How to Choose a Technical Writer
Hiring a technical writer isn’t as easy as it could be. It’s quite a niche profession and there are a real mix of people in the trade. You’ll find technical experts who have moved into documentation, people who have drifted into technical writing from other careers, and also pure technical writers. On this page, I’m going to provide some advice on how to choose the right sort of technical writer for your business.
There’s quite a lot to cover, so I’ve split it into three sections:
- Do you need a technical writer?
- 3 questions to ask when hiring a technical writer
- What qualities should a technical writer have?
These should provide you with a better idea of the sort of things you need to think about when you hire a technical writer.
Before you dive into those sections, let me explain that I’m a ‘pure’ technical writer, which is sometimes called a ‘generalist’. This means that I am an expert in creating documentation rather than an expert in a certain field. Technical communication is my field. I’ve worked as a technical writer since 1997, have a degree in Technical Communication, and have worked in a variety of industries. The majority of my experience is in software for industrial monitoring and controls, but I’ve worked on lots of different products and services.
Right, let’s get started. The first thing we need to clear up is whether you actually need a technical writer or another type of writer.
Lots of people get confused when they are looking to hire a technical writer. This is understandable, as there are so many different terms used to describe the same role. I’ll try and make it clearer for you.
Technical writers are also known as technical authors, documentation engineers, documentation specialists, and information designers. We create content that is designed to explain how to use products and services. Good technical writers also include contextual information, so that users know when they should perform tasks, why they should perform them, and understand the consequences of their actions. This is all post-sales content, designed to help customers and reduce support costs.
Technical writers are often confused with technical copywriters. Because we write about technical things and we write copy. That’s true, but the term copywriter generally relates to someone who writes pre-sales content aimed at selling technical products and services. The approach is very different – copywriting needs to be more persuasive and create a sense of desire. Technical writing is more about helping a customer to do something as quickly as possible, and to help them understand how to get the best out of a product or service.
Technical Writer/Copywriter Hybrids
Some technical writers, including myself, have trained to do both types of writing. So my first tip is – if you are going to hire a writer, make sure you choose the right type. And if you are going to hire someone who claims they can do both, make sure they have experience or training in both technical communication and copywriting.
When you are about to hire a technical writer, think about your audience.
1. Are your customers experts in your industry?
If yes, then consider using a technical author with relevant industry experience. But make sure they have an understanding of technical communication principles too. Untrained technical authors are much more likely to have picked up habits that are seen as ‘bad practice’ and can result in ineffective documentation (even if it is aimed at technically adept readers).
What sort of things do I mean by ‘bad practice’? Well, common problems that I run into include manuals written in a linear style; user guides written in a way that will make future conversion into single-sourced online help costly; and my pet hate, documentation that describes a product rather than helps users achieve their goals. Then there are other ‘amateur’ mistakes, such as overuse of jargon, repetition of phrases, and a lack of understanding of good sentence structure and flow.
If your audience aren’t experts in your industry, go to question 2.
2. Are your customers technically minded, but not experts in your industry and product?
If yes, then look for a writer who is a trained technical author with a proven aptitude for handling technical content. They don’t need to be a technical expert themselves, but should be able to prove they are comfortable dealing with technical subjects.
Trained technical authors with experience in technical industries are usually excellent “go-betweens”, able to interpret technical information easily and present it in a format that customers understand.
3. Are your customers non-technical?
Choose a technical writer who is an expert tech author but not a product expert. This type of writer will be able to identify with your audience quickly and produce documentation that really meets their needs.
The key point here is that in many cases, your technical writer does not need to be an expert in your industry. In fact, being an expert can have a negative effect, as it is more difficult for experts to understand the perspective of a new learner. This is because of something called the ‘curse of knowledge’. Your technical writer should be an expert in presenting information. They only need knowledge of your industry if they are writing for fellow experts in your industry.
Tech Comm Knowledge
Look for someone with a proven background in technical writing. But also pay attention to their qualifications and training. Being a technical writer for x amount of years does not guarantee they follow (or even understand) best practices.
Tech Comm Tools
Modern technical writing tools are complex. Make sure your technical writer knows how to use the tools you have. Ideally, you want them to know about topic-based content and modern authoring tools like Flare, RoboHelp, Paligo, Confluence, etc.
Technical writers usually need to have social skills, empathy, and patience. They also need to be organised so that they can get information with minimal fuss. You’ll need them to be confident to approach people and have an enquiring mind too.
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