By Michael Bremer
I’d like all of you writers who consider yourselves too creative for technical writing to rethink your opinion. If you are creative, if you can entertain readers, if you like technology (even a little) and, above all, if you enjoy learning new things, then you’re the kind of writer that should be explaining our technical world to the people living in it.
How Technical Do You Have To Be To Be a Technical Writer?
The fact is, while there is a lot of technical writing that should be written by serious technologists, if not full engineers, that explain things to other technologists and engineers, the vast majority of writing about technology is written for and read by the nontechnical consumer audience.
How much of a technical background you need depends on what you write about. If you’re explaining APIs to programmers, then you need a programming background. If you’re explaining the theory of operation of a nuclear power plant to nuclear engineers, you need a physics background.
But if you’re explaining how to use a TV, VCR, home computer, or any of a million other hardware and software products created for the consumer market, you need a human background. And that’s what many writers who don’t normally consider writing about technology specialize in.
In fact, for many subjects and products, it’s an advantage for the writer to come to the project knowing very little. That way, the discovery process, complete with mistakes and false trails, is fresh in the mind, and you’ll know the pitfalls that your reader will face.
What Skills Do You Really Need?
To be a successful tech writer today, you do have to be able to:
- Learn: figure out what the darn thing is, what it does and how to use it.
- Explain: explain what you learned to people who don’t know it yet, who don’t figure things out as easily as you do or who don’t really enjoy learning new things.
- Write well: this is basic, and standard for all types of writing.
- Entertain: think back to your school days. Which teachers did you learn the most from? For me, it was the teachers that had a sense of humor and made learning fun and exciting.
And the hardest of all:
- Finish: meet your deadlines with high quality work.
Technology Is Mass Market
As little as 15 years ago, technology was something that only engineers, scientists and propellerheads cared about. Sure, there were hi-fi enthusiasts, and there were those hobbyists who played with electronics and short-wave radios in the basement or garage, but these people, while tolerated, were a minority. They were generally considered strange, and were rarely invited to parties.
But today, everything is different. Technology is everywhere. Cell phones, VCRs, CDs, DVDs, computers and the Internet have invaded both home and workplace. Using technology is no longer a choice. It’s a fact of personal and professional life.
Technology Is Entertainment
People buy VCRs, camcorders, computers (at least partially) and software (at least partially) for entertainment. Learning how to use them should be entertaining as well. Why should they feel like they’re back in school with a boring, confusing, unclear teacher to learn how to have fun?
Learning is Necessary, But It Can Be Fun
Think back on your teachers who were boring and unclear. How much did you remember from their classes? Now think back on the few teachers who entertained and inspired you, who made you laugh now and then, whose classes were fun. As long as you have to learn, which teacher would you rather learn from? If you are teaching through your technical writing, which teacher would you rather be remembered as?
Tech writing and technical communications in general is a growing field — growing in size and in prestige. With this growth comes more opportunities to be paid for writing, and pay rates are increasing, especially for those with a proven track record.
Today, the growth of the Internet and the software industry (business, entertainment, multimedia, etc.), and the ever-increasing need for more text and graphics, has created a need for writers and artists “well-paid writers and artists” like never before in the history of civilization. Today is your best opportunity to make a living as an artist, whether you work with words or images.
Beyond the financial aspects, there are other, less-tangible rewards from tech writing. Knowing that your work (your writing) helps other people to understand new things is rewarding in itself. And knowing that you make some people’s lives a little easier, even a little better, is something to be proud of.
With the right attitude and understanding, tech writing can give you the same personal and spiritual rewards as teaching (but with flexible hours and higher pay).
No matter what you have heard, what you have read, what you have believed, tech writing is not just for geeks any more. More and more (but far from all) companies are realizing the importance of documentation, and are changing their attitudes about creativity and humor.
So, try some tech writing. Learn something new and explain it to someone who needs help. Write so your reader will enjoy reading it. And above all, write things you enjoy writing.
Copyright 2000, Michael Bremer
About the author: Michael Bremer is the author of two books for writers: UnTechnical Writing: How to Write About Technical Subjects and Products So Anyone Can Understand, and The User Manual Manual: How to Research, Write, Test, Edit and Produce a Software Manual. He is also the managing editor of a new series of books for computer beginners: Advice From the Neighborhood Nerd. You’re not a dummy. You’re not an idiot. All you need is a little advice from the Neighborhood Nerd. For more information, see www.untechnicalpress.com.