Top Five Characteristics of a Successful Technical Writer

Which qualities make a successful technical writer? I believe they are the same qualities that make a successful journalist. Both journalists and technical writers are non-fiction writers and non-fiction writing demands a different skill set than fiction writing. After more than 15 years in this business, here are my top five characteristics of a successful technical writer:

  1. Organized – Organization should come naturally to you and you should enjoy doing it, because technical writing is all about researching, culling, and organizing facts. You need the ability to put all steps in a process in the correct order and ruthlessly discard irrelevant facts that don’t fit in. For example, if you are writing instructions on how to install software, don’t include a history of the project or who developed the software.
  2. Simple – You need to be able to cut through the jargon of engineers and other subject matter experts and translate their explanations into clear, concise terms that a non-expert can understand. My motto is: “Unless I understand it, our customers won’t understand it.” Sometimes you will be mocked for doing this, but your customers will appreciate it. You should use as few words as possible to convey the information. Remember, simple is elegant!
  3. Humble – Don’t be afraid to say, “What does that mean?” or “Can you show me?” – every day if necessary. Don’t worry that you are the stupidest person in the room. The truth is, the person who never learns anything new is the stupidest person in the room – and that won’t be you! When someone uses an acronym, ask the meaning. Often the person using the acronym doesn’t even know; and if that happens, look it up online. Chances are, other people in the room didn’t understand the acronym or explanation just given by that expert either.
  4. Tenacious – You must have the ability to grab hold of a problem or topic – like a bulldog – and not let go until you have the answer. If an engineer does not have time to give you that product demo today, ask if he will show you tomorrow. Then put it on your calendar and follow up every few days until you get the demo.
  5. Meticulous – If you are a “big picture” person and don’t care that much about accuracy and attention to detail, you won’t make a good technical writer. If you say, “I can’t edit or proofread my own work,” you won’t make a good technical writer. The person who researches and writes the piece is often the same person who edits and proofreads the piece. Many times, the only person checking what you write is the subject matter expert, who cares about technical accuracy, but cannot correct writing style, format, layout, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If you don’t care about semicolons and fonts, find another career. If no one has ever described you as “obsessive” or “picky,” find another career.


© 2013, Sandra Elam. All rights reserved.

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