Over the years, I have come to believe the following about being a successful technical writer:
1) The ability to disconnect oneself from the document at the time of review. This is no easy task, as many of us have been accustomed to cringe and become defensive when we see red ink marking up “our” prose. All through school, we have been subjected to this red ink and have come to associate it with poor performance, a lack of understanding, and a need to do better. A writer who can differentiate between criticism of self from criticism of the document, will stand a better chance of becoming a successful technical writer rather than a writer who is left feeling undervalued and unappreciated and needing to defend oneself.
2) The ability to ask the right questions of the right people. I look at this as the investigative reporter’s instinct for knowing which question to ask of his or her sources, after doing the appropriate level of research. A technical writer is not expected to know everything about the subject at hand. Likewise, a technical writer is not expected to write in a vacuum. Knowing which questions to ask of which team member is a great way to learn about the subject at hand and to establish a level of trust among team members whose own expertise is acknowledged and valued.
3) The ability to arbitrate and negotiate well. On a continuum, there is your way, our way, and his or her way. Knowing when to argue your point (stand firm), to negotiate a rational consensus (compromise) or to accept a unilaterally decision (giving in) is a crucial skill that cannot easily be taught. It takes years of practice and patience and perseverance; all with an eye towards making the document better. Doing this well and consistently will help you be seen as a trust-worthy and competent member of the team.
4) A firm grasp on the principles of good technical writing. I cannot recount the number of times I have been called to pull the proverbial “rabbit out of the hat” for a client who thought that anyone on his or her team with enough scientific/medical background could write a report or a submission document–it’s only writing, right? Wrong. Technical writing has evolved through decades of regulations and codes and laws as its is own form of writing with its own group of practitioners. The technical writer who keeps himself or herself informed, who seeks opportunities for professional growth and development, and who strives to embody the principles of his or her profession will always add value to whatever he or she is writing.
5) A passion for writing. The writer who approaches each new project with excitement and anticipation will most likely depart that same excitement and anticipation to the team. I know of writers who will only accept projects that rise to their level of professional expectation. I prefer to evaluate each project on its own merits, knowing that each piece plays an important part in a submission. I am no less excited to write an informative narrative than I am writing a full technical manual. Like the game Jenga, if one piece is not written well, the whole thing can come tumbling down.
Thomas J. Purcell, MSPM, MSTC, Principal and Owner. Urtech Medical Writing & Consultancy, LLC, http://www.urtech.com