How Technical is a Technical Writer? (Answer: It Doesn’t Matter.)

Photo courtesy of Matt Artz on Unsplash

Indeed.com offers a handy definition and guidebook to becoming a technical writer. They define techincal writer as follows: “Technical writers develop documents, user guides and other written materials for technical products and services.”

Not sure I agree. But my disagreement comes from what they write after the definition:

  1. Earn your bachelor’s degree.
  2. Pursue a technical writer certification.
  3. Create a portfolio of samples.
  4. Build up your professional network.
  5. Develop your industry knowledge.

Umm…okay, but also wow. I am on board with #1 because hey, no matter what undergrad degree you obtain, chances are you will take at least a couple of English classes, and at least one of those will be composition-focused. So that’s fair. Next, though – pursue a technical writer certification? Let’s see here…I’ve been working in the field at progressively more senior levels for more than a decade and I do not possess such a thing. Is it perhaps advisable? Okay, yes, but…and this is a significant “but,” it is non-essential. (To be fair the reason I do not have such a cert is that I never worked for a company that would pay for it.) As for #3, a portfolio of samples? One would hope that a good interviewer will be able to ferret out whether you are a capable writer by looking at some college-level essays or asking you to write to a specific prompt. And then? Build up your professional network. Let me tell you, kids, I did this by being a professional. I did not have a network per se until I actually joined the profession of technical writers. As soon as I did that? Blammo – of course I had tons of peers and mentors to choose from. More importantly, I had not only guides in the field of writing but…you guessed it…in technology.

Which brings me to – how technical do you need to be?

I interviewed for my first role as a technical writer having zero real world tech experience. That is to say, I was hoping to work for a company that handled mainframe development. Developing for developers. I knew nothing about mainframe, including how exactly it worked. I ‘fessed up to this in my interview, but also emphasized that I am exceptionally good at self-organizing, I am not afraid to ask questions even if they may make me look foolish (they rarely did), and that I am eager to learn new skills and concepts all the time.

I got the job.

I worked in mainframe software development for quite a few years before moving on. I wouldn’t even have moved on from that company, but I was physically moving my location to a new city, and the position was not remote.

I was not technical.

I later took a position as a proposal writer in the federal government space and knew very little about the automation my company was building, but I had serious chops as a persuasive writer, so again – that is what got me the job. I am a writer, not a developer. I need to learn and understand the technology, not master it.

Now, take all of that in and understand this part – if you can amass technical skill even as a tech writer, you are worth more, and I don’t just mean in dollars. You are a valued asset because you can do things like suggest tweaks to the design, find issues with code functionality, and view the process from a product perspective, not just as end-user. If you have technical capability, you understand what goes in to the product – how the sausage is made, to put it in some vernacular.

Let’s go with that metaphor, in fact – how the sausage is made.

Imagine that you are tasked with writing technical copy, or user manuals, for someone using a new kind of Italian sausage. It’s the kind with the casing and it comes in links, and you need to write about how this can be used “in the field.” There are not installation instructions, but still you are not writing recipes. You are writing the user manual. It’s stuff like “do not remove sausage from its casing,” “cook to an internal temperature of 160,” “refrigerate after opening.” Straighforward, right? Except if you are the original writer of all of this, is it not important to understand that the casing is what holds it all together, the temperature is the safe point at which humans can consume without detrimental effects, and that refrigeration ensures longevity of the product? Of course those are good things to know. You can’t just make that stuff up, arbitrarily deciding on a temperature and whatnot.

You need to have some technical knowledge. But you do not need to know: how the pork is rendered, what farm it comes from, how the machinery operates, what credentials the personnel have who staff the factory, and so on.

In the sausage instance, you would need to be comfortable researching (or asking) abotu safe temperatures and shelf life, but you would not need to be comfortable slaughtering a pig.

Get it?

The takeaway – yes, of course get a degree. Yes, of course develop your knowledge of what you are writing about (you can do this on the job or on your own, but I suggest that job experience outweighs classroom by a long shot). Yes, of course generate some writing samples.

But know this – although you will be an asset if you can code, provide UX, and a host of other technical skills, but at the end of the day, you are a writer. You are a content generator. We all have our area(s) of expertise, and hopefully we are lifelong learners of new skills. Your work will shine brighter than your resume, and your openess will open doors.

Save the true technical knowledge for the SMEs, and learn from them. How technical you are is not tantamount to how well you write technical documentation. Become a strong communicator and all will be well.

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