Welcome to Tech Writer Tuesday, my new feature that explains what a Technical Writer is and what they do.
What Makes Me Qualified?
My path to Tech Writer began some thirty-something years ago when I joined the US Navy under a six-year obligation and became an Electronics Technician. While in the Navy, I updated the service, repair, and calibration manuals for the equipment on which I was assigned to repair.
Even back in the day, it was evident that engineers wrote the Fleet Operation Maintenance Manuals (FOMMs). The calibration procedures must have been written by someone who had never performed a calibration in their lives but knew the process. The manuals were hard to follow, so, I would pencil in notes to make my job easier.
On my second ship, I worked on the military equivalent of Geiger counters. As the shop supervisor, part of my job was to submit updates to NAVCAL (Naval Calibration Command) to clarify the procedures. It was one of my favorite tasks of that position.
After leaving the Navy, and the coast, the jobs I took all involved Technical Writing of one form or another. Some of that writing involved updating whatever the “current” documentation stated either into more precise text or creating new procedures. One employer wanted me to spend my free time creating documentation from my handwritten notes. “Keep track of your hours, and we’ll pay you straight time ($10/hour) for your efforts.” Er, thanks, but no thanks?
I went to college after I left that job—I now hold a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Technical Communications.
What Is Technical Writing?
According to Wikipedia, Technical Writing is “Technical writing is writing or drafting technical communication used in technical and occupational fields.” TechWhirl defines it this way: “Technical writing is sometimes defined as simplifying the complex.” I always looked at my job as being a translator; I translated the complex “engineering-speak” into formal American English that can be converted into other languages.
Technical Writers can exist in almost every occupation. Think about not just the marketing materials you see all over, but the brochures in doctor’s offices that explain an injury and the rehabilitation to correct a problem. Or the pamphlets at the glass repair shop that describe how they fix your windshield. The job of a Tech Writer is to clarify the complex—KISS, ‘keep it simple, stupid,’ although I prefer the acronym ‘keep it simple, succinct.’
Much material you see in most small businesses around the city is presumably written by the owner or the employee with the most computer experience. Or maybe it’s a secondary job of the bookkeeper, who knows? The problem is, it shows. The main drawback is, most small business owners don’t have the resources to hire a professional marketing agency. That’s where a good Tech Writer comes in.
What Does A Tech Writer Do?
A Tech Writer clarifies and simplifies. Remember the last time you had to assemble a piece of furniture or a toy at Christmas. Were the directions easy to follow? Or did you fling your hands up in disgust and try to figure it out for yourself? Was the language a crappy translation into English or your native tongue?
Machine translation is all the rage today, but it lacks one thing that a human translator possesses in abundance—the ability to interpolate where another person might be leading when interpreting from one language to another. Don’t get me wrong, some programs do a decent job of translating from one language to another, but context is king. And machine translators don’t always understand meaning.
If you use Grammarly at all, you get the picture. While the program does a decent job catching most grammatical errors, it still misses a portion of the time. The reason is context. The application sticks to the rules so tightly it loses the exceptions, and sometimes the context in which the piece is written. At this point in translation programming development, errors happen.
Where Can Tech Writers Work?
The short answer: Anywhere.
The problem is, many employers see Tech Writers as a luxury they can’t afford. The way I see it, professional writers are a luxury they can’t NOT afford. Like Mark Twain said many years ago: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
Early in my writing career, I had the VP of the company I worked for tell me that they could pull any “Joe” off the street to do my job. When I told my manager, she laughed and said, “I dare him.” She was right. Any “Joe off the street” could probably sit at a computer and make the changes they’re told to make, but does it improve the product understanding in any way?
That’s where a knowledgeable writer comes in.
A writer with interest or expertise in an area can be invaluable to a company. They know what questions to ask and when to research dubious information. It’s what they do.
If you want to be a Tech Writer, stay tuned to this page. I’ll impart whatever wisdom I have to offer, based on more than twenty years of formal experience in the field. I’ll answer what questions you have or point you in the direction of the answer. If you have topics you would like to see me cover, don’t hesitate to comment. I’m glad to help.
Next time, we’ll look at some of the fields that can use a technical writer in one form or another. You’ll be surprised at the breadth of the discipline.