The two most impor­tant ques­tions you must ask your­self before

embark­ing on a career in tech­ni­cal writ­ing are, “What kind of person

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should I be to suc­ceed in this field?” and “What kind of personality

traits should I have?” Some of the answers are obvi­ous and

are sim­i­lar to traits that make peo­ple suc­cess­ful in any busi­ness or

pro­fes­sion. You should be per­sis­tent and force­ful, but not overbearing,

in seek­ing the infor­ma­tion you need. It goes with­out saying

that you should enjoy writ­ing. You must be a self-starter with a

keen ana­lyt­i­cal mind who is at ease with man­age­ment and can

speak its language.

You also must have the capac­ity to assume respon­si­bil­ity and be

will­ing to learn con­tin­u­ously about your field. The refusal or inability

to stay on top of your job is the quick­est route to unemployment.

Work­ing in the field of tech­ni­cal writ­ing requires con­stant selfimprovement.

This is a highly com­pet­i­tive field, and you will find

that an employer will have lit­tle trou­ble hir­ing your replace­ment if

you don’t pro­duce high-quality work and stay well informed.

To be sure that you have the qual­i­ties you’ll need to suc­ceed, it’s

a good idea to set up a pro­gram of con­stant self-improvement and

stick to it. Here are some of the ways you can accom­plish this.

• Enroll at a local col­lege or good insti­tute for an

advanced degree.

• Enroll at a local col­lege or uni­ver­sity night school and take

some rel­e­vant courses each semester.

• Keep up with the lit­er­a­ture in your field.

• Enroll in any company-sponsored courses.

• Attend as many tech­ni­cal sem­i­nars and con­fer­ences and take

as many short courses as you can.

Another per­sonal qual­ity that is essen­tial for the tech­ni­cal writer

might sur­prise you: it is an inter­est in both the arts and sciences.

Tech­ni­cal writ­ers often deal with graphic artists and tech­ni­cal illustrators,

and hav­ing some appre­ci­a­tion of their skill and abil­ity will

make your inter­ac­tions more suc­cess­ful. You should know the basic

prin­ci­ples of good com­po­si­tion in an illus­tra­tion or a photograph

and why cer­tain kinds of graph­ics are appro­pri­ate for one situation

but not for another.

You must also develop a sense of objec­tiv­ity and should be able

to place things in their proper per­spec­tive, unaf­fected by personal

bias. The new hire who starts out say­ing “This is not the way we

did it at my other com­pany” (or at school) is in for a rude awakening.

Indus­trial pub­li­ca­tions must be processed in the short­est possible

time, and the pub­li­ca­tions depart­ment has prob­a­bly already

estab­lished a pro­ce­dure that fits the com­pany per­fectly. The new

tech­ni­cal writer should be able to rec­og­nize this and adjust to it.

There are other things to con­sider as well. A pri­vate engineering

firm, dis­tressed at some of the per­son­nel inter­ac­tions, distributed

this memo to its employees.

The suc­cess of an engi­neer­ing enter­prise depends on the cooperation

and inter­ac­tion of admin­is­tra­tors, engi­neers, and technical

com­mu­ni­ca­tors. An engi­neer­ing firm’s admin­is­tra­tion must con–

sider the indi­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties and the inter­ac­tion of all the people

it has on board. We will endeavor to look for prospective

employ­ees with the fol­low­ing characteristics:

All mem­bers must regard them­selves as being play­ers on

a team, with each one hav­ing a spe­cific func­tion. A large part

of par­tic­i­pants’ time may be spent out­side their field get­ting information

and data from engi­neers and work­ing with other publications

per­son­nel, print­ers, and illustrators.

