Craig Haiss is a Senior Tech­ni­cal Writer for an inter­na­tional soft­ware com­pany, and the author of the Help­Scribe tech­ni­cal writ­ing blog.
A tech­ni­cal writ­ing career is guar­an­teed to be filled with chal­lenges. Tech­nol­ogy is con­stantly chang­ing, roles are shift­ing, and best prac­tices are evolv­ing. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get the best minds in the indus­try in the same room and ask them for advice on how to be suc­cess­ful in such an environment?

With that in mind, I con­tacted the most influ­en­tial tech­ni­cal writ­ers I could think of and humbly asked them for an answer to the fol­low­ing ques­tion: “What advice would you give to a new tech­ni­cal writer who wanted to fur­ther their career?”

The responses were amaz­ing and packed with use­ful information.

Here is what they said…


Scott Abel (http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/)

Don’t allow your­self to be lim­ited or boxed into one type of ‘com­mu­ni­ca­tion’ or another. Your title does not mat­ter. In fact, don’t be sur­prised if the job you are most suited for is not a ‘tech­ni­cal writ­ing’ posi­tion. The fact is, the busi­ness world is under­go­ing a major par­a­digm shift and just now begin­ning to value the con­tent we cre­ate as a busi­ness asset wor­thy of being man­aged effi­ciently and effec­tively. This means orga­ni­za­tions are tak­ing a look at the way we work — the processes we use — and opti­miz­ing them for max­i­mum effi­ciency. They don’t teach this impor­tant fact in school. Nor do they teach you how to be pre­pared for a job in today’s market.

The skills most in demand are col­lab­o­ra­tive, struc­tured author­ing (which requires team­work as well as the abil­ity to write mod­u­lar, con­text inde­pen­dent con­tent chunks), con­tent strat­egy (being able to match busi­ness goals to con­tent cre­ation, man­age­ment and deliv­ery tasks), and under­stand­ing of con­tent stan­dards like the Dar­win Infor­ma­tion Typ­ing Archi­tec­ture. Addi­tion­ally, under­stand­ing and being able to design inter­ac­tive con­tent for today’s hot mobile devices and eBook reader apps (think iPad, iPhone, Android) and mas­ter­ing the art of social doc­u­men­ta­tion and com­mu­nity man­age­ment (mak­ing user assis­tance con­tent inter­ac­tive so we can quickly find errors, enhance qual­ity, add miss­ing con­tent) are crit­i­cal skills for the next gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers to posses.

Sure writ­ing, punc­tu­a­tion, gram­mar, and rhetoric are impor­tant, but every col­lege grad­u­ate is expected to have mas­tered these basics. To be suc­cess­ful — and to dif­fer­en­ti­ate your­self in this ultra-competitive global mar­ket — you have to step out­side the tra­di­tional ‘writ­ing’ role and mas­ter the con­cepts that are impor­tant in all types of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Know­ing your audi­ence and the intent of your com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key. Select­ing the right com­mu­ni­ca­tion method is also crit­i­cal as some infor­ma­tion is bet­ter con­veyed in video, via audio, as an info-graphic or inter­ac­tive sim­u­la­tion. It is not enough in today’s world to be just a writer.”


Mike Hughes (http://user-assistance.blogspot.com/)

I come from a soft­ware devel­op­ment envi­ron­ment, and my advice is ‘be an enabler,’ that is, help your team meet its goals. By team, I mean the broader team of prod­uct man­agers, devel­op­ers, QA, and fel­low writ­ers. If they need ‘down and dirty’ give them min­i­mal­ist and good. If they need ‘com­pre­hen­sive, accu­rate, and this after­noon,’ give them the most com­pre­hen­sive and accu­rate doc­u­ment you can write this after­noon (bet­ter yet, find stuff you’ve already writ­ten). Too often, tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tors get excluded because they turn into block­ers, telling the team what they can’t have.

The best com­pli­ment in any team envi­ron­ment is to become known as some­one who makes the team bet­ter. Look for oppor­tu­ni­ties to use your com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills to make that happen.”


