Technical Writing 101

Senior Technical Writer and Software Trainer, Keith Johnson, explores the key requirements of becoming a technical writer, and the steps you can take now to practice and achieve them.

Technical Writing 101

Technical writing is a great field. As a Technical Writer, you will be making contributions to companies, schools, and organizations in profound ways that most people cannot comprehend. It is this truth and experience that has motivated me throughout my twenty-five year career in technical writing.

What is the best way to prepare for or enter the technical writing field? Whether you choose to approach technical writing through a formal education, such as a college degree program with a technical writing or related major, or through a non-traditional path like technology books, online courses, internships, entrepreneurship, and/or self-publishing, here are the “tech writing cement blocks” you can use to establish your career foundation to both becoming a technical writer and enduring its daily challenges as you go into the office armed with your pen, notepad, and laptop.

  1. Read

    Technical Writers are natural readers. Do you read? Do you enjoy learning on a constant basis? If your answer is “no,” then technical writing is not for you. However, if your answered “yes,” then you could surely become a Technical Writer. Learning is the essence of the technical writing career path. However, you are doing something unique unlike passive readers. You are reading so that you can inform and help enlighten others about what you have just learned. In the spirit of reading and whether (or not) you choose technical writing as a career, I recommend you read one book a week to stay on top of your game. At a bare minimum, you will come away with several new concepts and an impressive vocabulary you can apply in school, life, and work.
  2. Write

    When I say writing, I am not talking about texting or blogging. I am talking about writing cohesive sentences that shine and that communicate meaning and sense within a language’s intended structure. Do you like to write? Great! Then you could indeed become a Technical Writer. Are you able to communicate understanding in a written form to others effectively and directly? If you can answer “yes” here, great. Technical writing could be on your horizon. What is the best way to develop your writing skills? Write about something you love to do. On the side, I enjoy rock and roll and guitars. So, let us imagine I am not a Tech Writer but want to become one. What I can do is write about rock and roll musicians and their equipment. I can create tables about their amplifiers and rig. I can also create structured histories about their professional shows but in a technical way. This is a positive icebreaker into technical writing because I am starting to work with technical information and presenting it to a lay (non-technical) audience. Remember: practice makes perfect.
  3. Research

    Technical Writers must be able to research information. At my current job, I am the technical writing lead because I am also providing guidance to an individual who is still quite new to the field and who does not have as much experience as I do. I recently told her the hardest part of technical writing is “getting information”. I told her “if you can endure this challenging aspect of the field, then you will surely make it.” This is the truth. I have endured many hardships as a Tech Writer not because of having to do a write-up. No, quite the contrary. I had to “get” or “come up with” information that even superiors, executives, and technical staff either did not have or did not understand – because the documentation had to cover such topics. So, if you want to become a Technical Writer – look through your news articles or blog posts in your e-mail inbox, for example, and see if you can find out more about new topics like the latest iPhone or something like that. Your ability to “get the information” will mean you have the necessary data that can be featured in your documentation, user guide, or technology article.
  4. Interview

    Technical Writers need to be able to interview people. Recently, one of the products I am documenting at my current job features new passive RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) technology. This is being implemented so that inventory can be done in more efficient ways. So, I prepared a list of questions to ask the developer in an actual interview. The interview went very well and the documentation also went very well. Having interview questions prepared before an interview helps you to limit the personal aspect of the interview and stay focused on the important and often highly technical content that must be covered, understood, and summarized in your notes. Do you want to become a Technical Writer? Regardless of whether you are in school or working a job, practice your interviewing skills.
  5. Edit

    Technical Writers need to be able to edit copy. Whether you are writing an article, user guide, internal documentation, external (customer-facing) documentation, marketing materials, or training manuals, you need to be able to revisit your own work from the editorial standpoint. This is not easy, so my recommendation is to look at the work not from the content standpoint but rather from the grammatical standpoint. This will ensure you have cohesive sentences, paragraphs, formatting, and more that ensures a sound presentation to readers. So, whether you are a student now or are holding a job, practice writing and then revisit the text from the editorial perspective.
  6. Word Processing

    Technical Writers need strong word processing skills. Here is why. In the 1990s, Bill Gates wrote a book called “Business at the Speed of Thought”. He was looking into the future and just through e-mail alone, he saw business speeding up. So, what might have taken a week or a day (back then in the 90s) would take only a few hours. Today, things happen even faster through texting and automated processes. So, let us say you are interviewing someone and have great typing skills. You can almost transcribe what they are saying in the interview. This is far better than taking notes. Great typing skills will help you to produce documentation efficiently. This way, you can type as you are thinking and your fingers will be able to keep up with your thoughts. Can’t type well? Take a typing class. You will not regret this.
  7. Graphics

