‘Technical writing’ is the sort of writing you read when you need instruction of some sort, as opposed to ‘writing’ which you generally read just before you buy something.
Technical writing, or tech writing as we professionals like to call it, is very easy and only requires very few rules of thumb to get it right. The main rule of thumb is to write as if your audience had the mental capacity and staying power of your cat. Another is if at all possible, use a list.
- Always write in what we professionals call the active voice, which means like dialog from Die Hard with a Vengeance or Rocky III.
- Always get things in the right order, especially when writing about landing airplanes.
- That’s about all there is to it.
- Oh and try to avoid redundancy, meaning always be looking for the next job.
Finally, try to avoid redundancy.
So by lunchtime you should have the writing part mastered. That leaves the rest of your tech writing career to figure out what the hell your ‘Subject Matter Experts’ could possibly be thinking.
Subject Matter Experts, or SMEs as they like to be called, are the source of all the material you write down (except for the bits that you make up), and the skilled writer develops strategies to trick them into divulging the information the writer needs. It’s important to note that an SME has never, ever, enjoyed the company of a technical writer. There is almost nothing an SME would not prefer to do compared to explaining something to a writer, and this is evidenced by them not agreeing to meet, failing to show up, making coffee, reading e-mail, or tuning a banjo while you speak to them and many other ploys to make clear what a waste of time they consider the whole business to be.
To an SME, interviewing job candidates is the only thing worse than talking to a tech writer.
So if you are to reach the very top rung of the technical writing ladder, you will need to learn basic psychology. Here are two example writer-SME dialogs. Once you can spot which one went best, you are on your way to your first tech writing job.
SME: “Oh. Hello. Crap I must’ve forgot to block my calendar.”
Writer: “I managed to grab 20 minutes I saw was free. Can you just tell me about your widget? Specifically, how to install it?”
SME: “I guess there must be people too stupid to install it then, right? Pass me that Lego set, will you?”
Writer: “Can you do the Lego later? I just need a few steps for the installation.”
SME: “Hmmmmm? Sorry I was checking e-mail. Did you say something?”
SME: “Oh. Hello. Crap — not you again.”
Writer: “Just passing and I noticed you in your office. I don’t have time right now to ask you about your widget installation, but Janet in Marketing says its the most cockeyed pile of trash she’s ever had the misfortune to have to sell.”
SME: “What? Marketing? Cockeyed? What the hell. Get in here I’ll show you how to install it — takes two minutes and let me tell you it’s best in class is what it is. Marketing. Geez. Siddown.”
Of course if you’re hourly contingent staff, then hopefully you will have spotted example 1 as the most favorable. Full-timers will see the virtue of example b.
That’s it, though I should just add that when all else fails, make something up. SMEs, reviewers, managers — however slow they may be to work with you, it’s amazing how making stuff up will grab their attention. And if it doesn’t, then at least you have some stuff, made up or not, and you can fairly claim to have technically written.
More in future about tech writing when we look at another essential technique they won’t teach you in community college: flattery.