What does a good technical writer look like?
He (or she!) must have both the knowledge and the insight
What does a good technical writer look like? At any rate, a technical writer should not only be… technical. Of course, he has to feel comfortable with everything that has to do with mechanics and electronics. Building on this foundation, any specific product should hold no secret for him when he starts writing. It is here where social skills come in. After all, you have to ask the right questions to the right people… the right way.
Being a technical writer is not particularly easy. It is a demanding job. This makes technical writing very challenging. It is also a grateful job.
To start with the latter: why is being a technical writer such a grateful job? That’s because there are a lot of manuals around that could use some improvement. For some reason or another, quite a lot of manuals are not up to standard.
Mostly, this has to do with with a certain lack of ‘sense of urgency’. After most if not all attention is being paid to the product itself, it suddenly becomes obvious that a manual also should be there. When one produces a manual with too little time left, the market introduction of the product itself somehow takes over. This could lead to, let’s say, some “quality issues” for the manual.
Demanding and challenging
Why is being a technical writer demanding and challenging?
That is because a lot of things come together.
A technical writer indeed has to be ‘technical’. Nowadays, most products combine mechanics and electronics. Technical writers should know something about both. Being a mechanical engineer or an electronics engineer certainly helps. However, strictly speaking a degree in one of these disciplines is not necessary to understand ‘mechatronics’. As long as there is technical affinity, there is technical quality.
A manual writer should feel comfortable in different social settings. The question “I still do not quite see the need for this valve, can you explain this to me?” should pose no problem for him.
Also, a technical writer should feel comfortable talking to his colleagues, especially to technical illustrators. He has to go the extra mile to convince his colleague(s) that the texts or visuals are not up to standard yet. Apart from that, he should not be afraid to let his own work being reviewed by a colleague.
Despite the fact that the planning for writing a manual should be realistic, there always will be some time pressure. The introduction of a product can only wait so long. This means a technical writer has to deal with deadlines. He should not crack under pressure.
There really is a whole set of software applications a manual writer should be familiar with. Microsoft Word is only the beginning, though important. MadCap Flare is a content management system especially geared to technical documentation. Adobe FrameMaker also is a software application based on reusable building blocks rather than linear writing, as happens when writing a book.
Any technical writer should also know a thing or two about desktop publishing applications, such as Adobe InDesign. He should also be able to slightly edit illustrations his colleague(s) made for him, whether these illustrations were built from scratch or imported in a CAD software application.
Last but not least: if a new application or release arrives, he should be able to get a grip on it ‘asap’.
Way of writing
Strictly speaking, there is a difference between a technical writer and a manual writer. One could say that the scope of a technical writer is broader than that of a manual writer. That is because a technical writer can also be a so-called technical content writer whose job it is to build separate information blocks for his colleagues. A manual writer is a writer who writes complete manuals himself right from the start.
In practice, however, the lines between the two are blurred. Most of the technical writers are involved in both ways of writing. They do not only want to help out a colleague, but also want to take care of a complete project themselves. Most of the time the phrase ‘Find a technical writer’ and ‘Find a manual writer’ are synonyms. This is also true for Manualise.