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A technical writer’s main skill is…

This may surprise you but a technical writer’s main skill is not writing. Two key skills good technical writers bring to a project are:

  • the ability to understand a technology from different perspectives AND
  • an understanding of how to find the best ways to communicate with different audiences

These skills mean a technical writer can quickly get to grips with what a product does (or is supposed to do, as the case often is) and figure out the best way to communicate knowledge about that product to the target audience.

When working on a piece of documentation, the tech writer aims for writing that is:

  • Concise. It must deliver the information required efficiently and in a manner relevant to the target audience. Few people like reading documentation, so make it as easy for them as possible.
  • Consistent. It must be consistent with other information the company publishes about its products. Using different language or, worse, contradicting other information, doesn’t inspire confidence.
  • Relevant. It must fit into how those in the target audience talk about the problem the product solves. If the audience has to learn a new vocabulary to make sense of your product, they will resent you.
  • Deliverable. It must be of a format suited to the target audience. There’s no point having a user manual in PDF form on a website if users have only basic access to the internet. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and print and ship.
  • Maintainable. No product stays the same, and no one gets it completely correct at first release. Whether we like it or not, the document will need to be maintained.

So where does writing come into it? Good writing skills are part of the technical writer’s tool kit, and a writer who wields this particular tool well will save you time and effort in reviewing, translating and maintaining a piece of documentation.