A technical writer needing a technical background is a very emotive topic of conversation depending on the specific industry that the technical writer is working in.
The technical writing profession encompasses a wide range of job descriptions. Therefore, you will find that the majority of technical writers possess a broad range of technical skills and knowledge requirements. This then equates to the less technical the subject, product or service they are writing about, the less stringent the technical knowledge they need.
You tend to find that technical writers that produce end-user documentation and online help do not need an in depth knowledge of programming, although knowledge of the field in which the product is to be used is required.
Therefore, the definition of “technical” may vary depending on the subject, product or service and more specifically the intended audience.
On the other hand, the more complex and technical the content will require that the technical writer has deep understanding of the subject matter. The technical writer must have some idea of the technology if they are writing original content about a technology. If you are writing technical information about another person’s work, then you can get by with good communication skills with a person that understands the details of the subject.
More often than not an employer will employ a technical writer that has a technical background than one that does not. The employers I have dealt with are very specific about a technical background because they want to ensure that the technical writer has a deep knowledge of their industry. Also it gives the employer the confidence of knowing that the documentation the technical writer produces will meet the criteria they need.
I believe it is a great plus to have a technical knowledge of the subject you will be writing about because there are times when you have little background information to work from. You may be an excellent writer, but it is a great advantage to be able to understand what you are writing about. It gives you the confidence of knowing that the documentation you produce will communicate the information more effectively to the end user.
With all technical writing the technical writer requires too have a good rapport with the relevant subject matter expert. The technical writer will need their expert advice and knowledge on what they have written and also they will need them to validate what they have written. This is where a good technical knowledge will help when discussing the content with the subject matter expert.
Throughout my technical writing career I have worked with technical writers who did not have particularly strong technical backgrounds. They found it difficult to create original content and they relied on cut and pasting information from other sources. Basically, they were just editing existing content.
But on the other hand, I have worked with technical writers who had strong technical backgrounds but they could not create useful documentation because they were not effective communicators. They clearly understood the subject matter, but they were unable to convey how it worked or how to use it.
However, it is more important that an effective technical writer has strong writing/communication skills and a deep interest about the subject matter and the audience. These qualities will make it a lot easier for a not very to perform their job.
Filed under: Technical Writer
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