Alis­tair Christie (http://www.itauthor.com/)

So you’ve got your­self a job as a tech­ni­cal writer. First off, don’t worry about the job title. You won’t spend all day writ­ing, and a lot of the time the stuff you’ll work on won’t be par­tic­u­larly technical.

If you’re work­ing in a soft­ware devel­op­ment envi­ron­ment don’t expect to get praised for how won­der­ful the doc­u­men­ta­tion is – I mean ever. This might hap­pen, but don’t pin your hopes on it. Treat a lack of com­plaints about poor or miss­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion as your com­men­da­tion. But don’t let this dis­cour­age you. There are plenty of ways you can earn respect and become a val­ued mem­ber of staff. Work­ing in a soft­ware devel­op­ment depart­ment you can be the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the end user in a way that the devel­op­ers some­times just can’t – because they have their own par­tic­u­lar way of think­ing – and that makes you a really use­ful resource, so make it count. You can also get the sort of holis­tic, but detailed, view of the prod­uct set that few other peo­ple in the com­pany can get. This is because you’ll be work­ing on lots of prod­ucts and you’ll always be look­ing at them from the point of view of the user. This makes you a use­ful go-to per­son for devel­op­ers, prod­uct man­agers, sales guys and the mar­ket­ing team when they need to know which prod­uct solves which prob­lem, for whom, and how the prod­ucts interrelate.

One of the biggest pro­fes­sional com­pli­ments you’ll get is when peo­ple seek you out to ask you ques­tions. Encour­age this and grasp the oppor­tu­ni­ties that will come along to show peo­ple what you know. They’ll be sur­prised. But once you explain why you know what you know, it’ll make sense and they’ll spread the word that you’re some­one who knows stuff.

As a tech­ni­cal writer it’s easy to be anony­mous. But do your­self a favour. Don’t be.”


Tom John­son (http://idratherbewriting.com/)

If you want to be suc­cess­ful, start a blog on tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and con­tribute to it reg­u­larly. Doing so will force you to read, pon­der, and apply prin­ci­ples of tech comm to your every­day activ­i­ties. It will keep you engaged and rel­e­vant. And it will make your job more inter­ac­tive and fun, since you will see oppor­tu­ni­ties to ana­lyze and reflect on the sto­ries that hap­pen to you every­day in the workplace.”

Tom also rec­om­mended Laura Spencer’s How to break into tech­ni­cal writ­ingand his own excel­lent posts for tech­ni­cal writ­ing stu­dents. You can find addi­tional tips for break­ing into the field here.


Gor­don McLean (http://www.onemanwrites.co.uk/)

My Top Tip – Ask Why. If you only learn to ask one ques­tion, ask why. Regard­less of the task at hand, it’s the most pow­er­ful ques­tion of all. Yes, even more pow­er­ful than ‘who?’ (know­ing your audi­ence is impor­tant I’m pre­sum­ing you’ve already fig­ured that out). Under­stand­ing why you are doing some­thing, why you aren’t doing some­thing else instead lets you bring a level of busi­ness focus to your work.

We all have lots to do and rarely can we do it all, so ask your­self why, ask your boss why, ask your team leader why, ask your col­leagues why, be known as the per­son that asks why (but do remem­ber to ask how, what, where and when as well). You can extend the ques­tion into your writ­ing as well; why does this work this way? why shouldn’t the user do that with this prod­uct? why should the user do this with this product?”


Ellis Pratt (http://www.cherryleaf.com/blog)

Look at how you can get some rel­e­vant writ­ing expe­ri­ence that you can include on your CV. A lot of the open source soft­ware projects look for peo­ple to write the man­u­als. You could put your­self for­ward to join one of the writ­ing teams. You could write pro­ce­dures for a local char­ity. The abil­ity to write well and to deliver on time are the two most impor­tant skills to have, so a port­fo­lio of exam­ples can help demon­strate this to prospec­tive employers.”


