By, Amit Kapoor
Let me begin by saying that it’s not just good writing skills that help us ink a successful career in the technical writing industry. We, as writers, need to have, and display a whole lot of other traits and skills as well.
Basic English is imperative to enter the technical writing industry. However, surviving, managing a career in the field, and thriving (when we get a chance of becoming a leader) is a whole different ball game. Let’s talk about it.
The Basic Skills
We as writers need distinct skills as we advance in our careers. There are three different phases in the professional life of writers:
- To enter the field of writing
- To survive in the field of writing
- To thrive/grow in the field of writing
Each of these phases demand a few basic skills that we must display. However, even before we enter the field of writing, we must have a passion for the written word. There was not much information available about the field some seventeen years ago, when I accidentally came to know about it, but today, there is no dearth of information. Here are a few skills/traits that help across all the phases:
- Be technology-savvy and open to learning
- Have a good sense of humor
- Learn soft skills
- Be flexible
- Plan well
In this article, I will try to list a few specific traits required for the three phases listed above. Hope this list helps you introspect and identify your strengths and learning needs! ☺
Skills for Entering the Field of Writing
Following is a list of a few skills required to enter this field of technical writing:
- Ability to comprehend and explain a concept/product in a manner that is easy to understand. Yes, if you were better than most in describing your class projects and topics, maybe you have the spark needed to enter and succeed in the field.
- I read somewhere: “If you don’t care about semicolons and fonts, find another career. If no one has ever described you as “obsessive” or “picky,” find another career.” If you get goosebumps when you see punctuation marks missing, you have the makings of a good writer.
- Impeccable English.
- A college degree in English Studies or Journalism. However, the recent trends show that organizations in industries like semiconductors and aviation prefer people with degrees, such as B. Tech or M. Tech.
Skills for Surviving in the Field of Writing
To survive, I feel writers need more of psychological traits apart from the basic skills required to enter the field. A few pointers:
- Curiosity: To find out more about the concept/product. As technical writers, we are the first testers of the product. We need to test it inside out, document the failures, and file bugs – whether in design, flow, or functioning. We must participate in developing more helpful and succinct error messages.
- Collaboration: This is critical. We must practice and improve our ability to interact with users, developers, engineers, and illustrators.
- Interviewing and listening skills: Before we ask questions, we must ensure that we have performed due research – Google/read all that is available. I believe no question is stupid. But when taking the time of developers, we must frame our questions wisely. The developers will respect us more for doing this and will be more forthcoming with the information sought.
- Patience and Perseverance: Usually, there’s a gap between the time a question is asked and its answer is received. We must learn to be patient and not get frustrated. That said, we must, after a decent enough wait, not forget to send gentle reminders asking for inputs. This is also critical.
- We must always be willing to learn from our peers and cross-functional teammates, and accept the feedback and criticism. Always helps to grow.
- Read the standards followed by organizations for writing. Every organization has a specific standard of writing that they follow – MSTP and Chicago manual of style, for example. We must adhere to the same and bring consistency, which will eventually lead to the improvement of the organization’s brand value.
- Focus and attention to details: There are minor, but noticeable changes in the spellings when we compare the US English with the rest of the world – especially the spellings that use ‘z’ vs. ‘s’. We must ensure that we are well aware of the audience that the (organization/organisation – take your pick!) wants to target.
- Keep it simple and straightforward (KISS). Do not use words learnt while preparing for GRE. Keep it simple. For example, don’t use Floccinaucinihilipilification to refer to estimating or categorizing something as worthless.
- Openness towards learning. Learn the tools of the trade. FrameMaker, Confluence, Robohelp, Flare, AuthorIT, or any other that the organization uses. But, we must also suggest if we know of a more efficient tool. Learning tools does not take too much time. I believe having no experience with a tool should not be a problem. It’s the language and the ease of comprehension that matters to the readers. Learn and practice how to create graphics. A lot of companies today expect writers to know Visio, PPT, and even Adobe InDesign/Illustrator. We must practice in our free time. It’s fun.
Skills Required for Thriving and Growing in the Field of Writing
Thriving and growing in the field requires us a few more traits over and in addition to the skills required to enter the field, and to survive. To thrive and have a steady growth in our career, we must:
- Be responsible: Learn to own the task.
- Proofread our work: Practice 3 R’s after writing – Read, Review, Rewrite.
- Appreciate good work: We must never fail to acknowledge and thank for a good UI design by a graphic designer, or a good edit by a peer writer.
- Honestly share information with peers: With no intention of malice, and only to help improve their writing skills, and the content. As said earlier, our being humble when giving inputs is paramount, and can pave way for a long, fruitful career.
- Provide ideas for improving UI/website/templates better: Don’t dig for dirt – suggest improvements. And then be receptive of similar feedback.
- Be approachable for everyone: Help colleagues when asked. Be it the HR team/IT department, or the writers’ team, help colleagues as much as possible. However, we must ensure that our high priority tasks do not get affected by our willingness to help others.
- Learn to say no: Then ask for some more time, and provide what is needed. That said – we must be prepared to stretch ourselves thin at times to get things moving.
- Negotiate for better timelines: If only a tad bit – for projects that needed to be completed yesterday, but the source file is provided today.
- Learn to communicate. We must be able to express our concerns in a constructive fashion postmortem meetings – not before the task is completed.
- As much as possible, try to have the tasks being performed recorded via emails. Hence, proof of request/work is required. Especially around appraisals.
- Perform competitive analysis. Proactively identify how to improve the documentation/templates/ flow.
- Take training sessions to help improve overall communication in the organization. This will also convince management of the need of having a good team of writers.
- Lead without a title, as Robin Sharma says. It matters.
Let’s Start Writing…
With “Content” being the king in today’s information and connection age, technical writers are at an exciting point in an evolving world. Let us be ready to embrace the new world!
Here’s a thought by Janet Hulstrand as I end this article: “Bad writing precedes good writing. This is an infallible rule, so don’t waste time trying to avoid bad writing. (That just slows down the process.) Anything committed to paper can be changed. The idea is to start, and then go from there.”
About the Author
Amit Kapoor, Global Top 200 Content Strategist, and India’s Top 100 Content & Brand Custodian, is an Associate Director, Content and Marketing Strategist for Cigniti Technologies. He has 17+ years of experience in writing and editing for a diverse audience spread globally. His articles have been published on various platforms such as Economic Times, IIT Mumbai (TechFest), AsiaInc500, Hakin9 Magazine, Industrial Automation magazine, and LinkedIn. Apart from numerous manuals, blogs, and technical documents, he has also ghost-written White Papers and articles for Forbes. As a passionate writer and a compulsive editor, he has always been a part of content visualization, creation, and quality check of what is being published. A published poet, (‘We Shall Grow’, by Trafford Publishing), and an avid blogger, Amit is based at Hyderabad.
Amit can be reached at email@example.com