Confessions of a New Technical Writer

Four months ago, I started a new technical writing position in the greater Detroit area. I have had ubiquitous time since then to reflect on aspects of my previous and current position as well as who am as a technical writer. There are a few that have come to mind and have resonated with me since.

If you feel awkward about your writing, it’s because it is.

Keep it simple, if your writing sounds awkward it’s because you are attempting to incorporate too much language or you are not taking the quickest and easiest route to explain the actual purpose of your sentence. For this, write a concise statement incorporating all that your paragraph or entry should be about. Ask yourself what is absolutely necessary and what is not, if it’s not – just delete it. Even if you love the words oh so dearly that you want to include.

As much as you want to master everything right away, it is okay to say “I don’t understand”.

In technical writing, you are dealing with technical material, sometimes so technical you have to go “wait what?” when a subject matter expert is explaining the to you the information. This is far more beneficial in the long run; rather than pretending to understand and direly trying to digest the information but instead failing miserably and feeling miserable in the process… yeah. If that was ever you, it was totally once me. And I was called out on it too. Taking the time for a deeper explanation from the SME sooner will result in you understanding the material LONGER and being able to create better documentation that much more likely.

Ask so many questions.

There really is no limit to the amount of questions that can be asked when gathering information for a document. Question everything the SME tells you (politely of course) with the who, what, when, where, whys and hows. You can never be too thorough or precise. It is far better to be the curious cat in the beginning than have co-workers coming back to you without understanding your exact meanings in sections of a document.

Sometimes, you truly are just going to have to suck it up. No matter how much you hate the tools.

Oh the woes of CSS/HTML. One of my more recent projects has been to manipulate a stylesheet that is applied to an HTML sheet to be converted into a PDF. There is a caveat, however, and it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. The content management system we use, essentially providing this HTML is based on the Textile markup language. Textile markup language is a truly great tool for the purposes it is used for in the CMS, however, in terms of design, it does not lend itself conducive to easy decorations other than decorations of the text itself (especially when you are told to only manipulate the CSS and do not touch the HTML). For this, I cannot say I have enjoyed the process. There are perhaps better ways, but mine has gone something like this: rule out everything you feel cannot be done, then speak with your supervisor to see if they have input. Work with other employees to see if they have the knowledge of CSS or HTML. Ask questions, even if he or she doesn’t know the answer, they may be able to guide you to a new direction and help you answer the question.

Some days will truly be harder than others.

Truth is, I have written this blog post over the past few months. Not the past few hours. Starting a new job is tough; feeling inadequate sporadically is also incredibly difficult. Especially when you are working with extremely talented engineers who claim to be terrible writers; but in reality their self-produced documents are not that bad at all. Another important lesson I have dealt with (and still do) is that you cannot take anything personally. If you are doing your job, continually looking for ways to improve the quality of your work and your work ethic, then it is all going to be okay. Your worth is not compromised because of a bad day at work. Some days are just harder than others. In the end, however, there is nowhere to go but to grow.


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