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Succeeding as a Technical Writer
by Michael Knowles

Return to Business & Technical Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

I love writing -- any kind of writing. Technical writing happens to be my bread and butter, and I've become successful at it. I call what I do guerilla writefare: the practice of writing efficiently, effectively, and sanely in high-stress environments. In this weekly column, I'll tell you how to be successful, too, and how to maintain that success even in tight job markets.

I'll start with a list of rules that have served me in good stead over my entire career. Some are common sense, and others may sound a little extreme or radical to your ears. That's okay. They've worked for me.

Take what you need, and leave the rest.

  • Don't waste the user's time. Nobody wants to read a tech manual. People go to you because they're stuck -- confused, frustrated, and maybe even angry. Remember that.

  • Keep it simple -- the oldest admonishment in the book. Save your beautiful prose and love of great words for your novel. If you cannot tell me what I want to know in something other than polysyllabic horse hockey, I'm going to trash your doc and call the help line. Every time. That is a waste of at least three people's time: the customer's, the support person's, and yours. And it costs your company more money. Bad dog.

  • Read your work aloud. Make certain that it sounds as natural as technical language can possibly be. It's hard enough to understand some of the subjects we write about. Let's give the reader a break and create text that's easy to digest.

  • Write as you speak. Sure, I've had one or two high-minded editors tell me that's bad advice. But most of the editors I know agree with me. And so do my customers.

  • Know your subject. There are some things that cannot be faked. If you do not understand what you're writing, it will show because your reader won't understand it, either. You cannot explain what you do not know.

  • Learn to love deadlines. While I can tell you how long I think it's going to take for me to write something, what most of my clients really want to know is, "Can you have it done by such-and-such a date?" You tell me when you need it and, if it's reasonable, I'll simply meet the deadline. Caveat: I'll also tell the customer exactly what they're going to get for every project based on the amount of time I have. You won't get War and Peace in five days, but odds are you'll get a darn good Cliff's Notes.

  • Avoid technical specification. I know -- there is a place for technical specialization in the technical writing field. But if you're like me, you don't want to be stuck writing the same old thing for the rest of your life. Develop a broad technical range, and keep abreast of current technology. Pick five technical areas and stay on top of them. You'll be happier -- and more consistently in demand -- in the long run.

  • Maintain excellent relationships with subject matter experts, engineers, developers, product marketing staff, and customer services. These people are your internal customers and suppliers. Treat them well, and they'll treat you well.

  • Be teachable. If you really knew everything, the manual would be done already, wouldn't it? And leave your ego at the door. Big egos cause big problems. Give me one good, persistent writer with a small ego and the two of us will do the work of ten -- with almost no overtime.

Where Can You Go from Here?

Now that is a good question. Where can you go from technical writing? Someone once told me that once you're a tech writer, you're always a tech writer. I think that's a load of hooey.

It has to do with what you believe. Since I like to work for startups, I've been able to practice my skills in several different areas. Right now, for example, I am the Product Manager for my current client. What I learned as a technical writer for that client made it possible for me to take on a new and exciting kind of job. Another friend of mine has made a great career for himself as publications technology guru for a well-known network products company. Still another makes a great living in a QA tester/technical writer position.

The point is that your skills as a technical writer can open doors if you believe in yourself, keep your eyes open for interesting opportunities, and have the desire to try something new. I believe that technical writing is an ideal springboard to many other kinds of jobs because of the skills it requires.

Here are a few logical moves for technical writers:

  • Trainer
  • Customer Services Engineer
  • Project Manager
  • Product Manager
  • Product Marketing Analyst
  • Marketing Communications Writer
  • Marketing Analyst
  • Programmer
  • Systems Engineer
  • Quality Assurance Engineer
  • Technology Analyst
  • Consulting

Look around and see what your company has to offer. Use your skills to find work that needs to be done in areas of interest to you and then do it. But it will happen to you only if you believe in yourself enough to persist at it.

Good luck!

Find Out More...

13 Tips on How to Tech-talk to Non-techies - Hasmita Chander

KISS - Keep It Simple, Sweetheart: How to Write About a Complex Subject in a Simple Way - Devyani Borade

Technical Writers: It's OK to Lie to Your Readers -- A Little! - Geoff Hart

Copyright © 2001 Michael Knowles
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Michael Knowles creates technical materials that help companies market and support their products and services. He also writes nonfiction, and poetry, publishes the weekly WriteThinking newsletter, and is working on the third draft of his first novel. He lives in North Carolina, with his wife, two sons, and six cats. And he laughs. A lot.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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