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Timeless Skills for Technical Writers
2010, Q3 (December 20, 2010)
By Michael Harvey, Associate Fellow, STC Carolina Chapter

Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey
What skills should technical communicators cultivate to ensure their market value? Is there a single set of skills that would weather whatever market and technological turbulence occurs?

Technical skills become obsolete or a commodity. Whatever value used to exist for DEC VAX, WordPerfect, or Interleaf expertise, it has diminished if not completely disappeared. Over time, expertise with tools is acquired by less expensive workers. So what and how much investment should we make to develop technical expertise for any system?

The content management system marketplace is and will be in flux. The value of expertise with any specific system is a function of its longevity and your ability to build on it to learn the next big thing. How many times are you going to be learning the next big thing? XML will be around for a long time. So will DITA. But XML, like any markup language, can be picked up relatively quickly. How do you distinguish your skills from others who know it? How many DITA experts can the market sustain?

You could master the haiku of embedded user assistance. But what happens when symbols outnumber words on a graphical user interface, or when words completely disappear? Should we then become icon designers?

This is not to say that we should not acquire technical skills, or expertise with content management systems, or mastery of embedded user assistance. Those skills are table stakes. But what skills, once acquired, provide an ongoing return on investment?

The answer is simple: writing skills. Defining your audience, determining what they need, and putting paragraphs together to fulfill that need. The ability to communicate clearly, correctly, conversationally, and concisely will never lose market value.

It has been argued that no one wants to read what technical communicators produce. There’s a flaw in that argument. It assumes that the mass consumer of technology represents the entire population of technology users. That assumption is wrong. There is a sophisticated consumer of technology who seeks good technical writing because it helps her master the subject matter and tools of her profession. These uber-users collect well-written technical manuals and peruse them like Talmudic scholars.
Quality writing never loses market value.

I have found this to be true where I now work, at SAS. There are no causal SAS users. Business analytics requires doing your homework and studying the documentation.

I write about complex tools to help financial analysts, actuarial scientists, and statisticians manage financial risk. These folks analyze massive quantities of financial data, attempt to fit probability distributions to them, build models to show what will happen to specific risk factors that affect the value of their portfolios, and derive plans for safeguarding their holdings. It is my job to provide context for these tools, explain the underlying statistics (without recreating existing statistics textbooks), and describe how to do the complex things that they need to do. The value that I add is crisply and correctly guiding these financial experts through the system.

Thus, I have to keep my writing skills sharp. I need to be able to render something like this:

In the ... procedure, dynamic covariance simulation requires you to use a transformation method program to specify a state-switching function that induces a switching of states during market state generation.

Into something like this:

Dynamic covariance simulation enables you to simulate risk factors using a set of covariance matrices, controlling which covariance matrix to use to generate a market state according to a set of rules that you set up.

Take a moment to consider the changes I made. I chose to separate the topic of “transformation method program,” which I can describe in detail elsewhere, from the topic of “dynamic covariance simulation.” I chose to emphasize what you’re able to do and how. I did away with the notion of a “state-switching function,” since the definition provided seemed circular, and instead talked about the end result — controlling which matrix to use for a specific market state. Later, I can provide a specific example that illustrates the point.

Business analytics isn't the only area where good writing skills are put at a premium. Local and state governments realize that an investment in clear writing pays off. "Clear communication is an essential government function in a democratic society," says Bob Kerrey, a former governor and senator from Nebraska. "Because writing is how agencies communicate with each other and their constituents, all of us have a stake in the clarity and accuracy of government writing.” Business requirements documents that are clear and to the point are likely to save projects time and money. Career counselors teach job applicants how to powerfully communicate their strengths and skills to make their inquiries stand out from the crowd.

The habits to develop on the path to mastering writing skills are simple:
  • Write every day. Whether it is an e-mail message, a plan, a report, a chapter, or an exegesis, commit words to paper (or a file) every day. Strive to make every sentence clear. Make sentences in a paragraph hang together, and make paragraphs lead to a clear point. When I start a paragraph with a clear topic sentence, supporting sentences are much easier to compose. When I do not have a clear idea of what I am trying to say, clear sentences elude me.
  • Read what you write. After you commit words to paper, read them carefully. Read aloud what you have written, because it can help you more quickly discover passages that need revision. It also leads to writing more conversational prose. Nothing helps me find an awkward sentence more quickly than reading it aloud.
  • Revise what you write. After you read what you write, review it and rewrite to omit needless words. Passages ripe for pruning often appear in a first draft. In a recent article, I wrote about how the role of technical writing was changing. I had written a long paragraph about employment statistics that I thought underscored my primary point. The more I reviewed the article, the more I realized that the paragraph was tangential to, rather than supporting, the point. Even though it was hard for me to trash something that I had spent an hour developing, I did.
  • Ask for feedback. Ask others to review your writing and explain what they understood and what they found confusing. You have to have a thick skin to be a writer. Over the years, I have detached “me” from my writing, so that when someone takes issue with or criticizes my writing, I do not take it personally. Conversely, I try not to let it go to my head when someone praises my work.
  • Read what others write. Find an author whose style you admire and read as much of their material as you can. Analyze the style to determine what elements you can use in your own writing. Does the writer vary sentence length? Do they use strong hooks to get you interested in what they have to say? Do they use a varied and colorful vocabulary? After you have identified what it is you like about their writing, try to emulate it in your own.
Quality writing never loses market value. In addition to writing skills, the only other skill that you’d require is selling the quality that you can provide. Those skills should weather any storm.

Michael Harvey can be reached at michael dot harvey at sas dot com. End of article.

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