What does a technical writer ‘do’?

September 9, 2008

On occasion I get asked this question: “What does a technical writer actually do?”. Of course, the answer depends on who’s asking and the context in which they are asking the question. But if you want to know about the sorts of things we do each day, then here are a selection of websites that describe our work better than I can:

And then there’s this list from one of Joe Welinske’s talks at the AODC Conference earlier in 2008:

The User Assistance Skill Set:

  • Writing (procedures, reference, wizards, embedded, UI)
  • Editing (copy, technical, developmental)
  • Task analysis
  • SME interviewing (SME = subject matter expert)
  • Indexing, Search
  • Instructional design, eLearning
  • Localization, translation
  • Graphics development
  • Information design
  • Usability testing
  • Quality assurance, testing
  • Coding online Help (CHMs, web-based help)
  • Coding web content (HTML, XML, CSS< JavaScript, Flash)
  • Programming (C++, Perl, Ajax)

(I think I’ve done many of those at various times except the Programming and Localization/translation stuff.)

Update June 2009: BJ on the Lone Writer SIG email discussion list asked her list colleagues to contribute to a list of “What a technical writer does”. These were some of those added:

  • Career information for high school students:
  • Gathers/extracts information from those who have it, then interprets and repurposes that information into a form suitable for the intended audience
  • KB, another list colleague, said she particularly liked Andrea Ames’ approach: “I solve problems. I solve problems where people can’t figure out the next step in a process. I solve problems where people can’t agree on a process. I solve problems where people can’t remember the process, or where to find the documentation of a process.
    I do this by listening, by identifying consensus points, by establishing consensus, and documenting what was decided, then putting that information where all stakeholders can find it.”
  • And then there’s Stuart R’s classic signature line: “Developers explain How the Product Works. Technical writers explain How to Work the Product.”

Update 17 June 2009: Ellis Pratt at CherryLeaf has just published “The Perfect Technical Author” at: http://www.cherryleaf.com/blog/2009/06/the-perfect-technical-author/

Update December 2009: Brett Peruzzi has written a feature article for TechCom Manager on What to look for when hiring technical writers. The article’s focus is on the soft skills side of the interviewing process.

Update March 2010: Tips for Writing User Manuals (http://www.userfocus.co.uk/articles/usermanuals.html) focuses on the elements of a good manual, not on the personality of the writer.

Update May 2011: John Hedtke answers the question Is technical communication the job for you? in this article: http://blog.hedtke.com/2011/02/15/is-technical-communication-the-job-for-you/

Update July 2011: Beth Agnew provides a podcast, a PowerPoint presentation (PDF), and a handout (PDF) on What you can do as a technical communicator here: http://senecatechcomm.com/2011/03/17/what-you-can-do-as-a-technical-communicator/

Update August 2011: Communication: The best words in the best order: An article for scientists on trading in the bench for a computer and becoming a technical communicator: http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/2011/110714/full/nj7355-255a.html

Update September 2011: Bill Albing discusses how our work is invisible to others in Technical writing: The secret profession: http://www.billalbing.com/2011/09/03/technical-writing-the-secret-profession/

[Links last checked March 2012]


  1. […] The value of technical writers October 23, 2008 Since I wrote my piece on “What does a technical writer do?“, I’ve received an email from Rich Maggiani alerting me to a series of pieces […]

  2. […] What does a technical writer ‘do’? « CyberText Newsletter Tom Johnson | October 26, 2008 | permalink Tags: careers   […]

  3. Well done, Rhonda. Nice job.

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