What’s the difference between a great technical writer and a great writer?
Both of them are great writers. But one of them has mastered the key skills required to make almost anyone understand and use almost any product that requires some technical knowledge regardless of their technological know-how.
If you are a technical writer or perhaps you are interested in becoming one, it is important for you to master the required skills too. So to make technical writing easier for you, we’ve compiled 5 of the most important skills every technical writer should master to be a professional.
5 skills you must master to be a professional technical writer
1. Master the art of usability and testing
One of the key responsibility of a technical writer is to expose tacit knowledge about a product design or features. One of the easiest methods of doing this is to create easy-to-understand scenarios that the product users may encounter while using the product.
This is why many manufacturers and software developers ask their technical writers to use and test their products before writing help manuals and other documentations. In some cases, you may be asked to join the user experience team to validate if the product actually works the way it was designed to work.
To master this skill, you’ll have to try each of the product features and sub-features one after the other. Make a list of features that works appropriately and a separate list for the ones that performed poorly. In some cases, all the features may work appropriately but the user interface or design could be poor. Do not hesitate to list that as a key issue.
2. Master the art of using help authoring tools
Every technical writer should know how to use at least one help authoring tool proficiently. Help authoring tools are designed to simplify technical writing process and they make it easier to publish documentations in several different formats. Some of these tools like HelpNDoc are free for personal use, and it can generate different content formats including HTML, CHM help files, PDF, Word, Qt help files, iPhone websites, ePubs and Kindle eBooks.
3. Master the art of conducting research
Research is the foundation of every good technical documentation. And if the foundation is weak, the documentation will end up in a waste basket and the product manufacturer will pay an extra cost for that through customer support. This is why producing a quality help manual may be the best investment a developer or manufacturer makes.
In many cases, the quality of the documentation is never better than the quality of the research. So researching every facet of your topic appropriately is the key to writing a great documentation. It is easy for many readers and product users to identify vague and irrelevant content. Without proper research, odds are you’ll make the biggest mistakes several help manual authors make.
4. Master the Art of Interviewing SMEs
When you have a new technical writing project, you’ll want all the information available, and the manufacturers will try to give it to you, but they may not always communicate it successfully. So at some point, you’ll have to ask questions to elicit the relevant information you need from subject matter experts (SMEs).
One of the best methods of asking these questions is to conduct an interview. But conducting an interview to extract all the key information you need may seem like a big challenge if you’re yet to master the art of interviewing SMEs.
There are 3 key phases of interviewing SMEs. First, you’ll have to prepare for the interview, second, you’ll have to conduct the interview and third, you’ll have to extract the significant points that are relevant to your documentations.
How to Prepare For the Interview
First, you’ll have to do some background research on the topic or documentation you intend to write about. Then, you’ll have to research the previous works of your SMEs that are related or connected to your current project. This will give you a clear idea of how to approach these experts and how to frame your questions to extract the significant points you need.
The next stage is to prepare your interview questions. Start with the information you’ve collected during your research. This method will make it easier for you to create a logical outline for all your questions. You may consider asking questions like journalists. They often start with the 5Ws and 1H approach (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How). When your questions are all set, schedule the interview and agree on a time that is convenient for the interviewee and for you.
How to Conduct the Interview
Don’t keep the interviewee waiting. Start at the scheduled time and keep to the time limit. Start with light questions to make the interviewee feel relax If you’re having the interview on Skype or Google Hangout, make sure your recording software or device is ready. Sometimes, you’ll have to conduct the interview several times to extract all the key details you need. Focus on the topic throughout the interview and avoid distractions.
How to extract the key points
When you’re back at your desk after completing the interview, consider playing the recorded conversation. List the key points, or summarize them. Carefully analyze the information you’ve extracted and verify if it covers the information gap you need to write your documentation. If the information is not enough, you may have to interview several SMEs or even other technical writers to help you find the right answers you need.
5. Master the art of writing in a clear and concise manner
Every technical writer must master the art of communicating complex ideas, situations, scenarios in a simple, precise, clear and concise manner. There is no substitute for clarity in technical writing especially when you intend to write a great help manual. That being said, you must not underrate the knowledge and level of exposure of your target audience.
If the quality of your content is poor, your target audience will realize that easily. If you use too many tech terms and jargons, there’s always a waste basket nearby. Always tailor your content to match your audience level of expectation and average knowledge.
The growth of the internet in the last two decades has led to the emergence of many business with technology at their core. The outcome? Technical writers are constantly required to update their knowledge and skills about new software, designs, tools, platforms etc. More than ever, technical writers are now required to master new skills to stay ahead of the packs. The skills mentioned in this article are among the most important ones for all technical writers regardless of their fields.