Bill Ker­schbaum (http://wordindeed.wordpress.com/)

When I first started tech­ni­cal writ­ing, I knew of one over­rid­ing prin­ci­ple. Adhere to that, and I would excel as a tech­ni­cal writer–miss the mark, and my writ­ing (and career) would be sub­stan­dard. It’s the same prin­ci­ple every tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions stu­dent learns his or her first day: Make your writ­ing accu­rate, brief, and clear. The Tri­une Goal of tech­ni­cal writing.

The ABCs of tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion are the foun­da­tion of good tech writ­ing, but a foun­da­tion is not a house. For a long time I made accu­racy, brevity, and clar­ity my only goals in my projects. If I could keep it short, easy to read, and cor­rect, I was happy–and so was my boss. But my writ­ing wasn’t great, and in time I got bored with tech writ­ing. Even­tu­ally I began devel­op­ing my exit strategy.

Then I real­ized that the ABCs, while nec­es­sary, aren’t suf­fi­cient. I began to see room for cre­ativ­ity and per­son­al­ity in tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I real­ized that user guides serve a role in mar­ket­ing too, and my work had value beyond the num­bered lists. My user guides could actu­ally help a com­pany con­nect with its users and reach new cus­tomers. Sud­denly, design and cre­ativ­ity had a sig­nif­i­cant role in user doc­u­men­ta­tion, and my goals expanded beyond the man­ual itself to the com­pany as a whole, and even beyond the com­pany to cur­rent and future cus­tomers. And so I revised my goals. Rather than pur­sue accu­racy, brevity, and clar­ity I was now pur­su­ing Truth, Good­ness, and Beauty. Once I began that pur­suit, my writ­ing went from accept­able to exceptional–and so did my enjoy­ment in tech­ni­cal communication.

So don’t mis­take the fun­da­men­tals for the essence. The ABCs are a tool, not the goal, of tech­ni­cal writ­ing. And the goal of tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion isn’t the user guide; that’s just the means. Your goal as a tech­ni­cal writer reaches beyond the man­ual, and even beyond the com­pany. And that kind of mis­sion deserves all your cre­ativ­ity and passions.

Bonus: Read Sell­ing the Invis­i­ble by Harry Beck­with. You’ll see your role at your orga­ni­za­tion in a whole new light.”


Scott Nes­bitt (http://www.dmncommunications.com/weblog/)

Remem­ber that the tech­ni­cal part of tech­ni­cal writer is just as impor­tant as the writer part. Some­times, it can be even more impor­tant. Writ­ing isn’t always enough. You need other skills to suc­ceed in this pro­fes­sion. Like what? Obvi­ously, knowl­edge of the tools of the trade. Don’t for­get knowl­edge of tech­nolo­gies — rang­ing from oper­at­ing sys­tems to the lan­guages and processes what you’re doc­u­ment­ing. Don’t dis­count inter­view­ing, either. You need to know how to draw infor­ma­tion out of some­times tight-lipped sub­ject mat­ter experts (SMEs). Hav­ing a knowl­edge of tech­nolo­gies helps; you can speak the lan­guage of the SMEs, and by doing that they’ll take you a lit­tle more seriously.”


Aaron Davis (http://www.dmncommunications.com/weblog/)

1. Become an expert – What­ever tech­nol­ogy, prod­uct or ser­vice that you’re writ­ing about, take time to thor­oughly under­stand the details. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of ques­tions. One les­son I learned early in my career was the value of “get­ting my hands dirty” by run­ning, test­ing, and ulti­mately break­ing the soft­ware I was sup­posed to be writ­ing about. It taught me a lot. A “tech­ni­cal” tech­ni­cal writer earns respect from devel­op­ers, project man­agers, and QA.

2. Learn and adapt – Diver­sify your skill set. Learn about new tech­nolo­gies. Learn the busi­ness that you’re involved in, and under­stand how you pro­vide value with respect to the strate­gic goals of the com­pany. Take courses in dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines such as UX. The field is under­go­ing rapid change, and you need to learn to adapt and change with the demands of industry.

