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Skills Required To Be a Technical Writer

by Ron Kurtus (revised 27 April 2003)

There are special skills needed to become an effective technical writer that go beyond basic writing ability. These skills include the ability to write lucidly and concisely, familiarity with the writing tools of the trade, and understanding the technical subject matter or product line.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.



Writing ability

Many technical writers majored in technical communications, journalism or English in college. This indicates an ability to write, although it does not necessarily give them an edge in technical writing. One of the biggest problems some English majors have is that their writing is more artistic than technical. They write with feeling instead of concise description.

Other technical writers come from engineering, marketing and education fields. They usually gravitate to technical writing because they enjoy the writing process.

The main talent needed in being able to explain or describe processes in a concise and professional manner. Being a wordsmith and good editor is important.

Writing tools

Being skilled-or at least familiar-with the standard writing tools is very important in getting a job or being successful in technical writing. A good idea is to look at the want ads in the newspaper to see what writing tools are required for most jobs. Often knowledge of tools is listed as a requirement before writing ability.

Word processor

Microsoft Word is the standard word processor used by most companies, although there are exceptions. Skill in Word is useful, but since most word processors are so similar, it is not that difficult to migrate from one to another.

Desktop publishing

The industry standard desktop publishing application right now is Adobe FrameMaker. Companies that use the Mac from Apple Computers may require Quark.

The main reason for moving to desktop publishing programs is not to employ fancy design, such as is used in magazines. Rather it is to create large documents that include pictures and graphics. Large documents become too cumbersome with a word processor.

Distribution

An additional part of desktop publishing concerns distribution. Adobe Acrobat is the standard means of distributing documents on disk or online. It is not difficult to use, but many companies desire knowledge of the application.

Online help

Ehelp's RoboHelp is the most popular Windows Help authoring tool, with Doc-to-Help a distant second. Both require knowledge of Word.

Online help requires different writing skills than needed to write a user manual. The material must be much more concise, with short sentences. Procedures should have a maximum of 5 steps. Indexing is also very important in online help, since the index is the way most people find their help information.

Graphics

Many technical writing jobs now require the ability to also do graphical design. There does not seem to be a real standard in this area, although many use Corel Draw or Adobe PhotoShop. Companies that are heavy into graphics usually are Mac shops.

Web pages

Many companies are now requiring technical writers to develop web pages. The most common tool is Macromedia Dreamweaver. Ability to use graphical tools is useful, as is coding in HTML.

Writing for web pages is similar to writing for online help. Wordiness is not encouraged.

Product knowledge

You have to write about a product or a process, so it is important to have knowledge in that field. In many cases, you interview subject matter experts for details, so at least you should be able to understand the material to ask the right questions and to relay that information into your document. It also helps if you like what you are writing about.

An interesting note is that Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company requires that their technical writers are able to disassemble and assemble one of their motorcycles. You have to be a special person to write for them.

Summary

Ability to write concisely, knowledge of writing tools and understanding of the product are necessary skills for becoming a technical writer.


Try to be the best you can in your chosen profession


Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

You Know You’re a Technical Communicator When… by Marcia Riefer Johnston - Amusing list that most technical communicator will appreciate

Society for Technical Communication

Technical Writing Resources

Books

Top-rated books on Technical Writing


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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