What makes a good technical author?

By John Hargreave

- AST team member

Likely, they didn’t even know it could be a career…

Often technical authors are introduced to the career by accident, meaning it was not their intended career path.

It’s likely that they didn’t even know technical authoring could be a career.

Those in the industry will be familiar with this. An engineer helping to compile an O&M, a technical support staff member being asked to write helpdesk procedures, a trainer being required to assist writing the training material. And like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it.

If you love it – you become a technical author.

The fact that their career has been shaped in this way, gives a technical author the hunger and motivation to learn the technical skills required to become a good author. In fact, I believe it is the driving force behind good authors. This is then complimented by their industry experience.
Most technical authors write manuals in an industry they have first-hand experience of working in, but in another role. They have real-world, expert knowledge in the field and can communicate with Subject Matter Experts in their parlance; knowing the right questions to ask and the right approach to take in improving the speed of gathering, vetting and quality of information that will eventually form the manual. Giving confidence to the client and building a strong rapport with the SME.

A key skill of a technical author is being able to translate someone’s knowledge into clear instructions for someone less knowledgeable.

Often the technical author has been the end-user of a manual or in some instances had the role of client. They know what makes a good manual, and more importantly what makes a poor manual. They understand the challenges they will face in gathering information from people who are busy and under pressure, and are often reluctant to give much time to a technical author.

Who better to write a manual than those who have previously relied upon one or been part of the process?

A technical author is likely degree educated. This builds a strong interest in a particular area, and one would assume is a driving force behind becoming expert in the area. This of course is not always the case, many technical authors will be from a military background utilising many years of hard-earned knowledge, and some will have followed an apprentice path before discovering their love of using their knowledge to write manuals.

In summary, a good technical author is someone who has chosen the career because they love using their knowledge, expertise and interest to enable someone else to understand a subject matter more easily. Maybe not worthy of a Thursday clap, but if this is you then you definitely deserve a good brew.

The qualities of good technical writing…

  • Clarity: writing in a clear, plain way that enables the reader to absorb information easily
  • Conciseness: being mindful of communicating information in a few words to give clear instruction
  • Audience recognition: recognising your target audience whether they are experts or non-specialists is vital when writing documentation
  • Accuracy: being correct or precise to deliver accurate information clearly
  • Access document design: to create user friendly documentation which the end-user will engage with.