Re: Technical Writers who write functional specifications

Subject: Re: Technical Writers who write functional specifications
From: Monica Cellio <cellio -at- pobox -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2001 18:12:04 -0500 (EST)

> Today I was asked whether technical writers write functional specifications.
> My first reaction (and response) was that no, software developers write
> functional specifications. I discovered later, in going through the list
> archives that technical writers do write functional specifications.

In my experience, software developers provide the core content and make
the key decisions, but technical writers can have substantial influence
and can end up doing most of the actual writing. This seems to be most
true in small companies.

Depending on the software process in place at your company, the functional
spec might be the first input into the API documentation. It's in your
best interest to make sure that the spec is usable, therefore. :-) In
addition, you may be the closest thing in the organization to a user
advocate; on many occasions I've gotten programmers to modify an
interface because I actually tried to write the code or pseudo-code
that would use it and found usability problems. I've also found that
a writer with good domain knowledge can have input into the design and
not just the interfaces. Show the developers what you know and ask for
help with what you don't.

Specs have to be precise and correct. That's what we're good at (as
a profession), so I don't see any reason a tech writer with relevant
domain knowledge couldn't do this kind of work.

> In order for a technical writer to write functional specifications, what
> does she need to know?

A programming background, even a small one, is very helpful. As with
any other specialized domain, you need to understand the vocabulary,
the key concepts, and the idioms. Sometimes developers can take time
to teach you (especially if they realize that you're going to take on
the work that they want to dump); sometimes you'll have to learn a lot
of this on your own. I was a programmer before becoming a tech writer,
so I know my experience isn't typical, but I've seen other writers whose
software background was a few programming courses in college adapt well
to this type of writing.

> Is this a sort of promotion or a type of job hybrid
> (tech writer/business analyst)? Or perhaps it depends on the company size
> and/or view of what technical writers do.

It'll depend a lot on the company. It hasn't been a promotion per se
when I've done it, but the set of writers who can do these kinds of specs
is smaller than the general pool, so acquiring the skills will broaden
your opportunities in software companies.

Monica Cellio
cellio -at- pobox -dot- com

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