Considering a career as a technical writer?
Want to know what kind of people enjoy technical writing the most? Would it suit your personality?
Is being introverted an advantage? Can jovial types make it as tech writers?
Yes and Yes.
Crag on Helpscribe makes the point that, “Personality can also have a strong influence on your ability to perform technical writing tasks. For example, a highly social writer will have a much easier time interviewing SMEs and contributing during meetings. A less social writer may have an easier time surviving as the sole writer on a project or staying focused and productive for long periods of time.”
While there is no one personality type for technical writing, after working in this field for twenty-three years, I can see some people do better than others. A lot has to do with what technical writers do every day, which isn’t all writing, by the way. A surprise for most new writers.
My typical technical writer’s day
If I look at my day, it’s:
- Mostly spent alone, which I enjoy.
- Chasing people for information by email. Many don’t have English at their first language.
- Re-writing their text.
- Organizing document reviews usually by email
- Skype interviews with Dev
- Technical tasks such as fixing the online help system
- Developing documentation plans
- Writing technical material
- Attended meetings in person, over the phone/web
As you can see, there’s a mix of tasks.
I only spend 3 days a week actually writing. The other two are in meetings, workshops, reporting, email and other communication tasks.
- Three days working alone
- Two days working with others.
Even though I’m in a busy office, I tend to keep my head down and get through the work.
1.0 Technical writing personality traits
If you look at my typical technical writing day, you can see that I’ll need different skills. Some come naturally to me, such as enjoying working alone on technical things, others less so, such as workshops, which I often find talking shops – lots of chatter, no real benefit.
But let’s look at the personality traits.
1.1 Introverted writers
Many writers, in all fields, tend to be introverts. They enjoy the pleasure of being left alone to work on something, especially something with an intellectual angle, that gives them satisfaction. I can spend all day working alone and be as happy as a sandboy. But this has it’s downsides…
1.2 Extroverted writers
Surprisingly, many of the most successful writers, especially team leads, as very outgoing and social creatures. You can’t have a team of five introverts. You need a leader, someone who can motivate (gently bully J) the technical writers to hit the deadline.
From that angle, extroverts can have very successful careers in technical writing. Positions that require project management skills, working with Development, hiring/firing, are also need in tech pubs.
It’s also worth noting that the term ‘technical writing’ is misleading. A lot of your time as a technical writer is spend using developing content for web publishing, creating online help, and generating content for omni channels.
This is probably the big surprise for junior and new technical writers – how much time is spend on non-technical writing tasks.
Every line I write is reviewed by another technical writer. Every line. Editing skills are crucial.
In some ways, I’m a better editor than writer. More on this in later posts.
As a technical writer, you can expect to spend many hours editing text.
You’ll get this text from emails, wiki pages, intranets, white boards and even on scraps of paper. You also have to edit your own work. This means you need to put on an Editor’s hat every week (or day) and not resent having to fix others text. A lot of technical writing is refining text.
I enjoy it. For me, it’s playing with works. How can I improve this line of text?
The trend towards outsourcing means that for many developers English isn’t their first language.
I mention this as you do need to be patient and understanding as you’ll often get text, for example, for release notes, which may be very difficult to understand. Your job is to make sense of this. This means refining the text and, where necessary, working with the developer to understand the issue better. It takes practice. Some technical writers struggle with this. They just want to write. But, your job isn’t just to write it’s to re-write what others have written.
So as well as writing and editing and reviewing you’re also translating. Again, I enjoy it. Not everyone does. Some resent it and feel it’s beneath them.
1.5 Interviewing skills
Let’s say you’re developing a new cutting edge product. Or you’ve joined a new company but have very little experience of their industry. You need to document it. Where do you start? You can get so far by reading white papers, technical guides, and blogs. At some point you need to talk to Developers, Business Analysts, and Project Owners.
This usually involves organizing workshops, one to one interviews, and small roundtables where you discuss the product, learn how it works, so you can start to write the conceptual materials. Good interviewing skills help you gather this material, develop a better understanding of the product, and build bridges with other teams. Interviewing skills are, in my opinion, the most underrated skills in technical writing.
One of the biggest shocks for new technical writers is the amount of hunting they have to do to find information. They expect it to be there, wherever ‘there’ is. However, in most technical publication departments you need to be proactive and track down content. It could be on the web, on intranets, on wikis or, as if often the case, in someone’s head. But you have to get it. How you do it…
As you can see, there is no ‘one size fits all’ in technical writing. For example, Introverted and Extroverted writers both have their place. Both can play to their strengths and carve out careers that work for them. Saying that, you must love the details, have oodles of patience, Interviewing skills really do help and be determined.