3. Become a good project man­ager – One key to becom­ing a suc­cess­ful tech­ni­cal writer is the abil­ity to man­age your own projects. You will be counted on to pro­vide work esti­mates, develop project plans, and sched­ule deliv­er­ables. Take the oppor­tu­nity to start cul­ti­vat­ing good orga­ni­za­tional and time man­age­ment habits early in your career.

4. Don’t become a tool fetishist – There are those in the pro­fes­sion who spend time argu­ing the mer­its of this tool ver­sus another tool, or spend too much time learn­ing the very gran­u­lar details of a spe­cific pub­lish­ing plat­form. Avoid this behav­ior at all cost. Over the course of your career, you will be exposed to many dif­fer­ent ways of author­ing and pro­duc­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion. Don’t be stub­born. You will be using a new tool next year anyway.

5. Enjoy what you do – Why suf­fer doing some­thing that you don’t enjoy? Embrace and advo­cate your pro­fes­sion. Main­tain a pos­i­tive atti­tude. Have fun with it!”


Peggy Har­vey (http://connectingtocontent.com/)

My advice to a new tech­ni­cal writer is: Join the com­mu­nity. One way to do this is to vol­un­teer with your local STC chap­ter (whether or not you’re amem­ber of STC), but there are other ways as well. Twit­ter holds a wealth of infor­ma­tion for tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tors. Fol­low the #tech­comm hash­tag and you’ll be intro­duced to a world of con­tent that ranges from debates on the use of rhetoric in tech­ni­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion to how to apply DITA tags in a struc­tured author­ing envi­ron­ment. Twit­ter is also a great way to net­work with other tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­als locally and inter­na­tion­ally, which can lead to job leads and career advance­ment opportunities.”


Julie Nor­ris (http://www.2morodocs.com/)

Stay cur­rent. Read. Observe. Par­tic­i­pate. Dream.

Stay cur­rent with new tech­nolo­gies and meth­ods. Choose a sec­ondary sub­ject in which to develop exper­tise, such as social media or usabil­ity. As far as skills go, I would say to absolutely learn HTML/CSS and XML. I’d also sug­gest basic data­base design. Stay­ing cur­rent is, to me, the most impor­tant consideration.

Read every­thing you can get your hands on. You must keep up. Also, you never know what you may end up writ­ing about and doc­u­ment­ing, so look at everything.

Observe what’s occur­ring in tech­nol­ogy and busi­ness in gen­eral to try and keep up with and antic­i­pate trends. Keep an eye on mar­ket­ing for social media devel­op­ments. See what’s hap­pen­ing in the world, par­tic­u­larly with the ways peo­ple share and obtain information.

Par­tic­i­pate every­where you can. It’s a social, inter­ac­tive world now. The days when the writer essen­tially worked alone are over. These days, every­one is involved in cre­at­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion. So join in as many con­ver­sa­tions as you can. Learn how dif­fer­ent options and for­mats work. Share infor­ma­tion, learn from other writ­ers, from users, from everyone.

Dream and imag­ine what’s pos­si­ble. Work to turn your ideas into real­ity. The indus­try – as well as most – is in a state of upheaval due to demo­graphic and tech­no­log­i­cal changes. Much is being built (or rebuilt) from scratch. This is your time. This is your oppor­tu­nity. In the 20+ years I’ve been in the indus­try, I’ve never seen a more excit­ing time. So dream big. Share your ideas. Exper­i­ment. Jump in and help shape the future of tech comm. Wel­come aboard!”


And there you have it. That’s an incred­i­ble amount of infor­ma­tion to absorb, and it’s pure gold. I plan on re-reading it many times myself because I can see the rel­e­vance to my own career.

Please visit the web­sites of these experts and sub­scribe to their feeds. I guar­an­tee you will find a trea­sure trove of valu­able insights that can be applied to your daily work.

To all con­trib­u­tors: Thank you so much for tak­ing the time to share your wis­dom. You truly are an amaz­ing bunch of peo­ple and I’m inspired by the level of shar­ing and sup­port you offer to the tech­ni­cal writ­ing com­mu­nity. I know that Help­Scribe read­ers will appre­ci­ate it as much as I do.

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