Technical writing helps you share your technical knowledge and experience with others. It also helps you reinforce your knowledge of the topic you're writing about while demonstrating your technical abilities and talents.
In this article, I will explain what you need to know to become a technical writer. We'll learn about what technical writing is, the skills you need, how to become a technical writer, and tips to help you become really good at it.
What is technical writing?
We can define technical writing in a number of different ways. But the definition by Grammar is the most helpful and explains exactly what technical writing is all about:
"Technical writing is a type of writing where the author writes about a particular subject that requires direction, instruction, or explanation."
Simply put, technical writing involves straightforward, easy-to-understand explanations of and instructions for a particular subject.
What skills should technical writers have?
A common assumption among many would-be writers is that they can't write well because they were not born with the gift or skill of writing. This raises the question: are writers born or made?
I was curious to know what other people thought about this popular myth, so I tweeted about it.
It was fascinating to read everyone's opinion on this popular myth. Most people said they believe writers were born, while others disagreed and said writers were made. Interestingly, another set of people thought writers were both born and made. Crazy right?
I am sure you are curious to know what I think about this, so I will tell you. 😉
I believe that anybody, whether born with some sort of innate ability or not, can learn how to become a great writer. I know that I wasn't born with the gift of writing, so I decided to be more intentional about learning how to write.
Truth be told, most of the technical writers you see today likely had to develop or learn specific skills to become good at writing.
Now to the point 😃, here are five essential skills you should develop to be a successful technical writer:
Know How to Write
I know it might be confusing to see that writing is one of the skills required to be a technical writer. You might think that technical writing and writing are the same, but they are not.
Think of writing in general as the process of using symbols (letters of the alphabet, punctuation, and spaces) to communicate thoughts and ideas in a readable form. Technical writing, on the other hand, is the more specific process of sharing or conveying your ideas, views, instructions, and suggestions logically and technically.
The first and most important skill every technical writer needs to be able to write in their preferred language for communication. For example, if you intend to use English to write technical articles, you need to understand how to compose words and communicate with the English Language.
Want to get better at writing? Follow the steps below:
- Learn the grammar and language rules for your preferred language for communication.
- Understand the power of illustrations in writing.
- Read more! Trust me, reading will help you expand your vocabulary.
- Most importantly, write using your preferred language of communication.
Know Your Audience
Identifying, understanding, and tailoring your content for a specific audience will make your articles or documentation stand out. That's why you need to know your audience.
When you understand the audience, you will be able to tailor your article to meet their needs and automatically pass the message effectively.
So, how can you get to know your target audience?
Ask yourself questions about your readers
You need to ask yourself questions like: "who are my readers, and why are they reading the article? What do they expect from it?"
For instance, before I started writing this article, I asked myself these questions and came up with the answers below:
- Who are they? People that want to become technical writers
- Why are they reading this article? To learn the necessary skills needed to become a technical writer.
- What are they expecting? Everything they need to get started and eventually become technical writers: skills, tips, steps, advice and more!
Once, I figured out the answer to these questions, I was able to identify my audience, and it was beginners. This helped me tailor this article to benefit you.
Use the right terms
If you are writing an article for beginners, you should use terms that are easy to understand. You can also add concrete examples to help your readers understand you.
Give your article or documentation a helpful title/name
Name your articles in a descriptive and helpful way.
For example, don't name an article “A Deep Dive Into Understanding React” (when the content is about Rendering Elements in React), and risk disappointing readers who were expecting to learn everything about React after reading your article.
Instead, come up with a specific title that describes exactly what you wrote in your article like “How to Render Elements in React”.
Develop Your Technical Skills
As a technical writer, your goal will be to help readers understand highly complex processes or concepts in a straightforward way.
To achieve this, you'll need to be familiar with the topic you're writing about. That means if you want to write a technical article or documentation on React.js, you should be able to use React personally.
I'll end this section with this popular quote by Albert Einstein:
If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.
This quote also echoes the need to understand the technical details of your topic thoroughly before explaining it to someone else.
Be Able to Do Good Research
Yes! Technical writers don't know everything. So even though you might be familiar with a technology, sometimes you'll have to research a language or framework to understand it better before you start writing about it.
This will make sure that your text is accurate and communicates the necessary data most efficiently. You definitely don't want to be sharing false or confusing information.
How should you go about conducting research?
Researching involves asking questions on your preferred search engine, reaching out to someone who is knowledgeable about the subject matter (if you know any), or reading a book.
If you decide to follow the search engine route, ask questions targeted at what you want to discover. For instance, if you want to learn about how to use the GSAP ScrollTrigger Plugin in React, your question should follow this format "How can I use GSAP ScrollTrigger Plugin in React".
If you decide to ask someone knowledgeable about the subject matter, always be polite and go straight to the point. Instead of saying "Hi" and waiting for the person to respond before asking your question, you can follow this format:
"Hi Rita, my name is Edidiong. I know you are very knowledgeable about using the GSAP ScrollTrigger Plugin. I have seen some of your CodePen demos over the years and they all looked really amazing. I'd love to know how can I manipulate the GSAP tween to make the animations trigger on the scroll? I'd totally understand if you can't respond because of your busy schedule but I will be glad if you do."
You might think that this was a pretty long message, but it covered the most important things: your name, your admiration of their work, what you need, and that you understand that you are not entitled to the person's time.
There's also an option of reading a book during the research phase. To do this you can go to a library or find a book online and read it.
Develop a Unique Voice
Have you ever wondered why people drop comments like "wow, I've finally understood this concept thanks to your article" or "I read other articles but I didn't understand this concept until I read yours, thank you!" on an article?
