Techwriter Skills List

Subject: Techwriter Skills List
From: Candace Bamber <kingfish!bamberc -at- SX -dot- COM>
Date: Sat, 20 Apr 1996 11:55:00 -0400

Hi all.

Emily Gaucher <emily -dot- gaucher -at- CCMAIL -dot- BSIS -dot- COM> wrote:

A co-worker asked me to identify the necessary skills to become a
technical writer. I am making a list off the top o' my head, and
wanted to get input from other writers. Please advise. (Please keep
the comments constructive--"Run like the devil" is not the type of
advice we are looking for.)

As someone who has spent a LOT of time over the last several years trying to
hire the right people to work as TW's, I find this question fascinating.

I want to say something about "skills" in general before offering my list:

I believe a techwriter's "skills" are only a small part of what makes a good
or great writer. Good writers are "more than the sum of their skills". My
point is that Emily's
question needs to be refined a little to take into account the stuff over
and above the pure skill set.

In many cases, my project budget has not run to the luxury of being able to
hire senior (or even intermediate) writers (that is, writers that can show
you something that indicates they know what they're doing). Juniors and
beginners rarely have any "skills", so they can't really be accessed on that
basis. I'm sure we've all had the experience of hiring two young writers
with more or less the same skill set at once (say, one summer job writing,
some DTP and proofreading experience) - where, after 6 months one is
clearly professionalized and producing really good stuff and the other has
to be let go because they simply can't do the work. For juniors and
beginners, I've found that the skills necessary to "become a technical
writer" are hardly legion: the ability to write reasonably well and good
research skills. What I've found much more important than SKILLS is
individual characteristics and attitude of the writer.

Good techwriting isn't just about knowing grammar, or how to use software,
or being knowledgable about a certain product or programming type or
technology. The key to it is the ability to think both critically and
analytically - and unfortunately, these two abilities are difficult to

So with those comments out of the way, here is my list:

*Solid communications skills - writing and interacting with others.
On the writing end: recognizing and being able to produce coherently
organized, and grammatically and stylistically correct writing
appropriate for a
stated audience

On the interacting end - being able to ask the questions that will get
you the
answers you need without offending anyone.

*BOTH analytical and critical thinking skills - ability to organize,
structure and see relationships among information items. Equally important,
the ability to recognize first, that something IS missing, and secondly,
WHAT that something is (In my opinion, this is the most difficult skill to
teach and the most important "non-writing" skill that impacts on good
technical writing).

*A true passion for quality, and genuine pride in your work - this is an
attitude rather than a skill, but it's important because it drives the
desire to learn and improve. Nobody is a great writer on their first day.

*Willingness and ability to go the distance to meet customer expectations -
this attitude also drives the desire to learn and improve - and it means
customers are are happy, therefore the writer gets to eat and have a place
to live. As techwriters, we are always in a context - if we don't satisfy
our clients, we don't work as techwriters.

*Demonstrated ability to think through processes from the beginning, make a
plan, organize time, set goals and follow through.

*Self-discipline - a big part of our job is the "grind" - the planning and
interviewing is the fun part, but we have to have the self-displine to sit
at the keyboard and write - sometimes for months at a time.

*Aptitude for learning documentation, graphics, multimedia and online help
development tools - one tool is much like another another. Some people have
to learn each tool individually, with others, teaching them to use one tool
means that they can get themselves up to speed on a new tool in the same
group in a day or two. In this economy, I prefer to hire the latter type.

*Ability to focus on details without losing sight of the big picture - we
have to be able to structure documents suites AND proofread, to pick at
grammar AND weigh the effort of doing so against the real audience needs,

*Ability to learn across disciplines (and apply knowledge from one area to a
situation in a complete different area) - some really smart artsies who
really write well simply cannot "get" science. Some really smart techies
who invent really neat gadgets simply cannot write well. I think to be a
good techwriter, you have to be a good cross-discipline thinker - and I also
think that having a good solid cross-discipline education is a big

*Desire to improve as a writer (maybe "Obsession with improving..." is a
better way to say this) - in some ways writing better seems to almost happen
by magic - if you really want to get better, you pay attention to what
you're doing, and open yourself up to learning all the time, and improving
seems to happen on it's own.

So that's my two cents. Sorry for being so long - I think I went wild
because there's no queue of people at my desk all glowering and tapping
their feet, expecting me to miraculously produce their documentation in 15
minutes or less. I love Sunday!



PS - we still have a position or two open in our Docs and Training group. If
you're interested, send me a note and I'll forward you the posting.

Candace Bamber
bamberc -at- SX -dot- com
Documentation and Training Group
Systems Xcellence
555 Industrial Drive
Milton Ontario

Whatever you can do or dream, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and
magic in it.
--Johann Wolfgang Goethe

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