Job Profile: Technical Writer Skill set

When evaluating job postings for technical writer you want to be sure your skill set matches what the company or recruiter is looking for. Some job postings are clearer than others in what they are looking for in a writer. As a basic description, technical writers are responsible for designing and write documentation for a company’s products. This includes writing initial documentation, revising as the company revises the products, publishing the documentation, and for maintaining an online repository of those documents. This is the technical writer’s output, what they produce. Technical writers must also work with multiple Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in various departments to accomplish their work. This puts them in a unique position to actually be integrated into multiple departments outside of the writers or education department.

Technical Writers produce documentation, true but what do they really do…what does that mean. A review of current job postings reveals a myriad of responsibilities and required skills. I have included a list below along with what each requirement really means using software as the company example.

  • Work with individuals in departments including from management, quality assurance, customer support, and clients.
    • What this means: Long before a software is changed, or a new software is provided to a writer many individuals have been involved in the changes. These persons include business analysts who work with clients to design changes, developers who make the changes, and quality assurance who test the changes. These people are your best tools to determine ‘what really changed’ and ‘why did we make this change’. Depending on the company, writers may have direct access with customers and can use customer feedback to change documentation to improve its accuracy and usability. Without access to customers, your customer support department may be where documentation request come from.
  • Write, edit, and format release notes.
    • What this means: Let’s start with what release notes are. Release Notes are a document that accompanies a software release that list both the new features, changes to existing features, and known issues (bug fixes). This is sometimes called ‘What’s New’. Release notes are important to end users because this is how they determine which pieces of the software they use have been changed and must be re
  • Write, edit, and format online help project to coincide with application updates.
    • What this means: Documentation that is available within an application or on the Internet for end users is online help or the help file. This information looks different and has a different content structure than documentation in a Word or FrameMaker user guide. The help file is more than user guides put online, it is easy to use layouts and navigation, dynamic content, and searchable. Technical Writers can take advantage of HTML and XLM features of help authoring tools such as MadCap Flare and Adobe RoboHelp. These tools allow information to be single-sourced and available to be used in many different outputs. One of the greatest usability features these help authoring tools provide is to add context-sensitivity to the online help. When a user is on a specific screen/page of an application and open help, the content related to the page they are on automatically opens.
  • Update documentation to keep it current with recent release changes.
    • What this means: With each release all materials related to the application must be updated and available to users upon release. This includes release notes, user guides, online help, quick guides, and other relevant material. It is crucial to customer satisfaction and retention for customers to have access to these materials. It is important for technical writers to complete these materials when the release is wrapped up so that they can move on to the next release.
  • Create and format documentation templates.
    • What this means: All of the documentation pieces have a certain look whether they be created in Word, FrameMaker, PowerPoint, or a help authoring tool. This is the design or style element for these pieces and the template is created as a blank starting point for each document. Technical writers create these templates to be used by themselves and other team members. These templates ensure consistency when a new piece of documentation is started. For instance, if a topic template is created in the help authoring tool, when a writer starts a new topic it will be created with that template shell.
  • Ensure consistency in instructional content and naming conventions.
    • What this means: Consistency in content can be aided with the templates the technical writer designed and with the language used itself. It is important with a team of writers, that the documentation reads as though it is written by a single person. Documentation written this way is easier for end-users to understand. Naming conventions refers to the names of documentation files. These could be user guide Word or PDF files or any files in the online help. Consistency in naming these files makes them easier to find within the company SharePoint site or OneDrive locations. For example, these could be file names of items in the help file related to a demographics program.
      • DE_Add_Information.htm – All topics for demographics begin with DE_
      • DE_IMG_Add_Info.png – All images for demographics begin with DE_IMG_
      • DE_SN_SSN.FLSNP – All snippets for demographics begin with DE_SN_

Note: Snippets are reusable pieces of information. In this example SSN (Social Security Number) as a field may be used in numerous places in the online help. Create one snippet then insert it where needed. If the function of the field changes you only need to update the snippet and the places where it is inserted will automatically update.

  • Research application features, enhancements and resolved issues to write customer-facing content.
    • What this means: All of the documentation written involves writing for new features and improving existing documentation for existing features. Research is how you determine the changes to documentation. Each company has its own systems for tracking work lists or items to be changed. These work lists will define system changes, their scope, and specification documents or Specs. Specs are written by analysts and used by developers to code changes to the application and by quality assurance to test the software. These specs are a technical writer’s best source to determine what has changed. When this information is combined with a walk through of the last release and the upcoming release a more complete picture of changes can be revealed. If sprint review meetings are held to demonstrate changes, these can provide any late changes that were discovered during programming, but did not get added to a spec.
  • Experience with development methods; waterfall, agile , or others.
    • What this means: A software development process is how work is divided into phases leading up to release. This can also be called development life cycle. There are a few methodologies used by companies. Technical writers will have to be familiar with which process is being used at their company and how they work within the method. Below are some descriptions of development methodologies:
      • Agile: Requirements and solutions are worked on in a collaborative effort of self-organized cross function teams with their end users. Releases contain less changes an are released more frequently.
      • Waterfall: This process is less iterative and flexible. Process flows in one direction; downward through the phases from conception to deployment and maintenance.
      • Prototyping: Involves creating incomplete versions of the software program. A great benefit of this process is the designer can get feedback from end users early in a project and make changes with less financial impact.
      • Rapid Application Development: This process puts less emphasis on planning and more emphasis on an adaptive process. With less planning, the process is more flexible to take advantage of knowledge gained during the project to improve the end program.

Nearly all  technical writer job postings require a bachelor’s degree in Technical Writing or related communications or technology field. Often these indicate that an equivalent master’s degree is preferred. In the past month I have found the first job posting I have seen which requires a Master of Technical Writing degree.  I believe that a master’s degree in a professional writing or technical writing will become a standard requirement for Technical Writer job postings. With this in mind I am forever grateful for the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University.

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