A technical writing career is guaranteed to be filled with challenges. Technology is constantly changing, roles are shifting, and best practices are evolving. Wouldn't it be great if you could get the best minds in the industry in the same room and ask them for advice on how to be successful in such an environment?
With that in mind, I contacted the most influential technical writers I could think of and humbly asked them for an answer to the following question: "What advice would you give to a new technical writer who wanted to further their career?"
The responses were amazing and packed with useful information.
Here is what they said...
Scott Abel (http://www.thecontentwrangler.com/)
"Don't allow yourself to be limited or boxed into one type of 'communication' or another. Your title does not matter. In fact, don't be surprised if the job you are most suited for is not a 'technical writing' position. The fact is, the business world is undergoing a major paradigm shift and just now beginning to value the content we create as a business asset worthy of being managed efficiently and effectively. This means organizations are taking a look at the way we work -- the processes we use -- and optimizing them for maximum efficiency. They don't teach this important fact in school. Nor do they teach you how to be prepared for a job in today's market.
The skills most in demand are collaborative, structured authoring (which requires teamwork as well as the ability to write modular, context independent content chunks), content strategy (being able to match business goals to content creation, management and delivery tasks), and understanding of content standards like the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. Additionally, understanding and being able to design interactive content for today's hot mobile devices and eBook reader apps (think iPad, iPhone, Android) and mastering the art of social documentation and community management (making user assistance content interactive so we can quickly find errors, enhance quality, add missing content) are critical skills for the next generation of writers to posses.
Sure writing, punctuation, grammar, and rhetoric are important, but every college graduate is expected to have mastered these basics. To be successful -- and to differentiate yourself in this ultra-competitive global market -- you have to step outside the traditional 'writing' role and master the concepts that are important in all types of communication. Knowing your audience and the intent of your communication is key. Selecting the right communication method is also critical as some information is better conveyed in video, via audio, as an info-graphic or interactive simulation. It is not enough in today's world to be just a writer."
Mike Hughes (http://user-assistance.blogspot.com/)
"I come from a software development environment, and my advice is 'be an enabler,' that is, help your team meet its goals. By team, I mean the broader team of product managers, developers, QA, and fellow writers. If they need 'down and dirty' give them minimalist and good. If they need 'comprehensive, accurate, and this afternoon,' give them the most comprehensive and accurate document you can write this afternoon (better yet, find stuff you've already written). Too often, technical communicators get excluded because they turn into blockers, telling the team what they can't have.
The best compliment in any team environment is to become known as someone who makes the team better. Look for opportunities to use your communication skills to make that happen."
Alistair Christie (http://www.itauthor.com/)
"So you've got yourself a job as a technical writer. First off, don't worry about the job title. You won't spend all day writing, and a lot of the time the stuff you'll work on won't be particularly technical.
If you're working in a software development environment don't expect to get praised for how wonderful the documentation is - I mean ever. This might happen, but don't pin your hopes on it. Treat a lack of complaints about poor or missing documentation as your commendation. But don't let this discourage you. There are plenty of ways you can earn respect and become a valued member of staff. Working in a software development department you can be the representative of the end user in a way that the developers sometimes just can't - because they have their own particular way of thinking - and that makes you a really useful resource, so make it count. You can also get the sort of holistic, but detailed, view of the product set that few other people in the company can get. This is because you'll be working on lots of products and you'll always be looking at them from the point of view of the user. This makes you a useful go-to person for developers, product managers, sales guys and the marketing team when they need to know which product solves which problem, for whom, and how the products interrelate.
One of the biggest professional compliments you'll get is when people seek you out to ask you questions. Encourage this and grasp the opportunities that will come along to show people what you know. They'll be surprised. But once you explain why you know what you know, it'll make sense and they'll spread the word that you're someone who knows stuff.
As a technical writer it's easy to be anonymous. But do yourself a favour. Don't be."
Tom Johnson (http://idratherbewriting.com/)
"If you want to be successful, start a blog on technical communication and contribute to it regularly. Doing so will force you to read, ponder, and apply principles of tech comm to your everyday activities. It will keep you engaged and relevant. And it will make your job more interactive and fun, since you will see opportunities to analyze and reflect on the stories that happen to you everyday in the workplace."
Gordon McLean (http://www.onemanwrites.co.uk/)
"My Top Tip - Ask Why. If you only learn to ask one question, ask why. Regardless of the task at hand, it's the most powerful question of all. Yes, even more powerful than 'who?' (knowing your audience is important I'm presuming you've already figured that out). Understanding why you are doing something, why you aren't doing something else instead lets you bring a level of business focus to your work.
We all have lots to do and rarely can we do it all, so ask yourself why, ask your boss why, ask your team leader why, ask your colleagues why, be known as the person that asks why (but do remember to ask how, what, where and when as well). You can extend the question into your writing as well; why does this work this way? why shouldn't the user do that with this product? why should the user do this with this product?"
Ellis Pratt (http://www.cherryleaf.com/blog)
"Look at how you can get some relevant writing experience that you can include on your CV. A lot of the open source software projects look for people to write the manuals. You could put yourself forward to join one of the writing teams. You could write procedures for a local charity. The ability to write well and to deliver on time are the two most important skills to have, so a portfolio of examples can help demonstrate this to prospective employers."
Bill Kerschbaum (http://wordindeed.wordpress.com/)
"When I first started technical writing, I knew of one overriding principle. Adhere to that, and I would excel as a technical writer--miss the mark, and my writing (and career) would be substandard. It's the same principle every technical communications student learns his or her first day: Make your writing accurate, brief, and clear. The Triune Goal of technical writing.
