11 Rules for New Technical Writers

Technical writing is a specialized form of writing that demands a specific set of skills and knowledge. To help you get started, we’ve compiled 11 essential rules for new technical writers.

Find the tone patronizing or condescending?

It shouldn’t be, especially if you understand one thing. These 11 items reflect issues I personally experienced when I began my career over 20 years ago. I suspect they’re relevant to nearly all technical writing roles, no matter the industry.

1) Be genuinely helpful

Strive to be friendly and helpful (to those above and below you). This doesn’t mean you relax your boundaries and become a doormat.

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2) Just listen (at least for the first month on the job)

Some things you can observe when you listen:

What is their preferred method of communication? When? When are they not available? When are they most available? What is their current workload like? What will it be next month? (And on and on…)

I am NOT a world-class listener, because I love to TALK TALK TALK! If you’re anything like me, just listen, especially when starting a new job!

3) Grab data about your work

These days, management is obsessed with data.

So whenever you can gather data, even if it’s positive verbal feedback, save it. When the economy hits the rocks, the stars in marketing and sales aren’t let go. Support folks are. Unless they can prove their value.

4) Fight “Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome”

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(Not Rodney Dangerfield)

Note: You may find Rodney’s humor offensive. If you listen to this clip, you’ll find his famous tagline at 58 seconds.

The feeling that “I don’t get no respect” is common to the profession. If you browse the popular forums (see next item), you’ll find this popping up again and again. Sometimes, we’ll have to find other ways to get our egos stroked.

If our expectations are too high, we’ll be sharing the dressing room with Rodney.

5) Seek advice from multiple tech writers

Tip: If you haven’t already, sign up for Reddit’s Technical Writing forum and Write the Docs Slack channel.

There are experienced tech writers who are kind and generous and thoughtful and will help you out. For free. You just have to ask.

There are veteran tech writers who are mean, bitter, and love trolling new technical writers.

How to know which feedback is valid? Engage multiple writers.

6) Be a genuine team player

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You’re part of a team, even if it doesn’t say so on the org chart.

Maybe you work with development or QA or design.

The one way to ensure their support is by supporting them.

7) Become a quality communications hub

Tech writers tend to be introverted. Some believe that documents are their sole focus. So they huddle in a corner writing away like some ancient monk and shun other communications.

Don’t be a monk.

Make sure that you’re responsive when you speak or use email or chat - and your quality is evident no matter the medium. It will improve your value to your organization.

8) Exercise verbal discretion: Don’t generalize or talk just to talk

Ever notice that really smart people don’t generalize or say stupid things?

Tech writing is about specifics, not generalities.

You’ll typically be working with people who know the subject matter better than you. So don’t make them think you’re incapable of learning and documenting their material by talking just to talk.

9) Learn as much as possible

SMEs (Subject-Matter Experts) hate to handhold or spoonfeed their knowledge to technical writers. A sure way to be viewed as an overpaid administrative assistant is to not make any effort to learn even the basics.

Show initiative by learning what you can on your own. Ask the experts for resources so you can learn more.

At the minimum, try to master the concepts and language used to convey them. After all, the concepts and language are your domain.

10) Underpromise and overdeliver

rules for new technical writers

Make deadlines. Early, if you can. Don’t manipulate people with petty power games like

“Oh, if they value me, they’ll be fine with my being late.”

Don’t do it. You’ll erode trust in your performance. And your character.

11) Accept that technical writing will never make you rich or famous

Tech writing has been a stable and well-paying career for me and many others. But have no illusions. If you’re at the “tippy-top” in the best region, you’re still not going to earn much more than 6 figures.

You’ll never see your name in lights or your face on a box of cereal. You may not even see your name on a document (this isn’t journalism). But you will know that you’ve genuinely helped people by making complex matters more understandable. And that’s not nothing!