“Oh! you write those documents that no one reads” – as a technical writer for over 20 years or so, I often hear these words from people. As much as I like to write user manuals, I take more pride in educating them about the importance of a good document and a value of a great technical writer.
I started my technical writing career in the year 2000 – the time when technical writing was still usually considered as an after-thought. In all these years, I learned a lot and I grew, along with the industry. I realized technical writing is more about character over skills.
Sure, there are skills that you can learn and grow expertise, however, it’s your traits, character, and qualities that will set you apart from being just an average technical writer to a great technical writer. And fortunately, as hard as it might be, traits and character can also be built and developed over time. Here’s what takes to become a kick-ass technical writer.
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley defines Empathy as: “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling”. Verywellmind takes it one step ahead and makes it clearer: “Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling.”
Let me tell you something important: A product guide is not about the product, it’s about the user. Understanding your user is fundamental.
A career in technical writing taught me how important it is to always put myself in other people’s shoes and try to see things from their perspectives. It taught me how to write content that is easy to follow, bias-free, avoids redundancy, and most importantly, not frustrating.
Empathy helps you understand your user better and moderates your ego. You don’t blame your users for not reading or understanding your docs, rather “you step beyond your own perspectives and needs”.
It is still controversial if empathy is a skill or a trait. Research suggests that empathy is a genetic trait. However, while not easy, empathy can also be cultivated. Here’s a good article by Alexandra Giffuni that highlights how to write with empathy.
Empathy helps you connect more with your users and gives you the ability to create the user experience that you want for yourself and in essence, makes you a great technical writer who brings value to the company, to the team, and definitely to the user.
Attention to Detail
Detail-oriented is a character trait that means being able to pay close attention and notice minor details. I am not sure if it is beneficial to notice all the little details in life, it is, however, the foundation to producing a great technical manual.
World’s some of the greatest scientific discoveries have been possible because some scientists have gone far and beyond the obvious ‘normal’. This article in Lifehack explains beautifully: “All it takes is one person soaking up seemingly random details and ideas to produce a breakthrough that seems incredibly obvious in hindsight. Think Isaac Newton.”
Again, there is a debate if detail-oriented is a trait or a skill. Although most people would tell you that it is a skill, it is however a personality trait too. Some people just have the habit of observing minute details that others fail to see. It comes naturally to them. But don’t fret if attention to detail doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s also a learned skill.
Here’s a list of characteristic traits of a detail-oriented person and how you can develop this skill. Training your mind to focus more takes time, but it’s worth doing.
An analytical mind is defined as the ability to tackle complicated issues by evaluating the information you’ve gathered and organized. An analytical mind enables you to connect the dots and detect a pattern.
This article on Psychology Today explains how an analytical mind works. A person with an analytical mindset can spend hours immersed deeply in researching and analyzing situations and thrives on finding solutions.
Warren Buffett once said, “How I got here is pretty simple in my case. It’s not IQ, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear. The big thing is rationality.”
As a technical writer, you are expected to assimilate and collate raw data and developing them into something meaningful and useful. This is the first step of a Document Development Life Cycle (DDLC) – Requirement Analysis.
If you are an intuitive thinker, rather than an analytical thinker, you still have options to cultivate analytical thinking and this article is a good source.
I am sure you have heard of many necessary skills that you need to become a ‘better’ technical writer. But why stop at just being better when you can do your best? As a technical writer, you have a deep understanding of the user needs, so show the world and create a kick-ass user experience journey.