How to Choose a Technical Writer
If you need advice on how to choose a technical writer, this page is for you. Here, I will explain the difference between the types of technical writer you are likely to come across and when you should consider hiring them.
Before I start, I'll briefly explain what type of technical writer I am.
In the technical communication industry, I'm a generalist. This means I am an expert technical writer, but not an expert in any other field. Creating clear, understandable, and accessible content is my speciality. This means I am in a great position for viewing your products and services with fresh eyes, and can quickly identify the needs of a non-expert or completely novice customer base.
The other type of technical writer is a niche-expert technical writer. These are people who are experts in a certain field and usually write content for expert or high-level users. Now, you might think that a writer should be an expert before they write your content, but that's not always the case. If you are writing for novice or mid-level users, content written by an expert can be too difficult to understand. This is because of the curse of knowledge, which is when someone becomes so expert in a subject that they lose sight of the learner's perspective. There are experts that are able to empathise with novices, but they are a rare breed.
But how can a generalist technical writer create content without knowing the product or service?
I know it may sound strange at first, but when you think of a generalist, you should think of us as a bit like journalists - we find out information and present it in a way that suits our audience. A generalist:
- Understands who the audience is, how they communicate, and how they think
- Knows what sorts of questions the audience will have
- Can predict what types of problems the audience may experience
- Only needs to be an expert on one subject at the time of writing. I only need to know everything about the topic I'm writing at that time. As soon as it is written and approved, I can forget it and move on to the next topic.
We act as filters between the experts in your business and your customers.
There is a place for both types of technical writer, but lots of people assume they need a niche-expert when they will actually benefit more from a generalist. I'll give you an example - years ago, I was presented with a user guide that had been written by a product designer, and the product was aimed at women (general public). The content was extremely technical, with references to frequencies and radio waves. Technically accurate? Yes. But completely inappropriate for the end user. So when I rewrote it, I started from the customer's perspective - what did they want to use the device for?
When you've done that, I'll go on to explain why you should hire an experienced technical writer and not a good writer who is having a go at technical writing.
Before you choose a technical writer, you should spend some time thinking about your audience. By considering who your audience is, and what information they need, you can figure out what sort of skills your technical writer will need.
I recommend that you ask yourself three questions:
- 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.
- Are your customers technically minded, but not experts in your industry and product?
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.
- Are your customers novice or non-expert users?
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.
If you need a generalist technical writer, I'm just the man for the job. I've worked in different industries and have formal training as a technical writer too. I'd love to hear about your project, so use the button below to get in touch.
If you need a niche-expert technical writer, I'm probably not going to be able to help you. Although I do have a lot of SCADA software experience and knowledge of data centre cooling and remote monitoring/controls, so I'm a good fit for IoT projects (Internet of Things).
If you've decided you need a generalist technical writer, you may be wondering if you can get by with a low-cost writer. You know, someone who is good with words, but doesn't have much technical writing experience. Well, you could try, but you're likely to end up paying more in the long run, and here's why:
- Modern technical writing tools are complex. Even experienced technical writers take some time to get used to them. Someone without prior experience of technical writing tools is going to face a huge learning curve.
- Does a good writer from another discipline (or straight from university) know technical writing best practices? Do they know how to plan for and use content reuse features? Do they understand how to identify the needs of the target audience? Do they know what information a topic needs to contain?
- Technical writing isn't copywriting. Yes, it is possible to make technical content more accessible and engaging, but there needs to be a balance between style and function. Does a copywriter know about writing in more general terms to allow for content reuse? Does a copywriter consider translation costs and potential misunderstandings when the content is used by an international audience?
- Experience counts. To be a successful technical writer, you need to understand technology and also understand how to interact with the people who make technology. It takes time and patience to figure out how to communicate with engineers, developers, etc., without causing too much disruption to their work.
- Confidence. An experienced technical writer will have the confidence to get straight to work on complex technology and ask people questions. They are also likely to have developed a thick skin, because at some point, we all get made to feel a bit foolish about misunderstanding something. Will a novice writer be able to roll with the punches quite so easily?
Of course, it works the other way around too. Hiring a technical writer who knows the tools inside out but doesn't have excellent writing skills is another recipe for disaster. And there are experienced technical writers out there whose writing isn't as clear and user-friendly as it should be. I'm sure we've all read instructions that are difficult to follow.
Being proficient (or even expert) in technical writing software does not make someone a good technical writer. So what if they can create complex layouts and know about single-sourcing – does that make their writing more concise or their explanations any clearer? Of course not. And yet companies (and recruitment agencies) who are looking to hire a technical author often focus on the tools of the job rather than the end product.
Other technical communicators agree. US-based technical writer James Barakaat writes:
“In spite of having a technology and business background, a Master of Technical and Scientific Communication degree, and many years of technical writing experience, I have lately only been asked about my ability to use the tools that are an elementary part of technical writing. The use of technical writing tools does not determine if a person is a competent technical writer. Staffing companies seem to have become more apprehensive about technical writing candidates because more and more they have been using the wrong criteria for evaluating technical writers. They keep emphasizing technical writing tools instead of technical writing skills. Tools are always changing but the methodology tends to remain the same.”
You can find out more about James at his site, jamesgraves.com.
As an experienced, qualified, and dedicated generalist technical writer, I can deliver high quality work and value for money. To find out more, click the button below and let me know about your project. I'll get back to you as soon as possible.