11 Guiding Principles for New Age Technical Writers

This article provides a brief look at the “technical writing principles and helps technical writers to become highly effective and valued as a member of an engineering team.

Be Positive Always

You have to know how to collaborate and be a good judge of people. Additionally, you must be willing to interact with different personalities of the people you are working with. There is an innate skill to draw information out of people or get your work reviewed by the SMEs without aggravating them. The success you experience as a writer depends 100% on your attitude.

Quality, Quality, and Quality

Your job is to make sure that your work is complete, correct, thoroughly fact-checked, and technically reviewed. Make sure that when you start something, you actually complete it. If people know they can rely on you to do high-quality work, you will win the trust. Make sure the work you do is validated with functional-testing, product workflows, and peer-reviews. Improve your content with the help of technical-reviews, linguistic-improvements, and more.

Communicate Effectively

Writers should strive to be superior communicators, as ineffective communication leads to confusion and reflects poorly on the entire team. The writer will be judged by the quality of his work. For better quality, communication is the key factor:

  • Documentation Plans – Make it clear to all stakeholders’ what document outputs to expect at any given point of time in the product life-cycle.
  • Review – Use the Google doc or Adobe Shared Review process to receive feedbacks from SMEs.
  • Communication via emails/chats/meetings – Keep the stakeholders informed about the progress of your documentation. Use the email meeting to schedule appointment with SMEs, and product managers. Ad-hoc chat also works depending on your relationship.

Know your Assignment

Like it, or not, writers are ‘contractors’ who are hired to provide User Manuals, API documentation, Training Materials, Engineering Blogs, etc. Technical documentation is meant for users of the engineering product. The users may be internal or external; they may be engineers or layman. Understanding the users will help to improve the quality of the writing and, ultimately, the quality of the product.

Avoid Ambiguity

This implies “never presume” and clarify whenever there is ambiguity. Making speculation about how a product’s features/functionality, schedules, etc. will lead to a variety of issues:

  • Wrong content
  • Incomplete work
  • Bad impression on the documentation team

Writers must avoid ambiguity in the documentation so as not to muddle others.

Inhale and Exhale Content

Writers ‘live and breathe’ content. They consume content, and they create content. Practice your craft to serve the readers. Don’t expel raw material but transmute it to provide what the reader most wants.

Trust Facts and Question Assumptions 

Related to the principle of avoiding ambiguity, writers must never make assumptions.

Writers must:

  • Work with the cross-functional team to address issues with requirements, user stories.
  • Clarify schedules/expectations when in doubt.
  • Leverage documentation plan to articulate and set expectations on the documentation.
  • Track/manage outstanding issues until they are resolved.
  • Ensure a thorough document review by engineers and stakeholders.

Think Innovation

Regardless of your busy schedule, writers must think out-of-box. Improvement ideas should be socialised, shared and investigated with managers and writers. Small changes can make a huge difference to the organization. Innovation that can benefit the documentation is always welcome.

  • Tweaks to processes, templates, style guide
  • Suggest better tools
  • Use videos where possible

Remember, your companies are always looking for ways to increase efficiency and make the most out of the limited documentation budget.

Embrace Restrictions

On the surface it may appear style guide does, in fact, restrict the writer; however, if you dig deeper you will discover that style guide helps by improving communications by establishing consistency in all the documents.

Plan Wisely

A well thought out and a documented plan is worth its weight in gold. The documentation plan is the primary tool used to set expectations for all the stakeholders. There is a limited budget for documentation, and it is your responsibility to ensure the effectiveness of the plan such that it provides the highest ROI (Return on Investment).

Identify Priorities

At the end of the day, the most important Technical Writing principle is “If you do not know – ASK”. Writers are expected to ask questions until they are confident that they have the information needed to write content. Just remember, unanswered questions contribute ambiguity to the content and add risk to the business.

About the Author

Abeesh Thomas, a Singapore-based documentation specialist and Technical Writer. He has more than twenty years of experience in technical writing. He worked in North Korea and Singapore for various companies.