RE: Baseline Skillset for Technical Writers?

Subject: RE: Baseline Skillset for Technical Writers?
From: "Ronica Roth" <rroth -at- exactis -dot- com>
To: "'TECHWR-L'" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 30 Dec 1999 16:01:06 -0700

Ok, I'm late on this thread (i've had lots o' year-end deadlines), but the
stuff quoted below made me think of another piece, another aspect of the
skills we must master to excel (not baseline, eh?) at our jobs. Even if the
documentation you are writing is for the base user and does not itself
describe all the "science" behind the product, you yourself need to
understand the science to write the simpler documentation well. Then you
can, if you are good, write the "how-to" in a way that imparts some
understanding of the "how and why" without the confusing the reader.

My background is actually in journalism . To write a 500 word story often
involves gathering enough information for a 1,000 word story. But your
editor said 500 words (for reasons to do with space, importance and a
story's "natural" length - the word limit gives you an indication of how
much depth to present). And so you pare the story down. But if you do that
well, you go beyond merely leaving things out. The information that's left
"unsaid" has informed the part that gets included. ...Another way to say it:
say I must write in 35 words the essence of a thing. If I have 2 pages of
notes on the thing I can write an ok sentence. If I have 4 pages of notes on
the thing, the 35 words is much harder to write, but it's a much better 35

btw, I would say the baseline skillset is almost exactly the same for both
tech writing and journalism; I would modify the tech version by adding an
interest in and ability to understand things technical. (Whereas the
journalist must have curiosity in general and interest in general and an
ability to understand/analyze, but does not necessarily have to have these
things in relation to the technical - can be political, or economical, or
human interest, or....)

> Al Miller said:
< power plant example snipped >

> This is an extreme example (my favorite kind), but it illustrates the
> point. If you use a tool, you need to understand that tool to the fullest
> extent possible. Things unexpected happen. You have to cope with them. If
> you don't know how, could you figure it out? If you know how something
> works, you probably will.

< snipped >

> So, you ask, what should the Tech Writer's skill set include?
> Computer maintenance? Yes. And what makes the computer work in the
> first place and what its basic parts are. Likewise, the printer setting
> to it. Delving deeper, let's include a basic foundation in math and
> No matter what technical subject you document, you need to understand
> the science behind it. Otherwise you're just a scribe.

Ronica Roth
Technical Writer, Inc.
rroth -at- exactis -dot- com
*-------------!------------- -at- --------------&--------------x
"The difference between the right word and the
almost-right word is the difference between the
lightning and the lightning-bug."--Mark Twain

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