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9 things I wish I knew as a younger Technical Writer

Not everyone enters the job market with abundance of experience. Being a Technical Writer demands you to be able to cast your spell on any document and mould it as a quality output. It takes years of practice and patience to hone your skills as a Technical Writer.

I often look back and evaluate myself on what I could have done better during the start of my career.

  1. It is never too late to learn

I have told myself that I should have known something or had the skill early on in my career. But, it’s actually never too late to learn, be it a tool or a skill. The best way to boost your confidence is by starting with YouTube tutorials or by reading up about the tool. There are numerous online courses (with certifications as well as free ones) that you can take up if you would like to learn about a particular area or field.

The key is be an early bloomer. The earlier you start moulding yourself, the better. At first it is always difficult to wrap your head around things. During times like that you need to pause, think, and then take a step forward. Baby steps are the way to go.

2. Technical writing is more than just writing

An aura of confusion always keeping hanging in the minds of people as to what Technical Writing actually caters to. As an entry-level technical writer, you will get to know that on a day-to-day basis, you will be juggling so many tasks as well as donning many hats! You will realize that in order to be a good technical writer you need to carefully assess your work environment and make important decisions. You will need to start developing your testing skills, have an eye for quality control, and be able to act as a good negotiator, apart from obviously being able to communicate clearly.

You need to keep in mind that you should be ready to embrace the challenges as they come. Ask as many questions as possible to your peers. There are no stupid questions even if you feel that they are. If you do not know something, ASK.

3. You need to keep brushing your tools knowledge

In order to boost your confidence and gets some hands on experience, always download the trial version of a tool before you would like to buy something. Using the tool on a regular basis will help you gain experience and familiarize yourself with it. Another great way to learn is by using Open Source. Try to utilize all the tools at your disposal. Please read this great tip from David Ryan in my previous post for writing with Open Source.

The best thing about tools is that they have similarity depending on their functions or the purpose for which they are used. So, all you need to do is pick a tool based on its functions and learn it. It is okay if you do not know a particular tool that they ask for on the job requirement. Employers are always OK with you knowing an alternative to that tool. While learning a tool by itself is a huge task, you need to make sure that you keep yourself updated with the tools that are current.

A simple but effective technique to keep your tools knowledge in place would be to look at job postings and analyze what tools organizations are using and expecting technical writers to know.

4. You need to have patience. A lot of it!

When I first started out as a technical writer I would be on my heels to get everything done as quickly as possible. While it is good to be quick considering most technical writing jobs are placed in a fast-paced environment, you need to keep in mind that there are various other external elements that come into play when you do your writing. So, the mantra I follow is be quick at what you do but be patient enough to get updates and information from your peers.

5. You need to have a combination personality of introvert and extrovert

A common misconception is that technical writing is often considered as a 9 to 5 desk job while Technical Writers are people who would not take their head away from their desktops. Well, SURPRISE for those who do not know, it is NOT.

As a Technical Writer, your job is anything but what I have described. Even if you are not an extrovert as a person, it is really important for you to be one especially when interacting with developers and Subject Matter Experts. Always be ready to ask questions and put your point across. The introvert part comes when you do your writing. You must be able to switch between these personalities and be comfortable about it to get your work done.

6. You might have to compromise even if you don’t want to

I have often had arguments with developers and engineers to as to how a piece of information needs to be presented. While you, as a technical writer will be the expert in knowing how to structure the content, it is always okay to compromise if the developer’s suggestion is going to benefit the audience more.

I am often caught in-between following the style guide and being an intuitive writer. While the style guide might prescribe a certain way of organizing the content for consistency and uniformity of the content, it is okay to do a minimal compromise on content organization if it makes more sense to present it in a different way as long as you are not entirely ditching the style guide.

7. It will ALWAYS take longer than you expect to finish a task

When you do task-analysis it is always important to take into consideration the amount of time you will spend doing a task. I have often overlooked other factors such as information gathering, audience analysis, contingencies such as change in functionality of the product or addition of new features.

As an amateur writer I have found it difficult to place an exact timeframe for completing a task. And do not forget the problem of writers block. Even experienced writers are often stumped by writers block. My tip for novice writers is please take into consideration your experience as well the complexity of the task before determining the timeline for completing a task.

8. You need to have investigative skills

When you start out your career as a technical writer you often wonder how you can apply your theoretical knowledge into practice. I am sure you will be left wondering how to approach problems and make decisions.

Make every project you take up or you are assigned into an investigative task. Question your Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as much as possible. Investigate your product. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and question your product. The one motto that has helped me a lot throughout is “Never be AFRAID to ask questions”. Come up with a list of questions before you meet up with SMEs or developers. Listen before you speak. Give them a good window to voice out their concerns and put across their points.

Framing your “what, why, and how” questions in an orderly manner will help you get as much information as possible.

9. It is OKAY to make mistakes

When I first started out as a technical writer, I was always worried about things going wrong due to mistakes I make. But, what I have come to realize is that no matter how experienced or inexperienced you are, it is completely OKAY to make mistakes. Mistakes definitely teach you a lesson or two, making you learn from them. Learn from your mistakes and make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

PS — There will always be an open-ended dynamic 10th thing that will keep changing over the course of your career depending on your line of job.

Thank you for taking time to read this article. Leave your experiences and comments! If you found it useful please like and share it in your network.

Sree is a Technical Writer with a twist. Like many other Technical Writers, she also became one by accident. She is now in the journey of sharing her experience and helping other similar entry-level writers find a hold.