Re: I need your input - again

Subject: Re: I need your input - again
From: Robert Plamondon <robert -at- PLAMONDON -dot- COM>
Date: Sat, 11 Nov 1995 13:57:09 PST

Tracy Jones writes:

>My question is - what do you think a tech writer is and what are we
>supposed to be doing. What exactly are are skills.

My short definition of technical writing is: "Finding out what the
reader needs to know to use a product, and telling it to him."

This definition falls short of reality in many cases, because vast
numbers of technical writers are not employed as writers, but as
editors. That is, they take works that already exist and put the
words into a form that's fit for publication. (I have met technical
writers who were AMAZED at the concept of writing a manual from

Be that as it may, and dismissing the implied follow-on question
of "what exactly are the skills for a technical EDITOR" for the
mement, technical writers need two skills:

1. The ability to understand the material well enough that it's possible
to tell the target audience what they need to hear, and

2. The ability to put this information into words in print.

Skill #1 varies with subject matter. If you're writing a manual for
a program called, "My Checkbook Balancer," you need to know how
checkbooks are used in general, and how to use the particular software.
If you're writing about the use of a particular weapon system in
combat, you need to know something about the weapon system and the
kind of combat in which it is expected to be used.

Once the subject matter is over your head to the point where you can't
catch up during the course of the project (that is, when you can't use
the product yourself, because you don't understand what's going on
well enough) you are necessarily forced into an editorial role --
someone else, who understands the subject matter, will have to write
the draft.

Thus, the education you might need as a technical writer might
include office worker, fighter pilot, forklift operator, software
engineer, physicist, tattoo artist -- it depends on who uses the

A great deal of the money in tech writing today is in software documentation.
Documentation aimed at a general audience requires no particular
technical education; documentation aimed at specific technical disciplines

The writing side is, of course, more invariant. While it might be
an oversimplification to say that "writing's writing," being able
to turn out descriptive paragraphs one after the other, in some kind
of framework that is likely to be useful to the reader, is the
main requirement.

-- Robert

Robert Plamondon * President/Managing Editor, High-Tech Technical Writing, Inc.
36475 Norton Creek Road * Blodgett * Oregon * 97326
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com * (541) 453-5841 * Fax: (541) 453-4139

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