I got my start as a technical writer before any formal technical writing degree programs got their start. While college gave me a solid foundation, much of what I know today, I learned by actually doing the work. Regardless of what professors say, there is no substitute for actually being out there and doing the job.
While it’s rare for me to work with junior technical writers anymore, I have had a lot of opportunities to collaborate with non-writers on documents. This got me thinking as to what I learned on the job versus what I learned in school. Understanding organizational dynamics and people skills were something I had to learn once I was out of college.
Here are some things they don’t teach (but should) in technical writer school:
Programmers are lazy (but in a good way)
If I had my way, I would work with programmers all the time because some of my absolute career highlights have been working directly with software development teams. They are lazy. But in a right way mind you. The way many of them reuse code and use shortcuts should be a model for the rest of us mainly technical writers.
Following on the “programmers are lazy” model, technical writers can also learn about program elements by studying similar items in the same program. While this is a simple concept to some people, I have come across some who never considered this angle. Understanding how programmers work including how they design and implement program features can help a technical writer immensely by shortening their learning curve on new projects and help them contribute more throughout the development process.
Microsoft Office doesn’t always work as advertised
As a technical writer, you may have to spend more time just getting Microsoft Office applications to work as advertised especially if you stumble onto a hokey implementation. This means that a fraction of Microsoft Office troubleshooting skills can help a technical writer shine especially if the help desk is more focused on closing Remedy tickets than actually resolving user problems.
Technical writers need a grasp of the concepts they write about
While a technical writer doesn’t need to be a technical expert, they do need to be able to learn new software and technical concepts to write their documents. If technical writers are dependent on drafts from SMEs to do their work, then they are not a writer. Organizations setting this as the status quo for their technical documentation need to reassess the role of technical writers in their development efforts.
Questions should be targeted not broad
Leading off with only broad questions is a waste of time. Question asking can be an art when you consider a technical writer may stumble into some project element that hasn’t been fully thought out by the rest of the team. Asking the right questions can help drive the documentation especially if the technical writer has a grasp of the technology underlying the project.
Artificial barriers to information are just an invitation
If an artificial barrier is put up between a technical writer and information, it should serve as an invitation for the technical writer to work around it. This means a technical writer needs some people skills, charm, and a talent for seeing the angles to work when faced with such a situation.
Meeting Minutes are for suckers
My views on meeting minutes in the workplace are well documented. Technical writers should never volunteer to take meeting minutes or see it as some “key to the inner sanctum.” Once programmers see a technical writer taking meeting minutes, then they automatically equate them with being a secretary. Not that there is anything wrong with being a secretary but a technical writer needs to sit at the same table as the programmers and not let themselves get minimized into what is traditionally a very nontechnical support role.
While I welcome formal technical writing programs to the fold, I’ve never really been very trusting of academia but hope these programs keep their feet in reality and don’t fill their students’ heads with nonsense that has no direct application in the real world of today.
What else do schools need to teach to prospective technical writers?
Hi! My name is Will Kelly. I’m a technical writer and analyst based in the Washington, DC area. I’ve worked with clients like NetApp, Dell, and Neustar to develop technical, training, and thought leadership content. My articles have been published by IBM Mobile Business Insights, TechBeacon, CNET TechRepublic, Toolbox.com, ZDNet.com, and others. Follow me on Twitter:@willkelly.