September 18, 2016 by Ed Kennedy
Technical Writing 101: Where a New Writer can Start in The Field
Whether it is Saturday or Sunday where you find yourself in the world – and however your locale determines which day is special – the weekend usually brings with it some chance for reflection, consideration, and planning.
To some this may involve making promises to not have that extra drink next time, to others an acknowledgement its indeed to hop onto Facebook and affirm to the world your local eatery has lost a step.
To those in the sphere of writing and media though, oftentimes catching a moment’s breath shall further affirm in your mind that the industry as it exists today is indeed breathless. By no means is this a bad thing necessarily – being a pro cyclist or racing car driver means your daily work at the office is breathless – but the pace and scale of change means ongoing learning is important.
While the pathways through a career in the media sphere (broadly defined as arts, communication, and design) are huge and immense, so too is the requirements of each field, and being great at just one or two things is no signification of failure. After all, Al Pacino is heralded as a great actor of stage and screen – does anybody really notice his directorial efforts haven’t yet picked up Oscars left and right?
So we come to technical writing. Undoubtedly, just like authoring a book or undertaking an expansive piece of academic writing is distinct from ‘regular’ writing, so too is technical writing essentially a separate language from regular writing. While it does involve a greater level of skill and complexity – so many writers fairly elect to not work in the field but instead to focus on content writing, media consultancy, and so forth – technical writing can usually come with a significantly higher scale of remuneration than other forms of writing.
So, for those writers new to technical writing (and who perhaps don’t yet own enough HB pencils and pairs of suspenders to call themselves ‘veterans’ of the field) may the following be useful as a 101 in helping you start in technical writing.
You need know your field
In order to succeed in technical writing you need know a field, and know it very well. While prior knowledge is useful in other fields, in technical writing is is all but essential. In turn, while the ability to research fast (whether in complement to or in absence of any prior knowledge) can often be a sufficient foundation to regular writing – e.g. ‘OK I haven’t written about your particular city before but I have written on Bay Area real estate so give me an hour to read up and I’ll be good to write for you’ – in technical writing research skills shall only help so much.
So, rather than aspiring to be an across the board expert on anything and everything, instead seek to build out on a foundation that you already hold some strength is. Can you broaden this over time? Certainly. Just be sure if you’ve mostly spent time as a journalist writing in about rock music you’re not this time next week putting together a manual for operating heavy machinery at a mining site.
You can’t just “get it” overnight
To be clear lest it be misread: being able to research and research well is a cornerstone of good technical writing. Accordingly, unless you hold a photographic memory and are a veritable virtuoso of your field you’re unlikely to be able to write a technical document or manual from the top of your head – but it’s just also true research takes time to do, and the knowledge you take from it takes time to be absorbed, digested, and understood.
After all, it is not just for fun that universities stagger a course over a semester of 12 weeks or so; it’s recognised time is required to properly learn, comprehend, and then apply that new knowledge gained to assessment tasks. So, while it is perfectly fine to stick your hand up for a project or say yes to a client’s request to write a manual for a product you’re not yet expertly familiar with – its all but certain to end painfully for you if you do so without at least a solid working understanding of the product and its surrounding industry.
This is where the ‘vacation’ test is useful. Technical writing is not all that different from being able to speak another language. It requires confidence, an understanding of context and conventions – and crucially: how well the person or audience that hears you speak will understand what you mean.
Can you speak the language?
Just like someone who can speak some conversational Italian with their in-laws – but would feel altogether out of their depth if dropped into a rural village in Italy to live for a year – the test to ask yourself if insure to take on a project is: ‘Can I speak this language fluently?’.
If you’re a seasoned writer and photographer commissioned to write a manual for a new point-and-shoot go ahead and take that project! If you’re an occasional hobbyist though that is still mastering their preference for the right ISO in their weekend shoots; then saying no to a project you’re not yet comfortable with is wise.
Just like a good tour guide of Rome is expected to have a extensive but conversational knowledge of the history of the city, its founding story, and its cultural surrounds, so too does good technical writing require a writer to show mastery of a topic that trends far more towards the simple over the complex.
This means if you’re writing a manual for installing some computer hardware, the manual should indeed be detailed enough to explain the process, and precise enough to anticipate and answer any questions a user may have – but it should also be a document that is easy enough for your Aunty June to understand given she’s great at a lot of things in life; but getting that new graphics card up and running is NOT one of them.
Bonus: build your Design skills
Oftentimes a client who commissions a technical document from you shall also have a graphic designer they use, perhaps a design team in-house, or may even seek to design the manual themselves. Regardless though, even if you ultimately just produce the document in a design mock-up that is later revised, having design skills can prove to be a vital building block for creating technical documents.
Which software you use and what skills you seek to build exactly are up to you. Programs like Adobe Photoshop are industry-standard and make a good choice, but do also come at a cost., Yet, with a wide array of open source software and free tutorials online there’s every incentive to learn and no excuse not to when it comes to building your visual skills alongside your written ones.
So if I’m new to technical writing where do I start exactly?
Like other fields of writing technical writers find it far easier to be assigned projects and assignments when they’ve a solid work history to show. Therefore, if new to the field, it can be useful to create a number of sample docs for a prospective client’s consideration. Given the wide diversity of technical writing as a field they can essentially be anything you like. If looking for a easy but credible starting point though?
Get out your smartphone, don’t look at the instructions for it (whether stored in the phone or elsewhere), and write up a document for it explaining how to start it up (including SIM card installation and network activation), how to undertake routine tasks like taking photos and downloading apps, and then look to address the particulars of things like how to connect a WiFi hotspot and Bluetooth connection.
Given just about everyone has a smartphone (and just about all of us can find something in their phone they are unsure how to action) this starting point is really useful to help a client assess your style.
Unquestionably, as your skills and technique grows you’ll perhaps come to look back on your first manual and go ‘man, that was soo bad’. But that’s OK! Just print and store it in the attic next to your roller skates and 90’s Seattle grunge clothing, ready to lament many weekends from now.Ed Kennedy is a journalist and web designer proudly from Melbourne, Australia. Say hi to Ed via firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Edkennedy01