Tech Writers, Communicate!

From my experience, the biggest challenges to being a technical writer are all related to effective communication. For instance, within corporate environments, common hazards include competing departments, internecine conflicts within teams, and incompetent managers. Navigating these hazards requires intelligence, courage, integrity, and superior communication skills. As you can see, the first three qualifications are all innate personality traits, while the last qualification stands apart, as a skill that can be learned.

Obviously, effective communication is a fundamental skill for any technical writer, but writers often allow themselves to be sequestered in back offices, rather then pushing for more active involvement. For example, active participation in meetings is a great way for writers to build confidence, learn new things, establish mutual respect, and contribute. Collecting technical information via interviews with subject matter experts is another excellent route to professional relevance. Conversely, independent research and writing are important skills but they are professional suicide if practiced exclusively, because that tends to isolate writers from each other and from external teams.

On a new job, I try to learn as much as I can about the corporate culture, products, and people before I open my mouth. The first step is to practice “active listening”, by which I mean that I concentrate on what people are saying and then reflect on it before responding. Active listening requires patience and discipline to avoid making interjections that disrupt. speakers. Constantly interrupting people is not only annoying, it also damages the relationship that you should be trying to build with your coworkers. This is especially important for new employees to remember because it is very easy to put your foot in your mouth or ask stupid questions simply as a factor of your vast ignorance.

I try my best to follow the same principle during the information gathering phase of writing projects. Near the end of this process, I usually go about identifying missing information and writing it down as a list. I then deliver this list to prospective information sources. I’ve found that I often need to contact people directly multiple times to uncover the final definitive answer. In general, coworker responsiveness in these situations is in proportion to the amount of personal respect you have earned or lost up to that point in your relationship. It is at this point that persistence meets prudence because sometimes it is just not worth the effort to track down every item on the list. Making that call means balancing the needs of your coworkers with the needs of the end user. These situations always remind me of that popular saying, “the best is the enemy of the good”.

As a technical writer, I always try my best to justify my existence, prove my worth, and maintain relevance by practicing effective communication principles. Although I may not always succeed, I have found that this is the key to unlocking the magical doors to personal and professional growth.