Gaining Respect as a Technical Writer

Your value as a technical writer wholly depends on how you value yourself in the role. First and foremost, you have to respect the profession, the responsibilities you have, and the role you play. Only then you can demand respect from the others. The best part of being a technical writer is the mixture of creativity and technology. You can bring in a small amount of creativity in the way you present the information-that is where you can expand your thoughts.

But to expand your boundaries in this area, you definitely require staunch support of the management. Unlike the other professions, here you have to first prove your worth before you receive their support. The respect given to technical writers, or to documentation in general, depends on (at least) three interlinked factors: management support, processes, and technical writers themselves.

Management Support

In most organizations, the culture is usually influenced by the factors that are important to the management. If the management is really serious and committed to technical writing, that will be reflected in the way the documentation team is treated. Commitment and support from the management is very important. You need to make the management aware about the value addition you do. Let them see your contributions and recognize them as valuable addition to the product. If your organization is paying you well, remember that they are already respecting you by compensating well for your work.

Integrating and Formalizing Processes

Indifference of the SME towards documentation—giving information and performing the technical review on time is a common problem that most of the technical writers around the globe face. When assigning work to the engineers, the product managers fail to consider the time they spend in giving a demonstration of the product, providing information, and performing documentation reviews. So most of the time, these activities becomes an added burden to the engineers. There are some organizations which consider all these factors and account for the time in their product development plan, but most don’t.

  • If the documentation cycle is integrated with the product development cycle, then the engineers may become more cooperative because they are educated about the requirement to do the tasks and because the process says so.
  •  If the process states that the writers be informed of any decision about changes in software as soon as developers are, it will be done.
  •  Another way is to integrate these aspects (time for writers and reviewing the documentation on time) into the annual performance review of the engineers. This makes a lot of difference in the attitude of the SMEs who may think of documentation related work as waste of time.

When something becomes a process, it no longer remains personal and has to be followed by every concerned/involved.

Technical Writers Themselves

There may be an existing documented process or guidelines. But to start with, the writers can earn respect for themselves by being knowledgeable atleast about all the aspects of documentation—the product or technology they are writing about.

  • Be confident as a writer—Create error free documents and display outstanding and noticeable performance that will gain you respect. Others should want you to work on the documents of their product!
  • Do your home work—Always do the groundwork before meeting with the SMEs. Most of them will give time if you succeed in demonstrating that you have done your homework or made an honest effort to learn about what you are documenting.
  • Be proactive—In addition to creating documents, take active participation in suggesting usability changes to the user interface (UI), reporting software bugs before QA phase, and helping the developers create the functional specification.
  • Be friendly—At another level, be being friendly and courteous with the SMEs. Developing a rapport on a personal level with others helps.

 Always hold your head high, with the strength that comes from your conviction about your work, its importance, and your role as a technical writer!


Importance of Technical Editing

Regardless of how remarkable your document is or how well organized the material is, if it contains grammatical and spelling errors, the reader will probably not trust the document. A misspelled word or incorrect use of a word can take away the credibility of the entire document you have written. Little errors and inconsistencies in the usage of words can confuse your readers. Editing is the process of checking information to correct content, language, and stylistic errors.

Technical editing is revising a document that presents material related to science or technology to make it communicate more effectively. The main purpose of editing is to make sure that the audience gets an error free document. It is the process of reviewing a document to improve its language in terms of content, accuracy, coherence, and consistency.

Editing is very subjective term. If you ask five people to describe what it means to them, you will get answers as varied as the parabled five men who described different parts of an elephant. The truth is, good editing goes unnoticed, but even a single spelling mistake in a document brings in a lot of negative comments. Take a look at the following cartoon and poem. There are no spelling mistakes (typos), but are they error free? On the contrary, it is full of errors/mistakes.


 The poem and the cartoon speaks volumes about the importance of the human eye taking a look at the document to find the mistakes. Though the spell checkers can be useful for finding some errors, they will not find correctly spelled wrong words (e.g. wait instead of weight) or double words such as “the the”. Some desktop publishing tools perform grammatical checks and may locate errors like double words.

Good editors know that they do a thankless job and this makes them even better. Remember, being a good editor is like being a masked superhero (or super girls) working behind the scene.

  • Writers don’t take editors seriously—Some writers have a very great self opinion and resent being edited as they feel that their writing is being questioned. As a result, editors must occasionally deal with stubborn writers who make not even incorporate the edits. The life of editors become rather difficult in such scenario because as professionals they trust the writers to do their part of work—incorporate the changes in the documents.
  • Good editing is invisible—The problem with writing is that no one appreciates good writing when they see it. The users are probably not aware that they are using a good document. But they quickly come to know that a document is not good. Good editing goes invisible, but bad editing stands out like a sore thumb. So, if you are not criticized for your editing, it means that you have done an excellent job.
  • No appreciation—Unfortunately most of the time, there is no appreciation for the work done by the technical writers as compared to the development teams.
    • When a document is error free and well organized, the writers may walk away with the recognition and the praises. Many a times, the editor had to make a few passes of edits to make the document remotely accurate, user friendly, and usable.
    •  After the product releases, the development team may sometimes include the writers for the release celebrations, but the editor is conveniently forgotten!

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.