What Makes a Good Technical Writer?

Photo showing a technical writer working on a document

Bad writing costs big money. As noted by a recent article from the Daily Beast, businesses are losing almost $400 billion each year to confusing content, poorly-written prose and awful emails.

Why?

Because the sheer amount of writing now required for even small and midsize businesses makes this impossible to avoid: Any content created for organizations should be subject to proofreading at a bare minimum and more thorough editing at best. But, that doesn’t always happen.

For many companies, however, a more specific pain point has emerged: Technical writing. Engineering firms, software development companies, medical organizations and manufacturing enterprises must transform complex concepts into actionable, easy-to-read insights. For many, it’s hard to strike a balance in-house — how do they retain core concepts without frustrating their audience? How do they ensure simplicity without compromising specificity?

The solution? Hire a technical writer. But what makes a great technical writer? What skills are must-haves for businesses to get the biggest return on their writing investment?

Technical Writing at a Glance?

Technical writing is the ability to simplify complex concepts for a specific audience. Great technical writing does more than just get the message across — it helps engage readers and motivate them to learn more about a subject.

Given the increasing complexity of business operations and the quickly-expanding role of technology in day-to-day business processes, highly-skilled technical writers are now in demand. As noted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the market for technical writing is forecast to grow at 11 percent per year — faster than average in comparison to the job market at large.

It makes sense: As companies look for ways to deliver engaging content that both demystifies complex topics and resonates with readers, they’re on the hunt for technical writers capable of quickly delivering top-tier content on-demand.

While any company could find themselves in need of a technical writer, organizations involved in IT, manufacturing, engineering or medical sciences are often tasked with converting nuanced and detailed concepts into clear and concise prose. This could take the form of user manuals, eBooks, specification sheets, technical product documentation or even press releases.

Top 10 Business Must-Haves

As the job market grows, both business demand and the technical writing labor force will increase.

The result?

Evaluation becomes critical: What separates one writer from another? What skills and talents make them the best-fit for your business? What assurances do you have that their work will be completed on-time and require minimal revision?

Here’s a look at the top 10 must-have skills for your next technical writer.

1) Content Clarity

The top skill for any technical writer? Producing content that’s easily readable, engaging and logically segmented to draw reader interest. This is no simple task — many experts in your company have vast technical knowledge but lack the ability to clearly communicate what they know to anyone who doesn’t share their skill set.

Best bet? Before bringing on a technical writer, ask them to create a small set of trial content based on information you provide.

2) Audience Awareness

Not all technical writing targets the same audience.

Consider a user manual. For front-line staff members, actionable and simplified use cases are ideal — they need to understand how the service works and what to do if they encounter common issues. For more tech-savvy management staff, this same manual requires greater depth and complexity; a stand out technical writer can speak to both audiences with equal facility.

ALSOFind Your Target Audience With This 4 Step Formula

3) Brand Alignment

Your brand has a mission. Key values. Value propositions. And while technical writing is often used to create internal documentation for a product or service, brand alignment is critical to ensure users, managers and stakeholders alike recognize can identify a cohesive brand narrative. In the same way software developers consult with IT teams to understand their needs, technical writers should ensure all content meets brand expectations.

4) Professional Planning

Creating great technical documentation requires great planning. The result? Businesses need writers capable of creating content plans and carrying through on expectations to meet specific deadlines. While this can be difficult to evaluate in face-to-face meetings or via email, it’s worth asking prospective writers for references that can verify both timeliness and attention to detail.

ALSO The Struggles With Content Planning and How to Overcome Them

5) Corporate Communication

A great technical writer also has the soft skills to go beyond the keyboard and easily interact with SMEs (subject matter experts). Why? Because these SMEs are the critical link between products and services that require documentation and content that clearly articulates requirements, expectations and context.

Simply put? Great writers aren’t enough: You also need great technical communicators.

6) Superior Sourcing

From creating user experience documents to product guides and technical checklists, sourcing is critical for above-average content. Great technical writers need the ability to combine provided sources with relevant outside information to produce documents that can be adjusted to serve multiple end users.

7) Concept Conversion

Many companies recognize the need for good technical writing but aren’t sure how to effectively translate business concepts into readable content. Great writers do more than simply write to the brief their given — they’re able to take abstract concepts, ground them in conversational language and create relatable work that doesn’t lose its technical impact.

8) Education (or Experience)

Writing skill sets vary considerably, making it difficult to directly compare technical content creators. A degree in communications is often a good indicator of technical writing skills, but it’s also worth looking for more specific training such as Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees in computer science or engineering. Experience is also critical. Writers with years of experience and extensive client lists are often in high demand for a reason.

Depending on your industry, finding someone with demonstrable industry training and experience could prove a huge asset. Technical writers tasked with writing documentation for programming languages, for instance, benefit tremendously if they have a background in software engineering.

9) Web Savvy (or Willingness to Learn)

Web skills are great add-ons for technical writers, such as the ability to use and modify HTML documents, interact with CMS tools or leverage CSS. If these skills are a must-have but experience is lacking, look for established technical writers with a willingness to learn.

10) Adaptive Aesthetics

Great content that looks terrible won’t engage users or drive uptake. In addition to their “core” writing skills, technical writers should also have the ability to visually assess technical documents and make adjustments as required. This includes everything from breaking up long paragraphs for better readability to including bulleted lists that provide actionable takeaways.

Note – this doesn’t mean that technical writers need to be designers. It means they should write their content in a way that isn’t going to drive the designer crazy.

The Write Stuff

Technical writing is now a must-have for companies of all sizes and industry verticals. But not all writers offer the same ROI — start with our top 10 must-find list to make sure the writer you hire can produce the content you need.

 

Eric Hoppe

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Eric has been working in marketing and product management for over a decade with companies in the software, eCommerce and content creation spaces. He’s particularly drawn to both content marketing and SEO and is excited that the two areas are increasingly converging. While he’s pretty serious about marketing, he does love to drop a great dad joke on occasion.

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