By Rithu Kumble
“Oh, you are a technical writer, so you work on PDFs.” “I have written a document, can you format it for me?” “I have written functional specifications in the past, so can I join your team?” How often have we heard these words from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances? These questions arise from the incorrect assumption that technical writing is easy, and involves no real skill, except for decent English. After being faced with these questions number of times during my career, I decided to put a little thought into answering these questions accurately. These questions are not asked with the intention to demean our profession, but more out of the lack of knowledge of what our job requires us to do.
So what does it take to be a successful technical writer? Good English skills? Communication skills? Adept at understanding technology? To answer that question, we need to look at how the profession has grown with time. Speak to a few writers with 20+ years of experience under their belt, and they will tell you that in the absence of advanced authoring tools, writers then were even expected to be responsible for printing their own documents. The arrival of advanced authoring tools has now erased the requirement for writers to know DTP. But new age writers are faced with new challenges.
A typical day for a technical writer is a lot more action-filled than just sitting at a desk and typing away furiously. While DDLC broadly classifies the tasks a technical writer must perform at various stages of a project, it rarely emphasizes the skills that the author needs to possess. Let’s take a closer look:
Gathering Information – Typically a task explained as understanding features with the Subject Matter Expert. Sounds easy, right? But it rarely is. SMEs are generally marketing folks or team leads, who are hard-pressed for time. Getting even an hour with them is a luxury. And if your SME is in a different state, or worse, a different country, you have a tough road ahead of you. Introducing yourself, and setting up a time that works for both of you is in itself a challenge. At the meeting, getting the best out of the meeting requires you to have done research beforehand – to move quickly from basic topics to areas where you actually need clarification.
Planning – Ask a housewife how she manages to cook breakfast and pack lunch for her family and make sure they reach their destinations on time, and she will tell you that it requires a lot of planning – prior and during the morning. She will tell you how she even includes buffer for days when an unexpected phone call in the morning can steal precious moments from her clock-work schedule. Juxtapose it with our scenario – multiple documents, same end date, and loads of challenges from the word Go! So how do you build a good documentation plan that factors in everything? It takes skill and adequate thought to make a nearly 90% fool-proof documentation plan. And like the woman of the house says – you get better with time!
Authoring and reviews – with the introduction of outsourcing, we find ourselves working with writers and editors with whom we talk with over teleconferences or communicate with over email. Rarely, we get a chance to meet them in person. But until such time, we have to make sure we can collaborate effectively and productively with writers and partners across the globe. Hiring managers today look closely for skills on partnering with people across diverse cultures. This is a skill that people are not born with, but rather learnt over time. For writers in a country like India, a warehouse of diverse languages, and accents, communicating with people around the globe is sometimes a stumbling block – and it is true for people on both sides of the globe. Being effective communicators is just as important as writing a good document. Now can our profession get any more complex? It just did.
It is not enough to just be good at churning out documents. After gaining a few years of experience, it is important to contribute to team goals. It is no longer enough to just be good at your work, but important to help those around you succeed as well. Typically, managers choose you to mentor other writers – a tried and testing method to give writers a chance to try out different styles of leadership. Do you adopt subtle methods? Are you direct with feedback or do you sugar-coat words? Do you lead by example, or do you prefer delegation? Unfortunately, there are more questions and not enough answers. Writers saddled with this task have to find their own answers – very often – by trial and error. You have to be an effective motivator, and good negotiator and in some cases, get everyone to toe the line. Does not sound so easy any more does it?
While writers are busy with learning new personal skills, the world around us is changing. Printed documentation is slowly going out of fashion. Customers demand information delivery is new formats. Every organization today is spending considerable amount of time trying to determine ways to deliver content to mobile devices. Social media applications, such as Facebook and Twitter have added a new dimension to instant information updates. Writers today have to be tech-savvy to keep pace with technology and determine ways to address the growing gap between demand and supply of information. That is definitely a tall order in a fast-paced world!
So is our profession just about being good at English? The answer is an emphatic No. I now have a suitable answer to the question that we are often faced with – “Am not just a technical writer – I am a writer, a collaborator, a planner, a global individual, a mentor and a new-age thinker. Do you still want to join our team?”
About the author:
Rithu Kumble is a technical writer with Cisco Systems, India.