Techie Technical Writer Series, Part II: Becoming a Techie Writer

This is Part 2 of 3 in Becoming a Techie Technical Writer Series

See also Part 1 of this series, Being a Techie Writer
See also Part 3  of this series, Faking It as a Techie Writer

Just for perspective, I’m writing this not as a techie who thinks he knows the secrets, but rather as an inveterate geek who nonetheless started his first technical writing job with minimal (inadequate) proficiency with Word Perfect 4.2 and his second with a hazy notion at best of what a network might actually be. As a matter of fact, in my first technical writing job, I spent hours reformatting text because I didn’t know how to use table cells to make text align properly, and I had to be forcefully dragged into using styles rather than a simple formatting (Shift-F5, I believe) command. That said, I’m now a reasonably techie technical writer, am fairly compensated for my expertise, and can easily play the techie with whatever development team I’m working with.

Before plotting your path to becoming a techie technicalwriter, understand that it’s patently impossible to learn everything about everything. As a technical writer, it’s also probably impossible to preemptively learn enough about anything. That said, as an aspiring techie writer, you should try to learn as much as you can. More to the point (and hopefully more specifically helpful), you can think of your learning task as building a mental framework (or schema) into which everything else must fit. Exactly what your schema will work like or look like is an open question–it depends completely on your prior knowledge and what you learn over the years–but you’ll know you’re getting there when you start seeing the interconnections among technologies rather than the individual (and individually confusing) bits and pieces.

But how can you become a more techie writer? By learning everything you can. This includes reading technical material, getting your hands dirty by playing with the technologies, making connections between existing techie knowledge and new knowledge, and building bridges to the real world.

The Techie Technical Writer Reads Technical Material

Read voraciously from any technology journals, weekly controlled-subscription periodicals (e.g., Internet World, Info World, PC Week, or nearly anything from Ziff-Davis press), or technical books you can find. You need not understand everything–you may understand little or nothing–but you should keep reading, if only to familiarize yourself with the jargon, the terminology, and the concerns and interests of the profession. For example, if you’re reading reviews of the latest disk drives, you’ll note that issues like access speed, spindle speed, MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures), and replacement issues are frequently mentioned. From this, you can learn that speed and reliability are likely key issues about disk drives. In reading and absorbing, forget the specific brands and their characteristics of the week; there’s only so much clutter a brain can hold.

It doesn’t really matter what kinds of technologies you read about. Just read, and pay attention. At some point, the material will begin sinking in, and you’ll be able to use it as a launching point for additional learning, as in “So, Joe, about that new disk drive you’re evaluating…what’s the MTBF look like, and are you comfortable with the access speed for this application?” You need not learn it all, but as a techie technical writer, you need to learn to recognize the issues, jargon, and considerations.

The Techie Technical Writer Gets Their Hands Dirty

Regardless of the technologies or focus of your current technical writing job, get involved with tools and technologies. Perhaps that means that you experiment with writing code, or test your wings with physically dis- or re-assembling the hardware you’re writing about.

If you’re looking for a good starting point in building general technical (computer-related) literacy, start out by finding, buying, or recycling an older computer into your test bed. From there, buy books or read on the Internet to get specific instructions to, say,

  • Install a new disk drive
  • Set up Windows NT
  • Install Linux
  • Network your computer with others
  • Configure a Web server
  • Set up a file or print server

Or any technical task that suits your interests or potential needs. The key, more than anything else, is to have a spare system for the tinkering and learning. If you have to wipe everything clean and start over, it doesn’t affect real work, nor does it inconvenience your family when they want to use the computer. If you have a purely extra and expendable system, you can learn without the pressure and stress of trying to “fix” problems that result simply from the learning process. Regardless of what you choose to do or how you choose to learn (books, Web sites, coaching from friends, or all of the above), by getting involved with the technologies, you can build your overall technical literacy, which will serve you well as a technical writer.

The Techie Technical Writer Makes Connections

The secret to being effectively techie as a technical writer is in making connections from techie knowledge you already have to techie knowledge you’re learning. You might think of this as using the old/new principle; if you can build effective analogies or determine how something is like or unlike more familiar objects, you can begin to make connections and more effectively build your technical knowledge.

For example, if you’re installing Linux on a computer, you can see what’s similar between Linux and Windows or Macintosh systems: same concepts of files organized into directories, of icons that represent objects and that do stuff when you click on them, and of programs that allow you to modify files. On the other hand, as you learn more, you’ll also see differences: Linux (or UNIX) computers rely on text files for configuring or setting up systems and applications (unlike the Registry or System folders of Windows or MacOS), more tightly control who can do what (thus making it impossible for a normal user on a Linux system to screw anything up, unlike a normal user or Windows or Macintosh), and offer often completely different but equally powerful options from the command line (shell prompt) or the graphical interface, unlike Windows or MacOS, which rely on the GUI and support text-based commands grudgingly, at best.

Then, when your boss tells you that you’ll be using the hypothetical Tri-dows operating system on your new technical writer assignment, you’ll be able to look at it and start to understand it in terms of how it’s like or unlike other operating systems you’ve used. Over time, you’ll build more and more connections, and you’ll find that relatively few technologies are really all that new. Instead, you’ll likely find that they’re just repackaged old stuff, and the recolored or reused old stuff will just fall into your existing mental schema.

The Techie Technical Writer Builds Bridges to the Real World

Finally, you need to connect these technological pieces back to the real world. Cool technologies without ties to reality are irrelevant to your readers.

But how do you begin building those bridges? Begin by asking the pointed questions when you’re working with a Subject Matter Expert (SME). If they tell you that the Doomawhichy will frabnabulate over 10 times faster than the competing technologies, ask if that’s something customers care about. Ask if they know of specific requests for improved speed. Ask how using this product will make your readers more productive, happy, or valuable. Sometimes these questions–and the presence or absence of good answers–will be very telling and educational for you and your SME.

What’s Next in Becoming a Techie Technical Writer?

The following ideas should help get you started on your way to becoming a techie technical writer:

For the techno-novice

  • Learn HTML
  • Experiment with Javascript
  • Install (or uninstall) computer hardware
  • Record a macro in Word or Excel
  • Install new software
  • Set up and use a Windows-based Web server

For the techno-intermediate

  • Install and use Linux
  • Set up a home network among two or more computers
  • Set up and use a UNIX/Linux based Web server
  • Build a database in Access or FoxPro, including building a UI
  • Experiment with PHP (a Perl-like scripting language that is both useful and relatively easier than other languages)
  • Teach a friend or colleague about anything in the previous section

For the techno-savvy

  • Run your own server for your network’s printing/file serving/routing to the Internet needs
  • Experiment with SQL
  • Learn the fundamentals of Java or C++.
  • Go to the computer store, get a box of computer parts, and make them into a computer
  • Teach a friend or colleague about anything in the previous two sections

And, have fun.

Eric Ray
AB, German and Secondary Education
MA, Technical Communication
Techie writer