What is a Technical Writer?
My dear friend and talented writer, Kathy English once taught me how to respond to questions when you tell someone you are a writer. “What do you write?” they would ask and she would calmly explain, words, sentences, and paragraphs in a level and comforting voice tuned from her vast knowledge bank compiled from each assignment, a voice of confidence in the ability to transform words into an emotional or learning experience for readers. Tell them you are a technical writer and you will get a battery of questions and a few sideways glances. I always try to be polite and explain that the words writing and technology are not all-inclusive of the many skill-feathers in your proverbial thinking cap from working and writing in a technical arena, and the better description is Technical Communications Specialist, which can include as many diverse skills a writer would wish to learn working in the corporate trenches.
A broad variety of skills can be honed for someone with technical aptitude and solid writing skills willing to put in the work, including everything from writer/editors, to designers/developers, content creators/managers, graphic designers/marketing experts/social media developers, to documentation specialists and project managers. The ever-blurring lines between the business world and the technical world and those once disparate communication channels that are now married at the hip, provide numerous opportunities for writers on the technical side to work with marketing, always in need of the technical side of the house to keep websites, manuals, and other crucial communication channels up to speed, or the management and HR teams in constant need of communications tools like the coveted Org Chart, or any other number of corporate lists and charts to wow the executives. Writers and communications professionals with business backgrounds often make some of the best technical writers because they already understand the importance of splitting hairs when it comes to a message, or how that message is organized and presented. Learn and develop some diverse communications skills to become a valuable asset for any sized business or project as a Technical Writer, err, I mean Business and/or Technical Communications Specialist.
The most important tool you can have is a keen sense of humor tucked away and available and ready to meet the next complex set of absurdities in the often surreal way in which humans in a techno-controlled business environment communicate.
Technical Writer (What do you do?) Well, for one thing, I do not use parentheses to set things apart that are inherently part of what you are describing unless it is a first-use acronym, and I get irritated when I review a document using quotation marks, all caps, underlining, or any color other than black for emphasis. All caps are cool for acronyms, but leave the shouting in the last development meeting.
Technical Editor “What do you do?” I keep my brain buried in the style guide until it turns to mush and every character with alternative formatting rules goes racing by in a recurring dream every night. Occasionally, I get a rare meeting with the author or subject matter expert, aka SME, pronounced Smeeeee, where I tread lightly with the red pen and learn more lessons in humility and patience while navigating eccentric, super-intelligent, overworked people who live and think in a different realm than most readers. Always start your editing sessions on a good note, complimenting the author on their expertise and mentioning something fascinating you learned from reviewing their work, and a compliment about something cool or nostalgic displayed in their office. This helps when they see the page dripping in red.
You might be a technical writer. . . .
- If you take glee in discovering typos, weird sentences, or illogical messages on signs, billboards, or other places where bad messages are displayed, you might be a technical writer. This is especially delightful on road trips, in doctor’s offices, or while visiting your kin in rural areas.
- If you ever served as a scribe for a high-level meeting where the discussion is laced with acronyms and bravado-infused jargon straight from the jargon tree, and then tried to make sense of it afterward, you might be a technical writer. My all-time favorite memory is lengthy discussions about Scope Creep! Oh no, it can’t be scope creep!??
- If you ever tried to make sense of and rewrite a sentence written by a skilled programmer or database administrator in a hurry, You might be a tech writer. It’s like (this document), that was mentioned (it was mentioned) in a previous document (the last document), that appears below this list (not the last list). Parenthesis rule for some reason! Some sentences are filled with them, almost like computer code……
- If you ever worked on a project plan for a massive government project for three years, jumping through hoop after hoop and finally reaching the coveted baseline status, only to learn a few days later that the grand project was canned and you are probably out of work, welcome to the world of technical communications.
- If you ever had a lengthy and dull conversation or debate with a project teammate about language or formatting minutia, followed by a lively discussion about something really bizarre or creative, then you may be a technical writer.