Saturday 7 March 2015

What Skills Does a Technical Writer Need?

In terms of man-management, a manager of writers wants the same as every manager: reliability, honesty, initiative, people skills, etc.  However, there are specific hard (technical) and soft (non-technical) skills that are either required or very beneficial for a Technical Writer to have.  My career in technical documentation has been entirely focused on documenting software and the list below reflects that.  The skills listed are relatively generic, in that a specific employer may want you to have experience with a specific tool or within a particular domain, but if you can demonstrate knowledge of all of the hard skills and experience in all of the soft skills listed below, you'll stand a good chance of at least getting that interview.  

Where possible I've added a link to a good tutorial or starting point for exploration. A lot of tools allow you to download evaluation copies which you can use to familiarise yourself with them, and there are abundant CSS/HTML/XML tutorials available for free online.  Use a bit of Google power and join forums or communities if you can, and there is nothing on this list that you won't be able to get to grips with if you put the effort in. Nothing beats practical experience, especially when it comes to the soft skills, but the more you learn and are ready to put into practise, the more likely you are to succeed.

Hard Skills:

Soft Skills:

  • Organisational skills (time, email, task management);
  • Listening and questioning (for eliciting information from SMEs and developers);
  • Assertiveness (because people are busy and often don't see documentation as a priority, so you have to be assertive about your needs);
  • Desire to continually keep learning (because you need to learn new things to document them);
  • Calmness and a positive mental attitude (because development is a linear process and documentation is one of the things that necessarily gets done last, so you're often under time pressure);
  • A dry wit and a keen sense of the absurd (because coders and engineers are not like normal people, plus who wants to work with someone with no sense of humour?).

If you can master all of these you'll be a very strong candidate for a role as a Technical Writer.  However, bear this in mind: The single most valuable tool you can have is a portfolio of work.  You might learn all of the above to a level hitherto undreamt of by other technical writers.  You might know more about DITA than anyone else on the planet. what?  I can teach a monkey to use software and systems.  Anyone can learn that.  But I can't teach you to write.  You've either got it, or you haven't, and if you haven't, nothing else will make up for it.  A portfolio is the only way for me to read something you've written, and the larger and more varied it is, the better.  This doesn't mean the above skills and knowledge aren't useful, because they are, and if you haven't made an effort to learn about some of them I'd be disappointed, but I could get over that.  I can't get over an inability to write.  And the good news is that, especially if you don't have experience as a technical writer already, any writing will do.  Blog posts, marketing copy, significant comment histories on LinkedIn, academic articles, pretty much anything factual will do.  Just start writing, and be prepared to talk about it at interview (which I'll cover in a future post)!

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