The ABCs of technical communication are the foundation of good tech writing, but a foundation is not a house. For a long time I made accuracy, brevity, and clarity my only goals in my projects. If I could keep it short, easy to read, and correct, I was happy--and so was my boss. But my writing wasn't great, and in time I got bored with tech writing. Eventually I began developing my exit strategy.
Then I realized that the ABCs, while necessary, aren't sufficient. I began to see room for creativity and personality in technical communication. I realized that user guides serve a role in marketing too, and my work had value beyond the numbered lists. My user guides could actually help a company connect with its users and reach new customers. Suddenly, design and creativity had a significant role in user documentation, and my goals expanded beyond the manual itself to the company as a whole, and even beyond the company to current and future customers. And so I revised my goals. Rather than pursue accuracy, brevity, and clarity I was now pursuing Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Once I began that pursuit, my writing went from acceptable to exceptional--and so did my enjoyment in technical communication.
So don't mistake the fundamentals for the essence. The ABCs are a tool, not the goal, of technical writing. And the goal of technical communication isn't the user guide; that's just the means. Your goal as a technical writer reaches beyond the manual, and even beyond the company. And that kind of mission deserves all your creativity and passions.
Bonus: Read Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith. You'll see your role at your organization in a whole new light."
Scott Nesbitt (http://www.dmncommunications.com/weblog/)
"Remember that the technical part of technical writer is just as important as the writer part. Sometimes, it can be even more important. Writing isn't always enough. You need other skills to succeed in this profession. Like what? Obviously, knowledge of the tools of the trade. Don't forget knowledge of technologies -- ranging from operating systems to the languages and processes what you're documenting. Don't discount interviewing, either. You need to know how to draw information out of sometimes tight-lipped subject matter experts (SMEs). Having a knowledge of technologies helps; you can speak the language of the SMEs, and by doing that they'll take you a little more seriously."
Aaron Davis (http://www.dmncommunications.com/weblog/)
"1. Become an expert - Whatever technology, product or service that you're writing about, take time to thoroughly understand the details. Don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions. One lesson I learned early in my career was the value of "getting my hands dirty" by running, testing, and ultimately breaking the software I was supposed to be writing about. It taught me a lot. A "technical" technical writer earns respect from developers, project managers, and QA.
2. Learn and adapt - Diversify your skill set. Learn about new technologies. Learn the business that you're involved in, and understand how you provide value with respect to the strategic goals of the company. Take courses in different disciplines such as UX. The field is undergoing rapid change, and you need to learn to adapt and change with the demands of industry.
3. Become a good project manager - One key to becoming a successful technical writer is the ability to manage your own projects. You will be counted on to provide work estimates, develop project plans, and schedule deliverables. Take the opportunity to start cultivating good organizational and time management habits early in your career.
4. Don't become a tool fetishist - There are those in the profession who spend time arguing the merits of this tool versus another tool, or spend too much time learning the very granular details of a specific publishing platform. Avoid this behavior at all cost. Over the course of your career, you will be exposed to many different ways of authoring and producing documentation. Don't be stubborn. You will be using a new tool next year anyway.
5. Enjoy what you do - Why suffer doing something that you don't enjoy? Embrace and advocate your profession. Maintain a positive attitude. Have fun with it!"
Peggy Harvey (http://connectingtocontent.com/)
"My advice to a new technical writer is: Join the community. One way to do this is to volunteer with your local STC chapter (whether or not you're a member of STC), but there are other ways as well. Twitter holds a wealth of information for technical communicators. Follow the #techcomm hashtag and you'll be introduced to a world of content that ranges from debates on the use of rhetoric in technical documentation to how to apply DITA tags in a structured authoring environment. Twitter is also a great way to network with other technical communication professionals locally and internationally, which can lead to job leads and career advancement opportunities."
Julie Norris (http://www.2morodocs.com/)
"Stay current. Read. Observe. Participate. Dream.
Stay current with new technologies and methods. Choose a secondary subject in which to develop expertise, such as social media or usability. As far as skills go, I would say to absolutely learn HTML/CSS and XML. I’d also suggest basic database design. Staying current is, to me, the most important consideration.
Read everything you can get your hands on. You must keep up. Also, you never know what you may end up writing about and documenting, so look at everything.
Observe what’s occurring in technology and business in general to try and keep up with and anticipate trends. Keep an eye on marketing for social media developments. See what’s happening in the world, particularly with the ways people share and obtain information.
Participate everywhere you can. It’s a social, interactive world now. The days when the writer essentially worked alone are over. These days, everyone is involved in creating documentation. So join in as many conversations as you can. Learn how different options and formats work. Share information, learn from other writers, from users, from everyone.
Dream and imagine what’s possible. Work to turn your ideas into reality. The industry - as well as most - is in a state of upheaval due to demographic and technological changes. Much is being built (or rebuilt) from scratch. This is your time. This is your opportunity. In the 20+ years I’ve been in the industry, I’ve never seen a more exciting time. So dream big. Share your ideas. Experiment. Jump in and help shape the future of tech comm. Welcome aboard!"
And there you have it. That's an incredible amount of information to absorb, and it's pure gold. I plan on re-reading it many times myself because I can see the relevance to my own career.
Please visit the websites of these experts and subscribe to their feeds. I guarantee you will find a treasure trove of valuable insights that can be applied to your daily work.
To all contributors: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your wisdom. You truly are an amazing bunch of people and I'm inspired by the level of sharing and support you offer to the technical writing community. I know that HelpScribe readers will appreciate it as much as I do.