Sunday, May 30, 2010

What qualifications are important in a technical writer?

Recently, my department has been interviewing to replace one of our technical writers. The company for which I work has a policy to hire from within wherever possible and so far the job has only been posted internally. However, there are only three other technical writers at our site, not including those who work in our department, and none of those experienced writers applied for our open position.

Historically, my company has pulled technical writers from either engineering or drafting. Technical writing as a career path is still relatively new, and the perception remains that technical knowledge is more important than writing skills. This isn't a criticism of my company, simply the way it's always been.

The problem is, with technology advancing at lightening speed, technical writers are being challenged to develop software skills to enable them to create interactive and Web-based documentation. Universities are now offering degrees in technical documentation and the old "anyone with technical knowledge can do this job" philosophy is falling by the wayside.

So what is important when it comes to hiring a technical writer? Certainly, an applicant needs basic word processing and formatting skills, and experience creating some sort of documentation. Ideally, he or she should have working knowledge of some kind of publishing software. A technical writer must also have demonstrated excellent research and organizational skills.

My contention is that it's' easier to teach product to an experienced technical writer than to try and train a technical person to be a writer. There are so many factors that weigh into creating technical documentation that is both accurate and user friendly, product knowledge is only one part of the process. The question should be can the technical person "translate" this information into something that is user friendly, well written, and correctly formatted?

Consider the reverse of this argument. I am currently working with engineering drawings for an interactive parts list and use the drafting database to access these drawings. I pull the drawings from the database, open them in Illustrator and strip out everything but callouts and lines. I then consolidate these drawings on one page, renumber and format the page for ease of use.

I would consider myself an expert at what I do, but does that qualify me to be a draftsperson? No way! I have no training in the software used to create the drawings and no engineering experience. I don't really have a lot of technical knowledge either! So, although I have eleven years experience as a technical writer and have been working with the same product for two years, I can say without question that I'm not qualified to be a draftsperson!

It's time technical writing be recognized as a legitimate career path. To do anything else devalues what we, as tech writers do, and in the long run, diminishes the quality of our documentation.

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