Importance of Domain Knowledge

An ongoing debatable question is, do technical writers need domain knowledge? OR What is more important—writing skills or subject/domain knowledge?

What is more important—your right hand or your left hand? If I am not mistaken, both are equally important. You may be little more comfortable using one over the other. The same stand is applicable to writing skills and subject/domain knowledge. The writing skills get you the job, where as you learn the subject on the job. Good audience analysis includes knowing about your users and their requirements. So, apart from the primary competencies (language skills, knowledge of tools, grammar, writing skills, critical thinking, etc.) domain knowledge is also important for succeeding as a technical writer.

So it is important for you to learn about the domain you work in, be it engineering, finance, medicine, law, gardening, database maintenance, or rocket science. You can’t do a good job if:

  • You have excellent language and writing skills, but don’t know the subject you have to write about.
  • You are a technical expert, but lack in language and writing skills.

A few years back, technical writers were seen as language experts. Now, many organizations advertise for writers with technical background. This is because people have now realized that technical writers are not just linguistic experts. They perform a lot more activities and tasks—writers also have to understand the concepts, theories, ideas, designs, and code to effectively communicate them.

Having subject matter knowledge can mean:

  • Having sufficient knowledge of the subject to effectively communicate about it.

What is more important than knowledge of a technical subject is the ability to understand the subject and write about it. To write different types of documents you require a different level of understanding of the domain/subject. You should have the ability to understand the subject (software, engineering, accounts, inventory, law, medicine, science, health, business, etc.) and express it in writing. You can be an effective communicator only if you understand and know about what you want to communicate.

Example:If you have to write about electronic products, it would be extremely helpful if you have an electronics background. It is not necessary, but is surely helpful to you as it saves time and effort required for training, understanding the concepts, and reviewing the documents.

You don’t need to master the technology, but you should be a fast learner.

  • Having the critical analysis skills to comprehend and understand complex, technical, and scientific concepts. For instance, a technical writer should:
    • Know about the subject not the code to write GUI related information of the product and/or software.
    • Have a basic knowledge about the code to write for advanced users.
    • Know something about the equipment to write the installation procedures.
    • Know everything about aviation and the working of the aircraft to write an operations guide for an airplane.

Writing different types of documents for different industries requires a different level of understanding of the domain/subject.

  • Understanding the technology just enough to confidently explain the technology.

Even if you don’t have the relevant background, it is very important to be able to understand the basic concepts of the technology, irrespective of the subject. It will help you describe complex technology clearly and concisely. As a writer you do not need the knowledge required to design and build the product. If you have some knowledge about the topic you have to write about, you can learn the new product faster and write about it better.

Example: You must have come across sales people in automobile and electronic showrooms. They know just enough about the products they deal with, to give the precise information to impress the prospective customer. They talk about a model (television, microwave, automobile, etc.) and then move on to demonstrate the features of the next model. They can give a good comparison about the features and the cost of various models of the product they are trying to sell.

Technical writers should neither know more nor less. This is almost like adding the right amount to spice and salt to a dish.

As a technical writer you write about technologies which already exist and products that are already created! So, you need not possess an in-depth knowledge about the subjects, but you should definitely have to be a fast learner and also need to have some amount of interest in the subject you write about. In short, the interest in learning new technologies, ability to grasp and understand the concepts quickly, and the ability of explain technical concepts to the users is what you need!

These days, many organizations want writers with strong technical skills. You may have come across advertisements for writers with specific background—finance, instrumentation, pharmacy, aeronautics, electronics, etc. to write about their product. There is also requirement for writers who can read and interpret Java, Visual Basic, or C++ code.

Knowing the tools and having excellent writing skills will help you in this regard. In some technical writing positions, having technical qualification and competence is an important success factor as it will help you in the following ways:

  • Planning better: It will help you plan your project in a better and effective manner.
    • You can easily identify areas that need to be documented in different types of documents (user’s guide, functional specification, systems requirements document, installation guide, etc.).
    • You can understand the importance and the implications of the functionalities. This makes it easier to create the content accordingly.
    • You can prioritize tasks based on these inputs.
  • Conversing intelligently: Having good knowledge about the subject helps you to intelligently converse with engineers on complex software (database, communication, network engineering concepts, to name a few).
  • Organizing: It will help you organize large quantities of technical material in a better and efficient manner.
  • Saving time: Knowing the technical concepts saves time as:
    • You do not have to spend a lot of time researching, reading, and understanding the product/technology.
    • The SME’s do not have to explain to you the basic concepts of the technology.
  • Reasoning skills: It is but true that physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer graduates (apart from engineering) have better reasoning skills than the social sciences and arts graduates. It has nothing to do with intelligence. It is all about training the mind to think in a specific manner.

Let me wind up saying that the emphasis of technical writing is in the field of software which happens to be the largest segment of the technical writing market (atleast in India). Your knowledge can be in other areas, such as engineering, medicine, manufacturing, finance, and law. This is not an important criteria, but it definitely gives you an edge over the others and the opportunity to get into the related field.