Essential Skills for Technical Writers

Lead Writer: Amanda Butler | Peer Reviewer/s: Felicity Brand, Kieran Morgan | Expert Reviewer/s: Saul Carliner | Managing Editor: Kieran Morgan

This chapter provides a comprehensive guide to what it takes to excel in a technical writing career, emphasizing the interplay between hard and soft skills. It discusses the importance of understanding new technologies and effectively communicating them through writing, while also highlighting essential interpersonal skills for working with subject matter experts.

Audience Icon Who Should Read This
• Aspiring Technical Writers
• Beginner Technical Writers
• Cross-Domain Professionals
Table of Contents: Technical Writing Process
Previous: Chapter 2: Technical Writing Roles and ResponsibilitiesNext: Chapter 4: Breaking into Technical Writing

1. Introduction

If you’re considering jumping into a technical writing career, you need to consider whether the day-to-day life of a technical writer is for you and whether you have the kind of skills that technical writers need to excel in their role, or the aptitude to learn them. Not everyone is suited to be a technical writer.

Technical writing, at its heart, requires you to be able to learn new technologies and communicate them effectively to others through your writing. You must be able to understand technical information well enough to explain it to others, and you must be able to write clearly in a way that other people understand. To obtain the technical information in the first place, you need to be able to work with subject matter experts who hold this information in their minds. Interpersonal skills are an indispensable element of any successful technical writer’s toolkit.

Some folks truly love technical writing—it’s in their bones. Others may consider the role a stepping stone to another career.

Insight Icon Insight
Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills
Soft skills—also known as people skills or interpersonal skills—are the behaviors and attitudes you’ll need to bring to your work so you can flourish as a technical writer. Hard skills are technical skills that are easily measurable, i.e., you can prove them with a degree or certificate. Both can be learned, and both are essential to your credibility as a technical writer, but it’s much easier to prove on paper that you have hard skills. As your career as a technical writer grows, aim to gain a reputation among employers for your soft skills as well as your technical excellence.

2. Soft Skills

The soft skills you need to be a great technical writer tend to be consistent across organizations. Just like hard skills, you can learn soft skills by taking a course; asking for feedback from a manager, coach, or mentor; or reflecting on how you handled a situation.

Important soft skills for technical writers include:

  • Working well with subject matter experts.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Ability to quickly learn new technical concepts.
  • Ability to empathize with your audience.
  • Ability to manage your own time.

Great technical writers are known as much for their soft skills as for their technical proficiency, and over time they develop a reputation in the industry for their winning combination of soft and hard skills. These technical writers are almost always in hot demand and can usually command top-of-the-market rates, take their pick of roles with great organizations, or negotiate employment conditions that work for them.

Insight Icon Insight
Use Reflections to Build Your Soft Skills
Reflecting on how you handled a situation can be a great pathway to personal growth. Take the opportunity to reflect on a situation you were involved in, either at work or in your personal life, that you think went particularly well—or not so well, providing you with an opportunity to do better next time. Keep your reflections filed somewhere you can add to them over time. Reflections can be a great way of identifying behaviors that have worked well—for yourself or for others—and incorporating them into your repertoire of soft skills. You can also use them to identify habits that you think might need changing. Don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t handled a situation as well as you could. Reflections help you understand what you can do better next time.

3. Hard Skills

The hard skills you need depend on the type of technical writing you do. These skills range from the geeky end of the technical writing spectrum, where employers in high-tech software industries will have an expectation that technical writers can code—at least to some extent!—to roles that require very little specialized technical knowledge beyond the standard technical writer toolkit, such as documenting processes or procedures.

Some hard skills every technical writer must have in their toolkit, regardless of the organization they work for, are the abilities to:

  • Effectively structure and format documents.
  • Write clearly and concisely.
  • Use correct grammar and punctuation.
  • Follow a style guide.

Here are some of the skills and tools commonly needed for different technical writing roles:

Note Icon Note
There are many more hard skills that are highly desirable for technical writers to develop. They include:
Degrees and certificates.
Understanding of fundamental technical writing concepts.
Proficiency with writing, grammar, and punctuation.
Knowledge of common rules of style and grammar.
Ability to effectively use a style guide.
Ability to effectively structure and format documents.
Proficiency in a computer programming language.

4. Industry Knowledge

If you spend time working in a particular industry, you’ll notice that folks around you use what’s called industry jargon—that is, unique terms, acronyms, and concepts unique to that industry and impenetrable to anyone new to it! If you’re new to the industry, you’ll need to learn this industry-specific knowledge on the job. Your first six months might be slightly bewildering as the people around you seem to speak in code, but bear with it. It’s worth spending the time coming to grips with the terminology and technology of your industry, as well as any legal requirements particular to it that govern how you write your technical documents.

Here are some examples of industries where documentation is governed by regulations:

  • Aviation industry: US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements for documentation
  • Medical device industry: US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements for documentation

As you can imagine, more technical or tightly regulated industries come with more complex jargon and regulations. However, technical writers who invest time developing a deep, industry-specific knowledge often develop a reputation as an expert writer in that industry. If that’s you, expect to be in hot demand!

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