A Beginner’s Guide to Technical Writing

Okay, so I admit I put this aside for nearly a whole year because I thought I wasn’t really going to speak much to the topic any more. I shifted my focus into Product Operations with a cool company. I moved from one city to another. My youngest graduated from high school and I was on to other projects. I finished a book and started looking for agents. Frankly, I was too cool for school and I thought maybe I would just let this thing go the way of the dinosaur and that was okay by me.

Product Ops was, in a way, a bit cooler than Doc Ops anyway, and I thought I didn’t have time to focus on tech writing. To be fair, my new job was taking up a whole bunch of my time. (I know, that is a whole laundry list of excuses, right there.) I forgot that I actually enjoy tech writing and all that comes with it, and I had no crystal ball that would tell me that in the wake of a pesky little virus, my company would see Product Operations as, well…expendable.

So I am in my home office, a cozy little spot, thinking again about the demand for technical writers, and surmising that there is indeed a demand in the increase for technical products, and that even as the curve begins to flatten out, we’ll see an uptick in the need for folks like me (and presumably you) to explain all of this stuff to laypersons.

According to Venturebeat, Zoom, the online meeting tool that allows users to hear and see their meeting mates in realtime, daily users “ballooned” from 10 million to 200 million in April alone.

Talk about a tech explosion, and that is a simple use-case. The users in that example are an average group – teachers, friends, regular Joe offices. These are not high-tech examples, and the technology behind Zoom was already in place, no major infrastructure had to be spun up. So…yeah…

If we try to imagine the future just a little bit, and we know from previous models that any time there is a world-changing event (think 911), things will most certainly not go back to they way they were, we will see a host of new changes, new technologies emerging.

Want an example?

Let’s stick with 911 – after that horrific event, we had the need for new scanning devices at every airport in America. All of those came with installation manuals and both digital and print guides. Tech writers. We had body imaging tools – tech manuals. We had risk mitigation manuals – tech writers. We had procedurals, process manuals, new technical guides on airplanes, FAA guides, you name it. A veritable cornucopia of writing.

In the wake of this virus, the same will happen. There are protocols, articles, tools, procedures, styles, guidelines, materials, but there is software, hardware, programs, – you get where I am going.

So how does all of this matter to the new technical writer? Why did I title this piece “A Beginner’s Guide to Technical Writing?” I did not just have a fit of memory loss.

Growing Demand

Employment growth in this field will exceed estimates due to continuing increases in products and procedures. It simply has to.

Technical writers have to be lifelong learners. If you happen to be the kind of person who has ever said, “Wow, I wish I could just go to school for the rest of my life.” I suggest you might want to be a tech writer. I get to learn stuff every day. It’s pretty sweet. I have the pleasure of learning, teaching, writing, disseminating. And I learn about really cool things.

There Are Few Limits

Okay, if you are all, “But I don’t want to write about software. Yawn” I hear that. I mean, software makes my heart go pitter-pat, but if that isn’t your jam, I get it. But hear this: technical writing gets into transportation, energy, television, academia, publishing, and…yeah, health (wasn’t I just talking about viruses?). So if you are all scienc-ey, or if you’re all about jets or planes or something, get in there.

It’s also about planning. If you don’t fancy yourself the kind of person who can just sit down and write about a topic, that’s fine. I am never that person. I have note cards or post-its, or now I have files in my computer, y’know, fancy programs and roadmaps, but you do you. I plan stuff. I plan it quickly now that I am a grown up, but still. It’s not unlike a semester where I had fifteen weeks to think through a project and execute on it. Project planning is a key thing. I am half project manager and half writer. I know my stuff before I pull out the keyboard, and what I don’t know – I learn. Woot!

It’s Partly UX, Which Is Super Fun.

I already have too many (is there such a thing as too many?) degrees, but if I didn’t I’d go back and get another one in UX. A big part of this career is user testing, user interface. Man, is it fun. You get to figure out how the people who interact with what you write actually use what you write, and whether or not you did it well. Does the reader understand what you said and follow the directions? Did they miss a step? Did you anticipate their initial reactions and questions, or are you so familiar with the product/concept/tooling that you missed it? It’s like a game where you play it out before you write and determine who they are, what they need, where they will be when they read, why they are reading it in the first place, how they will read it (on a phone, on a tablet, in a car…), why they will read it (is something broken, are they installing, is there a question), when they will read it (are they at work, did they just open the box)…and it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book. You can create maps and endings based on various outcomes, except you have to be careful because if you create too many variable endings you’ll have a 5,000 page user manual and that is ludicrous!

You Are a Mapmaker

Just like planning various endings, you create treasure maps. You can create wireframes for websites, but you can do this with words, with tables of contents, with document maps. Learn to do it well, and you will be great at your job, and people will come to you for advice. At my company, I always felt great when colleagues came to me to ask where they should house documents, where it seemed “right” to put new information.

I often talked with teams about how Information Architecture was a lot like organizing a brand-new house. If you go into a housing development, many of the houses have the same footprint, or similar. The kitchens are “kind of” the same, but each one will be organized a little differently. You can bet that in them, if you look, the glasses are kept in one cupboard, and the plates in another; you won’t find things strewn all over.

But each kitchen will have its own personality. Its own flavor.

The garages, though? Oh dear. Those houses, and those garages. They are probably a storm of a mess.

So what I do is come in and provide some structure for those garages. I provide organization, shelves and bins and labels to all of that information. That is a great part of being a technical writer. The organization of all of those words and labels and ideas. You make the map of all of the information, sometimes in small chunks, and sometimes for the whole organization.

Start Out

If all of this seems like a lot, and perhaps a bit disjointed, welcome to the life of a technical writer. If all of this seems like fun and intriguing, and like a cool way to spend your day, welcome to the life of a technical writer.

Start trolling LinkedIn for some entry level positions because there will continue to be a tech-driven economy, and a need for more people who are willing to understand the language to explain the code and the machinery and the science.

If that’s you, and yet you enjoy the writing and the grammar and the syntax, the next 20 years are yours.



4 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Technical Writing

    1. Thanks very much, that’s incredibly kind of you. If you like my tech writing columns, you are welcome to check out my creative nonfiction over on Medium. Very different writing, since it’s not my professional space. Same name, different genre. Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t see your reply until recently (that unchecked box about new comments). You’re welcome. A chunk of why it resonated is that two things I enjoy are breaking things down into ordinary language, and the fun of UX (as a tester). Though I’m neither a tech writer or in UX research. While I don’t think I’d trade either for the map reading my degree in Theology gave me? I might go for a second in UX or Design it’d be such fun. Anyway. Thanks for the reply, your perspective, and the courage of your vulnerability in some of your other writings I chased down. Thank you for that encouragement, also.


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