    Tech Writers need at least basic skills in computer graphics. When you write a user guide, for example, you will need screen shots of the product or application to illustrate your text and to help drive home your instructions. If your text says “click on the OK button in the displayed window” it helps to be able to show that actual window in a screen shot. Mastering Windows Paint, Techsmith’s SnagIt, GIMP, and/or Adobe Photoshop will help you to create and insert meaningful images that will help to support and clarify your text-based content – instructions, summaries, and more. What’s a good way to practice this? I recommend downloading a simple open-source program off the web and writing a basic user guide for the program. Make sure you cover topics like downloading and installation, basic use, advanced use, and make sure you include quality images to support your documentation.
  8. Project Management

    Technical Writers need to become Project Managers. As soon as you are tasked with a major document, you have a project on your hands! Your path suddenly parallels those who are PMPs (Project Management Professionals) in the marketplace. You need to setup a project plan and milestones and expectations with your supervisor or manager. This way, as you need unique resources over the course of the documentation project, you can get the information you need. You can use Microsoft Project for sophisticated projects or Microsoft Excel for simple projects. For those of you who are new to technical writing, you can start by learning Excel and planning meetings and more using Excel spreadsheets.
  9. Subject Matter Knowledge

    Technical Writers need to learn to work with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). In the field of Software Engineering, for example, SMEs include programmers, analysts, project managers, database personnel, software architects, and executives. Where I work right now, my SMEs are engineers who are familiar with FAA standards and aviation jargon as well as aircraft safety equipment. As much as a Technical Writer might gain skills in a technical area, protocol reminds us that SMEs know much more. So, the SME is a needed resource and major contributor toward information that will appear in technical documentation. If you are new to technical writing, try to find someone who is experienced in a specific computer application. Write your sample guide but also interview this SME and ask for his or her insights and more to ensure that your content is both correct and applicable to the program’s user base.
  10. Quality Assurance

    Technical Writers need to become Quality Assurance (QA) professionals, at least in part. Here is why. Most of the time, Technical Writers are hired as products and programs are being developed. Part of the process of development is testing. As you test the product or program, you gain valuable firsthand experience with the product or program. During this testing time you will gain new insights to include in your documentation or user guide. So, for those of you wanting to become Technical Writers, take the plunge and write a simple user guide for a simple app on the web. Test it….test it…then test it some more. See if it can do things it is not supposed to do. Challenge the online help file that cites its parameters. Find its flaws and holes. Then your user guide will shine.
  11. Technical Market Application

    Technical Writing is not a field “unto itself”. Technical Writing is usually a part of a larger field – like medicine, law, engineering, software development, etc. So, what I usually tell students is this: learn, side-by-side, two skills: writing and your chosen field of application. I started, myself, with computer programming back in the 1990s. I learned BASIC, COBOL, C, and Visual Basic. I created several Windows 3.0 applications which I sold at Technical Bookstores in Southern Brazil. I also wrote the user guides for those programs. For those of you transitioning into technical writing from another field or if you are in school, learn something about a technical field of some kind. Then, you can apply your writing skills for that professional field. Many people today do not like to write. They might know coding or engineering, but they cannot write the necessary documentation. However, you can – and this is how you will both get the job and advance your career in the field of technical writing.
  12. Patience as a Skill

    Technical Writers need to learn and develop the skill of patience. In the U.S. alone there are thousands of people every year who take on technical writing jobs then get fired or quit. One of the major reasons here is the inability to endure the strains and challenges of the documentation project at hand. Something I call “tenacious patience” is the key to survival and also the key to success in this field. You have daily challenges of getting quality information and then having to use that information to meet very specific requirements set forth by your boss, project manager, chief engineer, or executive in your organization. “Tenacious patience” will carry you far. On the side, I play some guitar, so I’m always working on a “riff” of some kind. So, in the midst of a frustrating moment at work, what I do is focus my mind on my guitarring. This helps me to regain my mental composure and “plug away” with the current documentation project. You can choose an activity - physical or mental – that gives you a chance to remove your mind from the current obstacle, refresh, and gain new momentum as you work through uphill moments.

In summary, technical writing is a profession that you can learn in both formal and non-formal settings. In a formal setting like college or university, you will have classes that cover most of the topics presented in this article. If you are not in school and want to become a technical writer, you can also take on activities and projects that will help you to learn all of the skills outlined above. Once you enter the field and are on your way, remember that life is an uphill battle and you will need to refresh your skills on a constant basis. Keep reading new books. Keep writing new articles. Keep studying. Keep learning new apps and technical products. Don’t ever stop. There is an ancient saying that life is not only about the destination but also the journey. The very same is true about technical writing. I wish you great success in your professional path.

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