it merely involves stringing words into pretty sentences. In my view, writing is thinking. It is all about ideas.

      Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Just admitting that humble perspective is probably step one in learning how to write. In this post, I’m trying to explore why people don’t feel the need to ask that question.

      Reply
  11. NoveltyHoliday

    “If these people have moved on to other specializations that are more valued in the long run, they do their company and themselves a disservice.”

    Perhaps, but I believe this situation in general is a problem in which writers, especially those deciding on a degree, are struggling with. A Jay-Z lyric comes to mind that I feel parallels this conflict: “But what would you rather be: underpaid or overrated? / Moral victories is for minor league coaches…” So with that said, I don’t see how the disservice should fall upon the individual. A commonly held belief is that you “pay for quality”, this can be seen in negotiations of a used car sale to multi-million dollar sports contracts, but the market value of something is the context in which quality is framed, and it is almost too obvious–again for those trying to decide on a future–which paths lead to a sense of fulfillment as well as freedom.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      I don’t quite understand what you’re saying, but I’m interested to understand it. Can you recast it with a bit more plainness? My point about the disservice is this: if Shakespeare or Chaucer had lived in an age when writing wasn’t a valued skill, so they turned to something else, like tent-building, wouldn’t they be doing a disservice to themselves and others? Similarly, writers today who really have talent but dismiss it for something more valuable and financially viable are trading their birthright for porridge.

      Reply
  12. Tim Dall

    “Anyone can write” is the result of the value placed on the product that is produced, not the experience or ability of the writer producing the content. The value of the content is not determined by the reader or the length of the document. Content is valued by the decision makers who are balancing resources, risk, and the market to determine what expertise they need to produce an acceptable level of quality.

    A politician may place more value on the tweets and emails made by their staff than a drug company will place on a white-paper of a medication. Risk will determine the skill level of the writer selected and how they are rewarded.

    There is no disservice when a writer moves to a non-writing role. Writers will have a prejudice towards written content, and hopefully when they move to other areas of influence their prejudices will help convince decision makers to evaluate content differently – and for the better.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Certainly the value of writing depends on how others perceive it. An essay may be brilliantly written but miss the essential business purpose entirely, and therefore be useless.

      About the disservice, I do think writers who neglect their gift, trading it for something more economically sustainable, aren’t making the best decision. Of course we’re all subject to the financial mandate of our breadwinner roles, but I like to think that we could find a way to use our talents to better our organizations, even if those talents aren’t always highly appreciated.

      Reply
  13. Laura Mahalel

    Thanks, Tom. This post makes me feel sooooo much better at not being able to Tweet or post good Facebook statuses. It even makes me want to blog more.

    Reply
  14. Melanie Blank

    What a great post, Tom! And the comments are terrific, too.

    I’m reminded of how strange it was for me at first to move from writing “linear documents” to doing topic-based authoring and online help. Now I feel very comfortable with both and move back and forth between them as needed…. I’m sure others can identify with this.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      There are excellent comments on this thread. About moving from one type of writing to another, I think much of it is merely learned technique. The core writing ability remains the same. For example, a good writer may approach a help topic poorly until you point out that you should use numbered lists and be super-detailed. Once the writer understands that technique, he or she can implement it easily enough. But the teaching basic writing skills of organization, clarity, and style are much harder.

      Reply
      1. Melanie Blank

        “Core writing ability” – I like that! There has to be something that transcends all these different modes of writing, I think. A lot of it is grammar, I guess…

        Reply
  15. Jonovitch

    I think most people equate “writing” with either the vocal ability to string a few words together or the physical ability to use a pencil or keyboard, which we all learn to do as very young children.

    Since “everyone” can “write” (even little kids!), it has less value in general, even if a few people in particular are really, really good at it.

    It’s what I call the Red Green Syndrome (“If I can do it, it ain’t art!”).

    Sadly, too many high-school students therefore think good writing is the ability to use big words and construct complex sentences. Sadly, too few teachers bust that myth.

