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Newbie to Technical Writer in 4 Easy Steps

by Tom Johnson on Apr 3, 2015
categories: beginners

The following is a guest post from Kaylin Tristano, a new technical writer in the medical software industry. In this post, she shares her tips for transitioning into the field of technical writing.

I landed my first technical writing job about four months ago. I'd been working as a librarian and had no writing experience besides a few employee manuals cobbled together in Microsoft Word, so I felt clueless and a little nervous about my new career.

Naturally, on-the-job training and mentoring has played a large part in my technical writing education, but I wanted to get up to speed fast and avoid as many newbie faux pas as possible, so I did a few things on my own to acclimate myself to the job.

These are just a few easy ideas that any new technical writer can implement to hit the ground running:

#1 – READ!

This is no surprise coming from a former librarian, right?

If you know nothing about technical writing — maybe you're still deciding if you even want to be a technical writer — read James Gill's How to Get Started as a Technical Writer.

If you've already got the job but every other word out of your new boss's mouth is an enigma (DITA what now?), check out The Insider's Guide to Technical Writing by Krista Van Laan, which answers basic questions like, “what am I going to be doing all day?” and, “what standards and best practices do I need to know to avoid embarrassing myself?” and then goes above and beyond the basics into project planning, style guides, formatting, translating, and more. This book will make sure you have a solid foundation to grow on and the first time you hear a term like localization won't be in the middle of an important meeting.

Next, explore your resources — the software you'll use to create documentation, the programmers and engineers you'll work with, and of course, the product you'll document. Dedicate at least a couple hours every week to learning as much as you can about the documentation software and your company's product, because you won't get anywhere without a good understanding of your bread and butter.

Finally, brush up on your industry — you don't have to be an expert on medical billing to write about medical billing software, but knowing who you're writing for sure helps. Think short, sweet, For Dummies when doing this research.

#2 – Find a Community

Technical writers often work alone, and knowing where you can go to ask advice or simply connect with others in the field will go a long way toward assimilating yourself into your new profession. Of course, your coworkers and boss are stop number one when you have questions, but there are professional organizations, email lists, Twitter hashtags, a wide variety of blogs, and even a dedicated social network full of seasoned technical writers ready to offer sage advice and help you stay current and connected.

#3 – Keep a Journal

Have you ever started a new job and NOT been overwhelmed with new information in the first few weeks?

Didn't think so, and technical writing is the kind of work where you can look forward to information overload on a regular basis, not just while you're new. Do yourself a favor and start a daily or weekly journal on your computer — it doesn't have to be anything fancy, just set aside 5 minutes at the end of each day or half an hour at the end of every week to type up all your notes in a Word document.

Make a habit of writing down what you learn, and everything you need to do your job will be only a keyword search away.

#4 – Grow a Thick Skin

Technical writing isn't the sort of writing you do if you want to see your name in print — often, “your” writing will be reviewed, edited, and revised by your boss, other technical writers, and even other departments. You'll be asked to do re-writes, others will add to and alter your work, and by the time it gets published, it won't even look like your writing anymore. If you've never worked in this kind of environment before, it's easy to feel nit-picked or get defensive.

First, give yourself an attitude adjustment — technical writing is collaborative and iterative, and even though you wrote a thing, your job isn't about creating a personal body of work. You're contributing to the ever-evolving and growing documentation of your company.

Second, remember that it's not personal — you're being paid to convey clean, clear information in a way that aligns with your company's image, and the goal is to make that documentation one cohesive whole. Embrace the technical writing hive mind -- read your company's documentation and style guides, pick up on word choice and tone preferences, and when the criticisms come, don't make the same mistake twice and move on.

* * *

I'm certainly not a technical writing guru after only four months, but doing these things have helped me feel comfortable, confident, and optimistic about my career choice, and I hope they'll help you too. Just remember — your stellar writing ability almost certainly landed you your job, so just write something you'd want to read and go from there.

About Kaylin Tristano

kaylinKaylin Tristano is a newbie technical writer in the medical software industry, and a reformed librarian. She blogs about TechComm every Thursday and can be found on Twitter @theleastshrew. In her free time, Kaylin is editing her first novel, Thanks For Pepper Spraying Me: A Love Story.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the tech comm, be sure to subscribe to email updates below. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.