Skills Required To Be a Technical Writer
by Ron Kurtus (revised 27 April 2003)
There are special skills needed to become an effective technical writer that go beyond basic writing ability. These skills include the ability to write lucidly and concisely, familiarity with the writing tools of the trade, and understanding the technical subject matter or product line.
Questions you may have include:
- What sort of writing ability is necessary?
- What tools do I need to know?
- How much product knowledge is required?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Many technical writers majored in technical communications, journalism or English in college. This indicates an ability to write, although it does not necessarily give them an edge in technical writing. One of the biggest problems some English majors have is that their writing is more artistic than technical. They write with feeling instead of concise description.
Other technical writers come from engineering, marketing and education fields. They usually gravitate to technical writing because they enjoy the writing process.
The main talent needed in being able to explain or describe processes in a concise and professional manner. Being a wordsmith and good editor is important.
Being skilled-or at least familiar-with the standard writing tools is very important in getting a job or being successful in technical writing. A good idea is to look at the want ads in the newspaper to see what writing tools are required for most jobs. Often knowledge of tools is listed as a requirement before writing ability.
Microsoft Word is the standard word processor used by most companies, although there are exceptions. Skill in Word is useful, but since most word processors are so similar, it is not that difficult to migrate from one to another.
The industry standard desktop publishing application right now is Adobe FrameMaker. Companies that use the Mac from Apple Computers may require Quark.
The main reason for moving to desktop publishing programs is not to employ fancy design, such as is used in magazines. Rather it is to create large documents that include pictures and graphics. Large documents become too cumbersome with a word processor.
An additional part of desktop publishing concerns distribution. Adobe Acrobat is the standard means of distributing documents on disk or online. It is not difficult to use, but many companies desire knowledge of the application.
Ehelp's RoboHelp is the most popular Windows Help authoring tool, with Doc-to-Help a distant second. Both require knowledge of Word.
Online help requires different writing skills than needed to write a user manual. The material must be much more concise, with short sentences. Procedures should have a maximum of 5 steps. Indexing is also very important in online help, since the index is the way most people find their help information.
Many technical writing jobs now require the ability to also do graphical design. There does not seem to be a real standard in this area, although many use Corel Draw or Adobe PhotoShop. Companies that are heavy into graphics usually are Mac shops.
Many companies are now requiring technical writers to develop web pages. The most common tool is Macromedia Dreamweaver. Ability to use graphical tools is useful, as is coding in HTML.
Writing for web pages is similar to writing for online help. Wordiness is not encouraged.
You have to write about a product or a process, so it is important to have knowledge in that field. In many cases, you interview subject matter experts for details, so at least you should be able to understand the material to ask the right questions and to relay that information into your document. It also helps if you like what you are writing about.
An interesting note is that Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company requires that their technical writers are able to disassemble and assemble one of their motorcycles. You have to be a special person to write for them.
Ability to write concisely, knowledge of writing tools and understanding of the product are necessary skills for becoming a technical writer.
Try to be the best you can in your chosen profession
Resources and references
You Know You’re a Technical Communicator When… by Marcia Riefer Johnston - Amusing list that most technical communicator will appreciate
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Skills Required to be a Technical Writer