    When I give something to a fellow writer for review, I often tell them, “If you have to read anything more than once to understand it, it’s written poorly, so please let me know about it.”

    If only all kids would learn *that* rule in elementary school.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Interesting quote — “If I can do it, it ain’t art.” I think you’re right: skills that many people can do are not highly valued. For example, I think the prevailing trend now is to see bloggers as bloated content writers, cranking out words without a lot of substance and meaning. It’s because there are so many people blogging that it becomes a skill few perceive with high value. Good point.

      Reply
    2. Laura Castle

      “Sadly, too many high-school students therefore think good writing is the ability to use big words and construct complex sentences. Sadly, too few teachers bust that myth.”

      I completely agree! Almost every paper that I edit for someone who isn’t a professional writer is full of superfluous content. One of the best books I’ve read on writing clearly and concisely is “Style: Ten Lessons In Clarity and Grace” by Williams. I wish this would be part of every students’ curriculum.

      Reply
      1. Ellis Pratt

        Let me know what you come up with! Potential measures could be: Expression, adequacy of content, cohesion of information, compositional organization and mechanical(grammatical) accuracy.

        Reply
        1. Meghashri Dalvi

          I Like the graphs. I think “vision” and “comprehending the whole picture” should be part of the measurements. The copywriters get them right.

          Reply
  16. Pingback: Three Components of Writing Skill?

  17. Tom Johnson

    Once I write about a topic, it usually settles in my mind and I move on. But it seems like every day I’m confronted by the same illusion I wrote about in this post. People submit articles to me for our tech blog that demonstrate poor writing ability, and I think, why does this person feel so confident in his or her ability to write?

    Almost always, the sentence style is all right, and it flows well enough. But there’s no substance, no real information, no original thought. They’re floundering around for something to say. Which means that “to write” must be a poor label for the activity which I really want: interesting thoughts.

    Reply
  18. Anne Baxter

    Excellent post and comments! What’s always bugged me is how many documentation managers believe that anyone can write. In hiring situations, they often focus on tools knowledge instead of carefully querying candidates about writing skills, most likely because they themselves do not know what the qualities of good technical communication are. And then those managers often assign “Getting Started” or “Overview” material to the least experienced writers on their team, even though that type of materal is much harder to write!

    And in my career, it’s also been those same managers who have pressed me to “move up” to other positions, such as information architecture, that require different skills because they think those positions are “more challenging” and “better” than being a really good writer. It happens that I like information architecture too, but it’s certainly a different skill, related to composition but much more complex—similar to the band-aid vs. surgery analogy.

    Human society always functions at its best when each individual is allowed to and encouraged to perform the role that they like best. Managers should read the book “Now, Discover Your Strengths.”

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      “Human society always functions at its best when each individual is allowed to and encouraged to perform the role that they like best.” This is an interesting assertion. How does this compare with Yeat’s saying, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” What if the role one likes best is at odds with one’s greatest talent? For example, maybe I *like* to act, but I’m a better writer. Does society still function at its best if I pursue acting?

      Reply
  19. Anne Baxter

    I beleive that Yeat wrote that as an expression of despair with society, not as an optimistic expression of how society might work best. See this website for the full poem and an analysis: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html. Here’s another explanation that I think sounds correct: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100401130137AA4g9u3

    My saying “like” was probably too generic. What I meant is more a matter of encouraging people to find what they are most passionate about. Passion includes both “liking” an activity and also having the determination to pursue it on a daily and continual basis, through thick and thin. I submit that you probably have a greater “passion” for writing than you do for acting :-)

    Reply
  20. Jiji Thomas

    I can’t agree with you more when you say that one needs advanced writing skills to carry out difficult tasks. In general, to merely know how to write does not make you a good writer. If that was the case, we would be seeing at least one bestseller being churned out daily. Having said that, I believe technical writing has a flip side, which gives it a completely different outlook. When you take out the creativity out of writing it appears anybody who knows how to write is good enough for the job. To that extent, it is justified. When you talk about tasks that needs special writing skills, one needs to rethink and probably relearn.

    Reply
  21. aftonbladet

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