Technical Writers Are The Hiking Boots Of The Writing World

Marwa Grimes

If you are considering a career change and technical writing looks attractive. Take a moment and look beyond the salary. As with any big decision, it pays to do your research. In the writing world, being a technical writer is not the sexiest of jobs. If writing jobs were shoes, then writing mysteries would be the stiletto heels and technical writing would be the hiking boots. Yep, that’s technical writing, utilitarian, practical, informative, necessary and useful. We are here to convey information, not to express our opinions or to showcase our writing styles.

So if you can wrap your head around being a hiking boot, then technical writing may be for you. But don’t stop your research there. You owe it to yourself to find out everything you can about a career before you launch into it.

Technical writing requires several really important abilities of a writer:

1. Accuracy

2. Translation

3. Conciseness

4. Attention to detail.

Accuracy in technical writing means that the technical writer puts out the effort to ensure that the information provided in the document is accurate. If this means additional research, then that extra legwork is done. Because of the technical nature of documents technical writers create, people count on the content being correct and accurate. The documents created by technical writers help use machinery, run businesses, use software and conduct science research. This isn’t writing a novel. Even the smallest inaccuracies can affect the credibility of the document and reflect poorly on the skill and credibility of the writer.

Translation in this context means that a technical writer should have the ability to gather technical information and translate it into language at the level of the intended audience. When a technical writer translates highly technical engineering language into a document understandable by an engineering technician, then that technical writer is a good translator. Not everyone has the skill to listen to a subject matter expert or read research material and understand it to the extent to be able to write a clear document. This skill can be learned through much practice but the most successful technical writers have an innate ability to translate.

Conciseness is the ability to present the necessary information in an organized fashion, using as few words as possible. When I first began technical writing at NASA, it was an office joke that heavier documents were better documents. Of course this wasn’t true, but there used to be a certain belief that bigger documents were more complete. Technical writers now recognize that doing their best means reviewing a document and removing all unnecessary verbiage, useless phrases, and pompous language. Sure this takes effort, but it’s worth it. The principal of keep it short and simple is especially applicable to technical writing. We are now in the age of less is more. The result of cutting the fat in your documents will be that the documents will be more precise, easier to read, more organized and more easily updated.

A technical writer must have a high level of attention to detail. This means that a writer writes as accurately as possible, they verify the information in the document against the resource information and they observe the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar. Crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s is but the beginning of creating a good technical writing document. A technical writer also ensures that formatting is consistent, the document is logically organized and the language suits the intended audience.

These are the big skills needed to be a successful technical writer. Do a self evaluation and see if you have these skills before launching into a career. A technical writer possessing the appropriate skills will spend their time at a new job learning the language, the subject matter, the organizational style and team functionality. Someone lacking in one or more of these skills will the normal new job tasks as well as learning the missing skills. It would be an uphill battle, and success would be difficult, not impossible, but difficult. Better to know yourself well and be prepared in advance, whatever your career choice.

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