Re: technical writing skills

Subject: Re: technical writing skills
From: Nancy Marie Ott <ott -at- ANSOFT -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 31 Jan 1995 14:35:49 EST

> Date: Mon, 30 Jan 1995 23:07:16 +1100
> From: Geoffrey Marnell <gmarnell -at- OZEMAIL -dot- COM -dot- AU>
> Subject: technical Writing Skills

> Judging by the advertisements for technical writers - contractors and
> permanents - the principal skill sought is technical expertise or
> knowledge (often of some programming language or operating system).
> Writing skills appear to take the back seat. In view of the fact that it
> can take a moderately intelligent person weeks to master a new system,
> but years to master clarity and precision in writing, this ranking of
> skills seems, on the face of it, a trifle perverse.

Not to be defensive, but I think I'm one of the "perverse" folks
you're referring to here. I posted a job advertisement on TECHWR-L
for a writer with an electrical engineering (or other
science/engineering) background and some associated desktop publishing
and operating system knowledge. I posted these requirements because
this is the type of writer I am looking for, not because I value
technical skills over writing skills.

Last year, I had to fire an otherwise reasonably intelligent
individual who simply COULD NOT HANDLE the technical aspects of the
position. I don't want to go through that again. The learning curve
for our software and background material is steep, and I need to find
people who have the ability to mount it in a reasonable period of
time. I need a writer who can:

(a) Learn the electrical engineering and electromagnetic field
concepts that my company's software is based on. A person with a
background in electrical engineering -- or in another area of
engineering or science -- has a significant head start in this area.

I don't mean to imply here that people without an engineering or
science background are incapable of understanding complex scientific
concepts. That would be patronizing, ludicrous, and absolutely wrong.
Given time, a person who is a good learner will be able to pick up
enough information about a subject to be able to write intelligently
about it. But in my own observation and experience, a technical
background speeds this process up considerably.

As for the statement that "it can take a moderately intelligent person
weeks to master a new system," I am very conscious of the shortcomings
of my own technical knowledge even after 3 1/2 years on the job.

(b) Write with clarity, organization and precision. No argument here;
this skill is vitally important and takes a long time to learn.
However, I've interviewed some people with advanced writing degrees
who were absolutely wretched writers, and some people with purely
technical backgrounds who could write very well indeed. That's why
writing ability must be examined on an individual basis.

(c) Quickly get up to speed on the software packages and operating
systems that we use. Defining a set of software/hardware/operating
systems that a prospective writer must be familiar with is one way of
arbitrarily limiting the pool of applicants. But on the other hand,
computers and word processing/DTP software are the tools of our trade.
It's only reasonable to require an applicant to have some familiarity
with them. I hired a writer last year who did not know Framemaker,
even though my department uses it exclusively. But he had used other
DTP/word processing software, and that made learning FrameMaker
relatively painless. However, I probably would not have hired a
person who had absolutely no knowledge of computers.

> What do technical
> writers think about this? If you were the client (not the 'server'),
> would you prefer a technical whizz who could also write well, or a
> good writer who was also cluey in the technical realm? (Don't cheat and
> say both: you are asked, here, to RANK the two skills: writing expertise
> versus technical expertise.)

As a person who actually makes these type of decisions, I believe that
ranking these skills is unrealistic; it's the combination of them that
produces a good tech writer. I emphasized the technical requirements
for the position simply because that's where I ran into trouble in
the past. My goal is to pick the best person for the job, not to hold
to some idealized model of what a technical writer should or should
not be.

- nancy

nancy ott....ansoft corporation....pittsburgh, pa -dot- -dot- -dot- -dot- ott -at- ansoft -dot- com
Earth is a beta site.

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