Tech comm skills: writing ability, technical aptitude, tool proficiency, and business sense
Technical Writing is only about what software you know! Is that why every where I read any type of document, web page, or article it is FULL of misspellings, incorrect punctuation, and horrible formatting?!!
That’s what started a thread on LinkedIn that encapsulates long-running debates on the skill sets technical writers need. (The thread was removed from LinkedIn sometime after Friday, unfortunately.)
From my point of view, a good technical communicator possesses a balance of writing ability, technical aptitude, and software skills. Problems arise when that mix of skills is off-kilter:
- Grammatically pristine content that just scratches the surface of a product reflects a lack of technical understanding and reduces tech comm to stenography.
- Overly technical content that catalogs every feature of a product demonstrates technical depth but no writing ability. Such content is usually badly organized (writing about every menu choice in order is not good organization) and littered with grammatical and spelling mistakes.
- Proficiency in the tools for creating content means information development is more efficient, but blind devotion to a tool is a big (and unprofessional) mistake.
A lot of commenters in the thread touch on these aspects, but at the time I wrote this post, there was a glaring omission among the discussed skill sets: an understanding of business.
Business requirements should drive all content-related efforts at a company, so it’s vital that content creators—technical writers included—understand how their content supports company goals (or not, as the case may be). Changes to content (new tools, new publishing formats, and so on) must be carefully vetted to determine whether there is a solid business case to make such changes. For example, you propose implementing an XML-based workflow because you have numbers showing cost savings. “Other companies are doing it” and “a software vendor told me we need it” are not business cases.
Writing ability, technical aptitude, and dexterity with software are important skills for technical writers to have. But understanding how your efforts connect to the company’s business requirements is what gives you the edge in making your tech comm work indispensable.
And there is another point that is often underestimated: the skill of organizing. Being able to work on the right thing within the right time frame in the correct order helps a lot in getting the work done.
I agree with Thomas. Though it seems that “Being able to work on the right thing within the right time frame in the correct order” is often considered as rather fastidious and prissy. Some would even call it “typically German”… 🙂
Excellent post Alan. I think it wouldn’t hurt to also mention the importance of creating content that meets the needs of the target audience. This requires the ability to research said audience. I’ve learned this the hard way because when I assume I know something about the target audience, I’m often wrong. (I know this is somewhat related to business requirements, but I think any discussion of the essentials should mention customers (aka “people”) somewhere.)
One more thing, for which Sharon Burton deserves credit, is the need for curiosity (see http://www.sharonburton.com/important-trait-technical-writer/).
I love the focus on ‘Business Requirements’ in the post. However another important factor is to ensure that the tech comm processes align with other ‘content’ specific processes in the organization, including its content strategy, content marketing, and customer support.
Communicators can ensure that they bring right value to the table when they align their efforts and goals with the larger ‘content umbrella’ of the business, towards the common goal.
I love this discussion – so interesting!
As a hiring manager, I put quite a bit of emphasis on people skills. Sometimes, technical writers are (shock!) not the most adept at relationship-building, which is a critical skill in the workplace. In my career as a technical writer, and now as a manager of a doc team, the ability to make people WANT to provide you with accurate information is sometimes lacking. Personal relationships are what make SMEs remember you when product changes are made or what makes them not hide when you approach!
While software skills are very important, those are the types of things that can be taught/learned. I think it’s more important to hire the right TYPE of person and, with that, comes the ability to be curious about products and develop tools proficiency.
There are some really good points in these comments. Thank you for your contributions to the discussion.
P.S. Kai, I will let you fully own the “prissy” comment!
I love this post because I have been thinking a lot lately about tool use vs. writing ability. I have interviewed with many hiring managers who only ask about whether I am proficient in their department’s tool of choice, but never ask about my ability to understand, categorize and communicate technical information.
I believe this is a mistake on the part of a lot of hiring managers. In my opinion, the ability to take in a lot of technical information, use the product myself (and sometimes inadvertently become a member of test), organize the information into logical sections or headings and write about it in the simplest way possible is where I add value.
Almost anyone can learn the tools.
I have followed tech writers who have left companies I worked for, and found evidence that they had a lot of skill with tools, but could not write an intelligible sentence or chunk information logically. I’ve seen information written just as it came out of the mouth of the SME, with no editing at all.
Technical and tool skills are very important, but not as important as the ability to write.
Obviously this is something I feel passionate about. : )
I think there’s an aspect to business knowledge that needs more focus in general… Understanding the business cases for the technology you’re documenting, and how those translate into use cases and ultimately into your conceptual and procedural content.
For software, two trends indicate this. Users are sophisticated and need far fewer instructions for using the GUI than ever before. Increasingly, and content devoted to describing GUI gestures is seen as condescending and wasteful. Along with this trend, the level of complexity in the software is increasingly found above the GUI gestures, and has to do with the business needs of your customers.
So good tech content has to move in the direction of business analysis, where you can better understand your reader’s pain points and requirements.
Curiosity was mentioned – key item. The ability and desire to learn quickly is ultra important. Mix in good technical abilities and good writing skills, and those are the basics. Decent people skills – fit – is important. Tools = less so. If you can learn, you can learn new tools.