They must also be capa­ble of deal­ing with details and

minu­tiae. Many times the tech­ni­cal writer is anx­ious to get the

job done as quickly as pos­si­ble, but quo­ta­tions must still be authorized,

sta­tis­tics checked, and all kinds of cal­cu­la­tions ver­i­fied. Very

often a highly tech­ni­cal sci­en­tific project will require gain­ing an

inti­mate under­stand­ing of the sub­ject before pro­ceed­ing with the

actual writ­ing. The report that is sub­se­quently writ­ten may require

col­lect­ing and com­pil­ing large amounts of tech­ni­cally accurate,

detailed data prior to its pub­li­ca­tion. If you are averse to working

through the unglam­orous aspects of writ­ing, you prob­a­bly will

not make a good tech­ni­cal writer.

They must be tact­ful. The job of edit­ing requires a high

degree of diplo­macy. The less peo­ple write and the less skill­ful they

are, the more sen­si­tive they will be to crit­i­cism about their literary

crafts­man­ship. For gen­er­a­tions, engi­neers have been told they do

not write well. Thus, they may resent being crit­i­cized by professional

writ­ers. Tact­ful­ness does not imply cow­ardice. It simply

means that the writer has to cul­ti­vate a rap­port with engi­neers and

sci­en­tists and know how to offer con­struc­tive cor­rec­tions and suggestions

about their writing.

Employ­ers judge prospec­tive employ­ees by their train­ing and

edu­ca­tion. But the best train­ing in the world may not get you the

job if you are lack­ing cer­tain per­son­al­ity traits. Tech­ni­cal writers

are peo­ple, not machines; they must work with other people.

The man­ager of pub­li­ca­tions and illus­tra­tions at a defense company

empha­sizes the impor­tance of the inter­ac­tion between technical

writ­ers and oth­ers in the company:

Tact and diplo­macy are so impor­tant to the writer-editor that too

much can­not be said of them. When prepar­ing an orig­i­nal manuscript,

the writer must estab­lish and main­tain open lines of communication

between him­self and the source of the material.…

In an edi­to­r­ial capac­ity, the writer-editor must rely on his power

of friendly per­sua­sion.… Ini­tia­tive and an inquis­i­tive nature are

as impor­tant as a keen, well-developed sense of order.… The very

nature of com­mu­ni­ca­tion forces the writer-editor to work at once

inde­pen­dently and jointly.

Most inter­view­ers can accu­rately judge the per­son­al­ity traits of

peo­ple who will be read­ily accepted by their fel­low workers.

Advances in com­put­ers and soft­ware have raised the expectations

of what is required and demanded of both novice and vet­eran technical

writ­ers. At a recent exec­u­tives’ meet­ing in a large company

that employs hun­dreds of tech­ni­cal writ­ers, a lengthy discussion

ensued con­cern­ing what the com­pany expects of its writ­ers. The

list of require­ments and expec­ta­tions was stag­ger­ing. In addi­tion to

writ­ing and edit­ing skills, the com­pany expects that its writ­ers will

become famil­iar with graph­ics man­age­ment, espe­cially the layout

and design of doc­u­ments. They must be able to turn out documents

that the read­ing audi­ence for whom they are intended will find

accept­able. The com­pany expects that its tech­ni­cal writ­ers will be

totally com­puter lit­er­ate and use the lat­est hard­ware and software

in per­form­ing their tasks.

Finally, to state the obvi­ous, you must like to write! While this

is cer­tainly not a new idea, some peo­ple over­look it when choosing

a career. The more skill you have with words, punc­tu­a­tion, and

gram­mar, the more options you’ll have to work in a vari­ety of writ–

ing modes, and your chances for suc­cess also will be greater. It has

long been known that writ­ers who can pre­pare the most articulate

oral and writ­ten pre­sen­ta­tions are bet­ter equipped for good jobs

and for reg­u­lar pro­mo­tions than those who do not communicate

well. Every report we have seen, every ques­tion­naire filled out by

tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tors now hold­ing impor­tant management

posi­tions, attests to this fact: the author knew how to write well,

how to present pro­pos­als, and how to speak convincingly.

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