The Work of a Technical Writer
Whether you are a technical writer, or are looking for one, these are the skills essential for the job.
Wherever there is technology, there will be the need for technical writers. The craft requires a certain skill. One must be dispassionate, concise – even impersonal. While any writing requires creativity, technical writing demands that it be subtle. Those who are thinking of hiring a technical writer will need to know what to look for. Anyone wanting to become one needs to do some homework.
History of Technical Writing
Joseph D. Chapline is credited as the first technical writer of computer documentation. The January 2008 edition (page 21) of the IEEE Professional Communication Society Newsletter tells the story. In 1949, he wrote the user's manual for the BINAC computer. Chapline's 2011 obituary tells how he also worked on Moore School of Engineering's Differential Engine. And he created a comprehensive manual for Eckert and Mauchley's ENIAC. Chapline later returned to music, his first love, and spent the rest of his life serving as organist and choirmaster and creating pipe organs. He compared his writing of the BINAC manual to the musical composition process of Mozart. Chapline taught over 200 classes in technical writing before returning to the world of music.
In his Brief History of Technical Communication, Frederick M. O'Hara, Jr. claimed that technical communication started well before Mr. Chapline came along. He mentions the scientific records of the Aztecs, Chinese, Egyptians and Babylonians, cites the 12th-century invention of the algorithm by Tashkent cleric Muhammad ibn Musa Al’Khowarizmi, and traces the history of technical communication through the Renaissance and to the present day. He claims that technical writing owes much to the scientific method, and offers this adaptation of it:
- State the problem.
- Describe the method.
- Display the results.
- Draw the conclusions.
The Technical Writer's Skillset
The Society for Technical Communication website states that technical communication involves:
- Communicating about technical or specialized topics
- Communicating by using technology
- Providing instructions about how to do something
This definition seems rather broad, but so is the field of technical writing. Those in information technology are familiar with its importance in the documentation that we use every day. But the profession itself can extend to any technical subject. Here is a summary of the skills required of a technical writer, thanks to Writing Assistance, Inc.:
- Writing skills
- Technical skills
- Tools skills
- Interviewing and listening skills
- Design skills
- Usability and testing skills
A technical writer may be more skilled in one of these areas, but if he is lacking in any of them, his career may suffer. A writer should be able to make up for any lack of technical expertise in a particular area by independent research and good interviews of subject matter experts.
Technical Writing Examples
Everyone with an education should be able to clearly and accurately describe a process, especially technical writers. A sixth-grade teacher once assigned her students to write a step-by-step description of how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and later each student had the opportunity to eat the sandwich made according to their written specifications. Some of them were strange concoctions. Technical writers must be careful what they write.
Examples of technical writing include user manuals, software installation guides, service level agreements, help files, white papers and release notes. In my experience in telecommunications, I have seen excellent documentation for processes and procedures for Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Huawei, Microsoft and many others. Good technical writing is clear, concise and comprehensive. (For more on communication, see The Importance of Communication Skills for Technical Professionals.)
Resources for Technical Writers
To get started in technical writing, it helps to do your homework. One place to start a technical writing career is with the Society for Technical Communication. On the organization's website you will find information about membership, education, conferences, publications and more. There are many books and classes available for aspiring writers to learn their craft. Writers Write, Inc. provides an online list of available resources.
Self-study is an excellent way to develop your career. Reading 10 books on the subject will set the aspiring technical writer in the right direction. And while you're learning, look for every opportunity for writing experience at work and school, particularly on technical subjects. (For one method of practicing your writing skills, see Is It Time for You to Start That Tech Blog?)
There are many paths to a technical writing career. Some people come from a technical background and find that their careers have evolved into a communication focus. Others come from English or journalism schools and combine their education with an interest in technology. Developing the craft is one thing; finding the work opportunities is another. Many of us stumble upon our careers rather than plan them. The best advice is to learn as much as you can. When preparation meets opportunity, the career that you've dreamed about becomes reality. Of course, you could always write your own method for success and see it through to completion.