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Top 10 Lessons I Learned as a Technical Communicator

One of my long-lasting wishes has been to write about my life as a technical communicator. Every time I got to it, I wondered: What significant contribution have I made to the community? Even if I did make one, should I go about writing it? Why exactly would someone like to read about my life and the lessons I have learned over the years? I wasn’t too sure if these were reasons strong enough to shun this article for a revisit later. Obviously, I have been writing month by month for TechCraft, giving you small tidbits from my life. But this month was extra special: we were about to launch the 25th issue of TechCraft and I really had to think out-of-the-way! So I did what I was best at: get my act together and just write.

When you are employed as a technical communicator, one of the strongest tools in your arsenal is words. Most writers today try to emphasize on the right words to suit their audience type. However, how does one know with surety: which words are ‘right?’

Lesson 1: Choose the Right Words

To a large extent, the words you choose to communicate, determine the type of reaction from your audience. And this does not apply to articles alone, but other forms of communication as well - both written and oral, such as emails, end user documentation, and so on. Have you ever noticed how some of your mails receive an instant response, while others get dumped and probably, never looked at? Did you ever reason why this happens? Readers today are smart. If you press them the wrong way, they will write you off before you know it. Therefore, remember the first lesson I learned as a technical communicator: choose the right words. If you are unable to capture the attention of your intended audience, nothing you write or say can bring them back.

Lesson 2: Strike a Rapport with Your Audience

Well, this reminds me; the moment you are able to surpass the word barrier, you have succeeded in striking a rapport with your audience. Your writing would seem more believable to them. Knowingly or otherwise, you have increased the universal appeal of your document.

Lesson 3: Pay Attention to Details

These days’ technical communicators concentrate more on the two D’s: Deadlines and Deliverables. Their primary focus is to get the job out of sight as soon as possible. In the ordeal, they may not completely understand the domain or the technology or the product suite. When dealing with complex products, this may not be the best approach. Paying attention to details is an absolute necessary trait required in our profession. By hurrying through the product, you are depriving the end user of important information. My advice is: buy some time from the stakeholders. They will, under most circumstances, be willing to grant you those extra hours!

Lesson 4: Meet the Expectations

In a professional setting, you have to match the job expectations laid down by the people you work with or generally report to. Don’t let these expectations take a toll on you. If you are someone who has not studied to become a technical communicator, you must take extra initiatives to learn the ropes.Don’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task - contact a local technical writing service provider (TWSP) in your region and join a technical writing course, or subscribe to mailing lists like TWI (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/technical_writers_india) and start networking. You will be amazed how much the world has to offer. So, the learning from the fourth lesson is: come prepared to handle the job expectations. Market yourself as a total package.

Lesson 5: Break the Mediocrity

Just look around. The world around you has changed so much. Most technical communicators today are moving up the value chain and taking greater roles and responsibilities. You too can taste success early in your career. All you got to do is: break the mediocrity. Go and explore the myriad options available on the Internet; learn everything it takes to accomplish the task - be it knowledge about open source tools, content management systems, XML, wikis, blogs, and so on. In other words, learn how to communicate and collaborate effectively. Move ahead of your times, and think laterally.

Lesson 6: Know Your Role Well

When I took to writing as a career, no one was willing to train me: on how to write. With absolute no godfathers in the industry, I was left to the dogs. Most organizations today have a tendency to do that. They expect you to know your role well, even if you are a fresher. That is not to say that you cannot pick the ropes on the job; you just need to show them what you are truly capable of. Demonstrate the values you carry each day at work, and make them realize that your services are indispensable. All this will require you to stretch your limits. Rome was not built in a day, so accept rejections that might come in your way. Those are just normal, not deterrents. Exuberate a winning attitude at work...all the time!

Lesson 7: Steer Away from the Usual Rut

When you have some time to spare, there are many things that you can choose to do, such as:

  • Take on some projects voluntarily for your own learning.
  • Network with fellow technical writers, developers, or other professionals.
  • Participate on several technical writing forums; in turn, share your knowledge with the rest of the world.
  • Join the open source revolution. It’s free and worth its salt.
  • Write articles for ezines such as this.
  • Maintain a blog and write about new topics. You can include the blog address in your Resume.
Getting noticed is a matter of choice and individual capability. Luck has little or nothing to do with it. In short, try to break away from the monotony of a regular 9 to 5 job.

Lesson 8: Don’t Network for the Heck of It

If your job involves networking with various people such as Subject Matter Experts, Product/ Project Managers, Developers, or Quality Assurance Professionals, you need to respect their time (as much as you’d want them to respect yours.) Don’t be all over the place with your doubts and/ or questions. It will only do you more harm than good. Check your facts beforehand. Do you really need their inputs? If you are in dire straits, do not hesitate to ask, even when you do not understand anything. Have a set of ready reckoners and checklists for reference, such as editorial guidelines, style guides, and so on.

Lesson 9: Education is only a Catalyst

Technical writing is all about how you can understand and decipher technology to your end user. No education or personal coaching can teach you that. Education is only a catalyst; it is only meant to guide. I have seen quite a few people in this trade, who have absolutely no degrees to boast of, but can write exceptionally well. Try to learn from such people; they have been there, done that. Follow your heart and enjoy the continuous learning.

Lesson 10: Don’t Suppress the Writer in You

I can assure you of one thing: In our profession, you cannot possibly convince all, so don’t even try. Some people will always find means and ways to put you down; it’s the way this world functions these days. I have noticed on a few mailing lists that some people can be unduly abrasive, undiplomatic, or demanding. Some emails that I’ve come across in recent times are heavily laced with sarcasm, which I found extremely unpalatable. Why do some people fare poorly in the personality department?

A strong technical writer who has the ability to convey information in a non-demanding and non-confrontational manner is imperative to the success of any technical publishing department. Is it time we start spending some time on how to carry ourselves publicly? I suggest one should never give up on the good work. We all choose a certain way to be in this world. Some of us are good at one thing, while completely miserable at others. We spend half our lives searching for everything RIGHT - the right education, the right job, the right friends, the right house, and so on. The truth is: there is no right or wrong; it’s all a state of mind. You can be a part of almost any and every system volitionally. The choice to be who you are rests with you and no one else. Even if you choose to do things you are not very comfortable with, you cannot sustain it for long. Eventually you will lose interest; that’s basic human nature. It strictly applies to everything in life that we do.

As Judith Herr* says, “Exceptional writers - whether technical or creative - are those who grew up reading voraciously - all kinds of fiction and non-fiction by authors from around the world. And then, many of them traveled or lived away from their own homes for awhile. I recommend it to young people getting started - and, older folks like me too. We can learn the rules and do a good job - or we can be exceptional.” On the question of why I choose to be a writer, well, all I can say is because I was destined to be one. And you can’t change your destiny, like you can’t fake life or death.

_________________~_________________

* Judith Herr, of Well Chosen Words, brings 15+ years experience contributing to complex proposal efforts. Winning efforts resulted in clients receiving substantial contract awards from government and other organizations. Judith's range of experience and expertise includes information technology, management, occupational/public health, environmental, training, and community development. She thrived for three years in Belgium and three in Malaysia. An enthusiastic supporter of professional networking, Judith provides volunteer support to several organizations and presents at conferences. She is an STC Associate Fellow and an active member of the Technical Writers India mailing list on Yahoo Group. Judith's website is http://home.comcast.net/~m.herr/

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