This question has come up a couple times recently, in person and online, so I thought I’d take the time to address it. I’ve talked on this page about technical skills needed for the job, as well as soft skills and business skills, but what about the skill required for the actual writing? That will be the subject of today’s post.
Writing Is Not for Everyone
Do you have a “writing mind?”
You can have all of the skills linked to in the introductory paragraph and still not be a good fit for technical writing. In the end, of course, it comes down to the actual writing: putting words on paper in a coherent order so that the person reading them is enlightened without becoming confused or bored.
An effective technical writer needs to have a passion for words. That includes being willing to move them around multiple times until they say exactly what you mean; thinking about flow; and having an innate sense for what to include and what not to include. It also includes a willingness to trim out extra words to create the straightest literary line the reader needs to get from A to B.
Some forms of technical writing have more art and emotion than others. If you’re writing technical instructions or a scientific or engineering report, you’re going to be working more on the factual side without a lot of “fluff.” However, if you’re doing public outreach, advocacy, or actual sales/marketing copy, you’ll need to incorporate more dynamic language and perhaps even some inspirational prose here and there. If you handle both types of writing, you’ll need to be flexible enough to shift styles, sometimes several times in the same day, depending on your customers and audiences.
Other factors include:
- A broad vocabulary, a willingness to look up unfamiliar terminology, and the ability to use and spell it correctly. The converse to this is knowing when to skip using the 50-cent word when a 5-cent word will do the job more effectively. Also, you want to use the fewest words possible to get your point across. Business and technical writing are not “literary” in the sense that people are not reading it for the pleasure of words strung together beautifully (advertising can differ). Nor are they reading to learn how brilliant or educated you are. They’re trying to understand a product, service, or process as quickly as possible.
- A working knowledge of how grammar and punctuation works.
- A journalistic sense of “story” in your writing. That doesn’t mean you’re writing “stories” all the time; it does mean you have an ability to identify the most important or interesting point(s) in a large array of information, put that information up front, and frame the rest of the content so that your key information has the most impact on the reader.
- An ability to understand reader/user needs and to include the words necessary to meet those needs.
- An ability to organize large amounts of data into a useful format so that readers/users get it in an order that’s logical useful to them.
- An ability to write quality prose quickly (or at least on time to meet deadlines).
Do you have an interest in science, technology, or business processes?
It helps to care about your subject matter. Mind you, I have my moments of who-gives-a-damn with some of my content, but I love reading and learning about things I didn’t know previously. And even if the subject matter doesn’t interest me, I’m still writing, which is also part of the joy of the job.
Therefore, you should try to choose a field that interests you. Space writing is a thrill for me, medical writing not so much. The more you’re willing to learn, the better your depth of knowledge and the more complete, informed, and useful your writing will be.
Do you know how you can add value?
I noted that technical writing is all about thinking in words, which is a different way of processing the world than others use, including your subject matter experts, who might think in terms of equations, images, or physical processes. I learned how rocket engines work by reading my background materials, sorting through the unfamiliar vocabulary, and determining which items were subjects, which were verbs, and which were objects. This approach horrified my customer, but the paper I wrote for him was still on point and easy to read.
This is your advantage as a technical writer: you have in your brain a way to organize the information in your SMEs’ head so that their target audience(s) can use it. Everyone uses words, which is why some people think that “anyone can write,” but it takes a skilled practitioner to put down the right words so that there is comprehension and constructive action on the reader’s side.
Does that sound like a career for you?