The two most important questions you must ask yourself before
embarking on a career in technical writing are, “What kind of person
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
• 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.