The 3 Key Skills You Need to Be a Technical Writer

The 3 Key Skills You Need to Be a Technical Writer May 24th, 2016, by Matthew Setter

If you’re considering being a technical writer, there are three essential skills which you need to have. That is if you want to write authentically. Today, I’m going to go over each of them, showing why they’re essential, as well as providing tips and suggestions on how you can improve if you’re light on in any one of them.

Do You Have a Technical Background

This one should be a no-brainer. If you don’t have a technical background, in some way, shape, or form, then I wonder why you want to be a technical writer. I also wonder just how authentic you could be, how much conviction and passion could you put into pieces you write.

I’m not suggesting that you need to have an extensive technical background, such as being proficient in 5+ software languages, have a masters degree in electrical engineering, or be a Linux, kernel developer.

But if you have no technical background whatsoever, I’d suggest that technical writing isn’t the right career path for you.

To write authentically about technical subjects, as I do about testing, and software frameworks, it’s important that you have experience in those areas.

It’s important that you can talk about topics which you have hands on knowledge and experience about. Ideally, you have to write about subjects which you use on a regular basis, ones where your knowledge is regularly kept up to date.

When you’re actively involved in a field, you have so much to draw on. You also have a host of colleagues who can proofread your work and spot and technical errors or omissions.

I’d suggest that this is no different to any other area of writing. I wouldn’t write about fashion or European football, as I have virtually no experience or affinity in these fields. I couldn’t write honestly, nor have an educated opinion.

If I were to try, I’d come across as insincere, and unknowledgeable, consequently lacking much credibility. However, if you do aspire to be a technical writer, but your background isn’t that strong, then don’t be disheartened.

Are You Willing to Learn - Quickly

That’s right; are you willing to learn? One of the stories that most comes to mind is the story of Tom Ewer, a freelance writer and blogger from England.

Tom started writing for Wordpress blog ManageWP with not that much experience. But he was willing to get in and quickly learn about the subject, so that he could write informatively about the topic.

I recently wrote a piece about a testing library and wasn’t that familiar with the package. But that didn’t stop me from investing a chunk of time and coming up to speed with it as quickly as I could so that I could write thoroughly about it.

So if your technical background is light on or even non-existent, don’t be disheartened. Keep the goal of being a technical writer alive, but first, put in the hard yards and build your technical prowess.

Invest the time to begin building a strong technical foundation; whether that be as a developer, tester, hardware designer, or another technical field.

When you have that foundation, branch out into some related fields, so that you have diversity in your knowledge. Doing so will give you the ability to grow and expand, and help you not be siloed into just one speciality.

Then, when you have that foundation in place, you’re in a good position to start writing authentically and honestly about it.

Can You Communicate Ideas Simply and Clearly

Now that you have a technical background in place, and you’ve shown to yourself that you’re willing to learn, perhaps the most important skill needs to be considered: The ability to communicate.

It might seem strange, but it’s not. You could be the most technically experienced, or gifted, person on the planet, but if you can’t communicate, simply and clearly, then I’d suggest being a technical writer is a field you should leave to someone else.

Think about it; why do we read technical blog posts, article, and information? Because we want to learn. We don’t often read them to boost our ego and say “yep, knew that already”.

We read them to learn, to grow, to build our skills. So you have to be able to communicate, to teach others. And to teach others, you have to be able to break down complex topics, into forms which those less knowledgeable can understand.

You have to be able to relate concepts to a user’s existing knowledge, and link concepts to their existing frames of reference.

You have to be able to use constructs such as metaphor, to help the user acquire the knowledge, by layering new information on top of their existing knowledge.

To get a gauge of your ability to communicate clearly, take a topic which you know well, and attempt to present it to a friend, or relative, one who has no background in the subject matter.

If you find it difficult to express it in simple terms and put it across to them, then I’d suggest you either don’t know it as well as you should, or that you need to look at how you’re communicating, and your use of language.

An excellent book for writing well, regardless of topic, is On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. It’s over 30 years old, but still as relevant today as when it was first published. I read it a little while ago and am regularly applying what I learned, to write more effectively and clearly.

Over to You

If you’re considering starting out as a technical writer, whether as an employee, or as a freelancer like myself, then I hope that these three points help you make an informed decision about whether you are ready, or whether you need to invest more time in building your technical prowess.

CC Image (background of main image) Courtesy of OuadiO on Flickr

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