What Should You Look for in a Technical Writer?

So, you’re ready? You’ve taken a hard look and admitted that your technical documentation could be, well, better? It now seems obvious that asking your tech people to write user guides really is a bad use of their skills? You’ve made a decision: You’re going to hire a professional to produce technical documentation worthy of your products and branding! After all, technical documentation is part of the customer experience. Here are the five things you should look for in a technical writer.

1. Digging up and analyzing information

Maybe you thought writing well should be a technical writer’s top skill? It is important (we’ll come back to this!) but, before even writing a single line, a technical writer has to have done a key part: gathering and understanding the information to be communicated.

Everybody knows: To explain things well, you have to understand them first. And for that, you need to find a writer who is a good listener and a quick study (who’s got time to repeat the same information over and over? Probably not you!).

Of course, finding someone who is familiar with your products and technology would be awesome. But just as good a choice is a smart writer who isn’t afraid of the content and knows what questions to ask when!

2. Writing and communication skills

Ah, here we go! Like we said above, a good technical writer has to be a good writer. No exceptions. But what does that mean exactly? It means that above and beyond writing grammatically correct and typo-free sentences, a technical writer has to be able to produce clear content in plain language that’s well-structured, easy to understand and reader oriented.

Actually, a good technical writer doesn’t even need words to communicate. He or she knows when using figures, charts, tables, illustrations and screenshots is the best way to get information across. As Tom Johnson says, this is important because “any time you can show an idea graphically, you score a hundred points with the reader.”

Finally, and probably most importantly, technical writers have to be able to see things from the readers’ point of view. Skilled technical writers step into the readers’ shoes to decide what information they’ll need and how to present it.

3. Mastering the tools

Surely you don’t think your technical writer works with pencil and paper, now do you? Actually, you shouldn’t even settle for a writer who uses just word processing. Today, technical writing involves way more than drafting documents! Your writer must master tools for communicating, creating and managing content, as well as those for project management and the most commonly used image-creation software. They should master tools you don’t even use in your office. After all, a good technical writer is also there to advise you about which tools will help you produce and manage your documentation more efficiently.

4. Making the most of internal expertise

A good technical writer has to be independent, but believe us, alone he won’t get anywhere. If he isn’t able to collaborate with your technical resources, nothing good will happen.

That means he’ll have to show a little humilty.  If he can’t find the information he needs all by himself, well, he’ll have to dare to ask that embarrassing technology 101 question that was holding him back, even if he looks a little dumb in front of the techies.

But this also means telling those same technical experts what he expects of them, every time they review his documents, for example. He also has to be able to call them back to order when they wander off. All this and make sure to keep the working relationship agreeable for all.

5. Agile

Projects are rarely carried out from A to Z without multiple changes and a few bumps along the road. Your technical writer will have to constantly update your documentation to new functionalities and interface changes or even maybe totally re-orient it.

Maybe the documentation you were planning for final users now need to also support your distributors? Your writer should be able to quickly figure out which information needs to be added and adapt your documentation’s tone, or maybe even its entire structure.
If you find a professional with all these virtues, you certainly have a good technical writer! But if your writer is also able to take a big-picture view of your company and knows how to make your technical documentation work for your business objectives, become a marketing tool and improve your customer experience, well, then congratulations! You’ve found an awesome technical writer!