If you ask me, I'd say its because the author's unique voice spoke to them in a way others didn't.
What does this mean? It means everyone is unique.
So, if two devs write about the same topic, some readers will understand one of their articles more than they understand the other. While others will understand the second article more than the understand the first. Why? Because they both have a unique voice that will work for some people and not for others.
So, how can you develop a unique voice?
By staying true to yourself, and letting your thoughts flow freely as a writer instead of copying other writers' content. Yes, get inspired by others. But don't forget who you are!
The truth is, people learn in different ways and your content might be what one developer is hoping to read before they finally understand a concept.
Now that we've discussed the basic skills you need to become a good technical writer, I should point out that these skills can be learned over time. Please don't wait until you have all of them to start writing – go ahead and give it a try.
How to become a technical writer
Now, let's talk about how to become a technical writer. 💃🏽
The secret of getting ahead is getting started. - Mark Twain
Yes, I had to start with Mark Twain's quote because it is something we all need to remember when we take up a new challenge. Deciding to become a technical writer is great, but putting in the necessary work to get started is even greater.
Let's talk about four important things you need to do to become a technical writer.
Take a course in technical writing
Technical writing is an in-demand skill, and employers want to hire the best writer for their team. Taking a course on technical writing is highly underrated, but it is essential because you will discover many tips that will help you become a better writer.
My technical writing skills significantly improved after I took a technical writing course from Google, and I highly recommend you take the course (or something similar) as well.
Read books and tech articles
Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river. - Lisa See
Reading is essential because it will help you enrich your vocabulary, keep you abreast of current trends, discover what's going on in the writing world, and also helps keep the spirit of writing alive.
You learn to write by writing, and by reading and thinking about how writers have created their characters and invented their stories. If you are not a reader, don't even think about being a writer. - Jean M. Auel
Even if you take all the technical writing courses and read all the tech articles you can find, that won't make you a writer. You need to actually write to be a writer.
You might be wondering how you can actually start writing. Well, I'll tell you.
First, you need to think of a topic you want to write about. Then you should carry out the necessary research, write a draft of the article, and proofread the article (more than once). When you're ready, you can finally publish the article on your blog.
You don't need to build your blog from scratch because it takes a bunch of time and will distract you from your actual focus, which is writing. In my case, I created my blog with Hashnode because it is super fast, has a strong community, and allows you to map the blog to your domain.
After you've gotten comfortable with writing, you can apply to become a guest author on freeCodeCamp. If you get approved, you can publish articles on the platform and reach a wide audience.
Writing consistently plays a huge role in helping you become a better writer. It unlocks your productivity, transforms your perspective, and builds your confidence.
You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. - Octavia E. Butler
Just like every other skill, you get better at writing when you keep writing consistently. Aim to write at least one article every month, and you will be shocked at how your writing skills will improve if you keep doing it consistently.
If you need some accountability with your consistency as a technical writer, you can try the #2Articles1Week Writing Challenge.
What is the #2Articles1Week Challenge?
The goal of this challenge is to encourage technical writers to define their writing goals, understand writing standards, and most importantly become consistent at writing.
Participants are expected to publish a minimum of 2 articles per week for 4 weeks on their blog. If you do this, you will be able to create and publish 8 articles on your blog in just one month. Amazing, right? 😉
I've seen a lot of people talk about the benefits of participating in this challenge and I believe it will help you kick off writing consistently.
Contribute to Open Source projects
The documentation for Open Source projects is arguably just as important as the software itself. So if you're a technical writer, you can contribute in a significant way to a project because humans can't use what they don't understand.
Yes, you may be working on a project or for an open-source organization for free. But Open Source contributions can help you improve your writing skill, expand your network, and help you get recommendations and referrals from the maintainers.
It can also help increase your chances of getting accepted into the Google Season of Docs program.
What is Google Season of Docs and why is it important?
Season of Docs is an annual program organised by Google. Its goal is to bring technical writers and open source organisations together to foster collaboration and improvement of documentation in the Open Source space.
This initiative is extremely important because the documentation of an Open Source project provides an avenue for users to not only understand the project but also make contributions to it.
During the program, accepted technical writers spend between 3-5 months either building a new doc set, improving the structure of the existing docs, developing a much-needed tutorial, or improving the contribution processes and guides of an Open Source organisation.
The interesting thing about this program is that you can get paid between $3000 - $15000 to contribute to Open Source projects as a technical writer. You'll also stand a higher chance of joining the Technical Writing team at Google and possibly get retained by the Open Source organisation to keep working as a technical writer after the program is over.
6 Technical Writing Tips to Help You Start Writing
Here are some things to remember when you've completed your first draft your next article:
- Follow a style guide when writing. It helps you stay on track and follow the best writing principles.
- Make your paragraphs short so they support a single idea. Don't cram everything into one paragraph.
- Write short, clear, and precise sentences because simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
- After writing your first draft, read your content out loud while assuming you are the reader. This will help you spot things that can be rephrased.
- Edit your first draft only when you are focused.
- Seek feedback by consulting with experts in the field you are writing about because no technical writer knows every technical detail about every topic.
Technical writing continues to be a highly coveted skill in the professional workplace. Demand is expected to grow at least 10% from 2014 to 2024.
Writing, like many other crafts, takes years of practice to hone. The best part of writing is that you can see your improvement. You can look at your previous works and see how much better you've gotten over time if you work at it.
Also, technical writers have the great benefit of becoming lifelong learners because they need to be well-versed in whatever field or topic they are writing about to communicate the content clearly to readers. I strongly encourage you not just to start this journey but also to stay consistent with your writing as well.
That's all, folks! I hope this was helpful? If yes, follow me on Twitter to access more contents like this.