Technical Writing Aid

A Deeper Look

Job Description:
Technical writing jobs range dramatically in length, difficulty, hours, and pay. Every job is unique, but there are certain aspects of the job description that are universal.

Writing and document maintenance are the main duties of a technical writer. At the outset of the project, the writer works with technical team members (engineers, project managers, programmers, clients, etc.) to outline the deliverables and establish the parameters of the final product. At the end of the project, the writer works with production team members (editors, printers, Webmasters, accountants, archivists, etc.) to polish the final product, get it into circulation, and ensure it is preserved safely.

The technical writer designs the documents he or she writes. Therefore, the tech writer must recognize when special design features are necessary, such as plasticized pages and a spine that holds the book open for an emergency plumbing manual to be used in wet conditions. The tech writer identifies the target audience and performs a needs analysis to determine which design features are desired and appropriate for the project's budget.

The tech writer adds line drawings, photographs, maps, flow charts and other graphics to documents where appropriate. Illustrations either can be the writer's own original work, or contributed by illustrators, photographers, or graphic designers. A technical editor will usually be assigned to help the writer obtain permissions and copyrights, and clarify his or her work. However, the writer is responsible for following copyright law and cannot plagiarize or fail to give an illustrator attribution. The writer is responsible for streamlining the revision process by using standard writing techniques and abiding by the style guide appropriate for the document.

The tech writer is immersed in the subject matter. The writer must learn everything possible about the particular product and then write about it. This includes reading current and historical published material, using the product (when applicable), and interviewing those familiar with the product. The writer must remember that the goal is to present materials about technology that can be understood by a novice audience with no technical expertise.

When a project is completed, the writer must be prepared to update or modify the content as technology evolves. The writer is responsible for saving and archiving the project according to the standards established at its beginning by the planning team. Most companies have their own processes for filing documents, so they comply with federal privacy and reporting laws. The tech writer must facilitate the retrieval of his or her work by authorized persons at a later date.

Knowledge
The technical writer has a large vocabulary, strong comprehension, and knowledge of the appropriate English writing structure for a given document. A dictionary, thesaurus, style guide, grammar and spelling checker are the basic tools for the technical writer. Perfect grammar and spelling skills are not required, as the editor and proofreader review documents before publication. However, tech writers need above average grammar, spelling and syntax. All writers should enjoy the process of developing thoughts and ideas and translating them into written words.

The technical writer also communicates verbally. The writer meets with many different team members and must articulate clearly, pronounce properly, and use correct grammar. The tech writer may teach a class or address a gathering of people. He or she must feel comfortable speaking in public. Excellent diction is a requirement for public speakers.

The technical writer must understand computer hardware and many different operating systems. Although the writer need not be an expert, he or she must learn new systems and programs quickly when required. The writer must type at least 40 words per minute when entering data. The writer knows common program functions, such as Cut, Paste, and Save As. The writer can process information efficiently and independently. The writer keeps abreast of technology and devotes time outside of work hours to current events, trends, and new product information.

One job of a technical writer is to anticipate problems. This is useful in three ways:

  1. The writer is able to provide valuable input during the planning process to avoid problems
  2. The writer is able to troubleshoot when testing products
  3. The writer is able to produce a very thorough final document

The object of technical writing is to teach something to the audience. The technical writer must understand the teaching process and the different ways people learn in order to write a useful document. The three learning styles are auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. The effective tech writer incorporates something in the document for all three styles of learners.

Skills
A successful technical writer has many tangible and intangible skills that facilitate work. The tech writer gathers and deciphers an abundance of information, some of which is outdated, confusing, or redundant. The writer must be thorough and organized when ordering and processing information. Evaluation skills are important to determine the difference between relevant and extraneous information.

The writer works to deadline and need good time management skills. The freelance writer prioritizes all assignments personally, whereas the project manager prioritizes assignments for the employee writer. The writer must spend the bulk of his or her time on the most important parts of an assignment. Self-discipline is required. The writer must set realistic and attainable goals and be persistent in reaching goals.

The successful technical writer is an active listener and learner. The writer is constantly inundated with new information from many different sources and needs to filter it according to its credibility, timeliness, and importance. Critical thinking is an essential trait for the writer. The writer must also accept constructive criticism from reviewers, editors, and clients. Many different people contribute to a document and the writer must adapt to all of them, from novice user to expert programmer. The tech writer must be able to voice an informed opinion and assert his or her concerns about a project or working conditions.

The technical writer is essentially creative. While much of the writer's work involves repeating facts, there is a certain amount of originality and artistry involved. The writer designs and develops creative ways to present information to the audience. Many writers contribute artistic work through illustrations or graphic design. Every tech writer faces new and unusual problems as technology evolves, and must develop creative solutions. Creativity, however, does not equate to disorder; it must be combined with logic and reasoning.

Abilities:

Critical Thinking
The technical writer gathers, examines, filters and processes a lot of complex information. Critical thinking is a vital ability for the tech writer. The writer evaluates the information and determines if it is current and relevant to the final product. The writer checks the source to determine if it is credible and unbiased. Critical thinking requires the tech writer to order information based on patterns or rules (mathematical, alphabetical, etc.), to classify information (especially useful with scientific or medical information), or to omit information altogether.

Problem Solving
Technical writers must be able to identify problems, generate possible solutions, test them, implement the solutions, and evaluate the results. Problem solving involves critical thinking and deductive reasoning abilities. Critical thinkers use logic to see the pros and cons of possible solutions. Writers with deductive reasoning skills know when to use general rules to solve specific problems. Technical writers often have to make quick decisions and must have the ability and confidence to use their judgment wisely.

Communication and Soft Skills
The successful technical writer is versatile and able to communicate through voice, print, and electronic media. Everyone involved in a project must be "on the same page" and possess identical information, which can only happen through timely communication. The writer must establish comfortable working relationships with supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Cooperation and compromise abilities are required for success.

Comprehension
Comprehension is a very important ability for a technical writer. The writer must comprehend how the audience will use the product. The tech writer must make sense of highly complex research and statistics. The writer must be able to simplify the professional information, usually to a Flesch-Kincaid Grade 8 or Grade 12 reading comprehension level. The writer must comprehend learning strategies to help the audience retain the lesson and avoid phone calls to Customer Support.

Reading comprehension and listening comprehension are different but linked abilities. Speech has inflection, tone, and body language to help the listener comprehend. Although reading is decoding written language into spoken words, there are no verbal cues for readers and the author is not present to answer questions.

To raise reader comprehension, the writer must be able to manufacture these elements:

  • Introduction explaining why the reader needs this information
  • Objectives
  • Analogies
  • Links to the reader's prior knowledge
  • Questions and answers
  • Repetition
  • Summaries
  • Synthesis

To raise reader comprehension, the writer must be able to use software to create:

  • Table of contents
  • Visuals ("One picture is worth a thousand words.")
  • Glossary
  • Index
  • Hotlinks between related items

Technical Writing - Main


Last Updated: 09/18/2014

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