"Best" for technical writers

Subject: "Best" for technical writers
From: Steven Owens <uso01 -at- MAILHOST -dot- UNIDATA -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 12 Nov 1993 00:01:05 -0600

> The most appropriate and useful knowledge to write usable documents
> quickly, accurately, and technically correct.

Well, you asked for it, the floodgates are open... :-)

I've seen a few replies to this go by already. Most tended to be either
a) somebody who knows the technology, because it's easier to teach somebody
writing than technology, or b) somebody who knows writing, because it's
easier to teach somebody technology than writing.

Interesting dichotomy there :-)

As near as I can figure it, there are three components to being a good
technical writer:

writing expertise
learning expertise
communications expertise

Writing expertise refers to being able to write clearly, concisely,
able to organize your information in a predictable manner, and so
forth. These days that also includes being able to design documents
using desktop publishing software, of course ("these days", sheesh,
you'd think I graduated a few decades back instead of a a few years

Equally (perhaps more?) importantly, I think a tech writer has to be
able to tackle a subject and learn about it. He or she also has to be
able to communicate well with the people who already know about the

This is tricky. I'm not just talking about being familair with the
technology. You can't limit yourself that way. Since the topic you
need to learn probably does NOT have good docs (by definition), you
need more than an ability to sit down and learn something. You need
the heuristics and the personality traits in place to tackle a
technical question and figure out how to learn about it, to
relentlessly pursue alternative answers and find alternative sources
of information, to dig up the tools (informational and technological)
to find the answers when you don't have them and nobody seems to have

Perhaps the technically able are favored for tech writing because they
already have (or are presumed to already have) these heuristics and
personality traits. Perhaps they are actually less able because a good
writer has the training and aptitude to constantly be learning about

I'm a writer (I hope :-). I majored in communications ("Communications?
What's that?" <BONK>). But I'm also rather technically able in the
computer world. It's one of my better strengths. And half of that
strength is attitude.

My brother majored in computer science, and now gets paid quite a bit
more than I do. But at one point we were discussing something (bridge
closings in the Pennsylvania area, caused by stress and wear on the
bridge infrastructures) and I astonished him with a wealth of
knowledge on the topic - because I'd researched an article on a local
bridge closing for a weekly newspaper. At which point he enviously
commented that while he may get paid more, I have great profession,
because I'm always learning about new and odd topics.

To me, that's the essence of technical writing: being very good at
learning something (researching, analyzing, assimilating) and equally
good at conveying that knowledge to others (writing, layout, etc).

(Now if only I could get back to learning about new and odd topics :-).

Steven J. Owens
uso01 -at- unidata -dot- com

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