How To Learn Absolutely Anything
As a technical writer, I’m often asked to write about things that I don’t know much about. Yet.
Sometimes I write documentation for software and products that I use on a regular basis. Other times, I’m faced with a topic that is completely unfamiliar to me, and somehow, I need to understand it well enough to teach others how to use it. Ever heard the popular Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach? Well… that doesn’t quite work for technical writing, because those who don’t understand something certainly can’t write high-quality documentation about it.
I’ve been a technical writer on and off since I got my working papers at age 14. I started by editing medical journals (I was hired to file) and a few years later, I began writing software documentation (again, I was hired to file). I went off to college and did a bunch of other things before finding comfort, once again, in technical writing.
But it doesn’t always come so easily. With challenging topics and looming deadlines, how do I manage to learn what I need to learn, even when I haven’t studied the pre-requisites?
1. Find an entry point. Any entry point.
Let’s say you want to learn
n. You know nothing about
But you do know a little about
m and you’ve heard of
o before. You know a lot about
t, and you’re an expert at
These are your entry points.
I’ll use programming as an example, but this is applicable across the board.
You decide that you want to learn Python. You don’t know anything about Python, and you’ve never coded before. You Google “Learn Python” and you find a bunch of documentation that you don’t understand (yet) and a handful of Medium articles about data science.
Data science. Hmm. Data. You took a statistics class once and you aced it. You’re pretty much an expert at Excel. You handle big data sets all day at work.
You dig in a little deeper and… hey, it turns out that Python is a powerful tool for data science and data analytics.
This is your entry point.
Do you know Python now? No. But does having an entry point help you make a connection between the documentation you’re reading and your existing knowledge? Yes.
2. Learn how to ask the right questions.
You might ask live human beings, or you might ask Google, but no matter what you’re learning, you’ll have questions.
If you don’t know what you don’t know… you won’t be able to ask the right questions.
This means taking some time to familiarize yourself with industry-specific vocabulary. Asking the right questions usually means using the right terminology, because nobody is going to understand “You know that thing, like, when you go into the console and it says some error message, yeah, how does that work?”
Figure out what you need to ask before you ask it, or you risk getting the wrong answers.
3. Work backwards.
Awhile back, I was given a topic that I should have realized was way outside my scope of knowledge. Let’s say the topic was
m. I didn’t know any other letters of the alphabet. I didn’t have a point of entry.
I Googled. I read. I watched videos. I asked subject matter experts. Nada. Nope. It went right over my head.
I had to work backwards.
I don’t know
m, and I don’t know any other letters of the alphabet. I tried to learn
o so that I’d have a good point of entry, but those went right over my head, too. I worked backwards until I found something that I did understand, and I learned that first. I basically started at
Let’s say you wake up tomorrow and decide to study web development. You read a cool article about jQuery and you decide that you should learn it. Everyone says jQuery can help you make amazing websites without doing too much extra coding!
Now, you’ve worked your way from the center of the problem to the outer corner, and you’ve figured out where to start.
4. Figure out how you learn best.
Some people watch a tutorial on YouTube and outdo the tutorial a few hours later. Some people read endlessly and absorb everything like a sponge. The rest of us have to figure out how we learn.
I learn from watching other people work. For example, I know I could learn Python by watching you code and watching you correct your mistakes. I also know that an article about Python — no matter how well written — is never going to help me learn it. A video tutorial probably won’t work for me unless someone is live coding and explaining what they’re doing each step of the way.
Knowing how you learn is an integral part of learning how to learn.
Otherwise, you’ll just find yourself wasting time on tricks and gimmicks that don’t work.
Figuring out how you learn means finding resources that you understand and using them strategically.
5. Talk it out.
Yes, talk to yourself if you have to. Reason with yourself and ask yourself good questions. Instead of being your own worst critic, be your own biggest fan. You know yourself better than anyone else does… so when you hit a bump in the road, talk it out.
Whatever you’re learning, think of it like a giant maze. You know there’s a way out, but you haven’t found the right path yet. You’ve walked in circles so many times that you no longer know where you are.
So? Talk yourself through it.
You’re in a maze. You have no idea where you are. You know where and when you entered. You know that the exit is on the opposite side of the entrance.
You do remember that the sun was in your eyes when you first entered the maze, and now it’s off to your left. You know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so you do a little critical thinking and you figure out (a) which direction you were facing when you entered, (b) which direction you’re currently facing, and (c) which way the exit should be.
This required absolutely no knowledge of mazes. It just required you to use critical thinking skills to guide yourself to a potential solution.
You can talk yourself through most challenges.
When you’re learning something difficult, always ask yourself two questions: “Does this make sense?” and “Are there any other possibilities?”
The best part about being a technical writer is that I’ve made a career out of learning new things. Whether your goal is to be a stronger writer, a better programmer, or to get through dental school, your ability to learn far outweighs the knowledge you’ve already accumulated.
You can learn anything you want. Find an entry point, ask questions, work backwards, figure out how you learn, and talk it out.
You just might find that you already know more than you expected.