What to Look for When Hiring a Technical Writer

20 Jun 2022


Producing technical materials requires a unique combination of knowledge and skill. On the one hand, technical writers must be experts in their respective fields. They need to be connoisseurs of the subject matter they write.

On the other hand, technical writers also need creativity to produce engaging materials beneficial to the public.

Fortunately, most quality technical writers are skilled at translating highly complex content into an easily digestible format to produce top-quality materials.

However, there are some specific traits you should look for when hiring a technical writer for your project.

What is a technical writer?

A technical writer is a communicator who translates content-specific information for general consumption.

It is worth noting that technical writers often produce material for a target audience.

In other words, technical writers do not necessarily produce content for a wide audience. Instead, they write materials for other knowledgeable individuals.

On the whole, a technical writer needs to articulate data, research findings, and scientific evidence into a narrative that illustrates a specific point. Technical writers must therefore combine appropriate language skills with in-depth expertise in their chosen field.

A common misconception surrounding technical writing is that it must be dull, an assumption that is not synonymous with technical products that are engaging.

However, high-quality technical writing delivers accurate information in an interesting and easy-to-follow manner.

Duties of a Technical Writer

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, technical writers “prepare instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles, and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily.”

There are several elements to unpack from this description.

First, technical writers are in charge of producing documentation that serves a clear purpose. For example, instruction manuals aid consumers in using household electronics.

Moreover, manuals can assist technicians in managing sophisticated equipment across various industries. Journal articles also fulfill an express need to disseminate knowledge among the general public.

Second, technical writers “communicate complex and technical information more easily.” This statement underscores the need for technical writers to have a keen sense of their target audience.

This acute sense enables technical writers to produce easily digestible materials.

Ultimately, technical documentation achieves one of its most significant aims: to make industry-specific knowledge accessible to readers from all walks of life.

Qualities of a Good Technical Writer

Thus far, this discussion has focused on the definition and duties of technical writers. Nevertheless, it is also important to focus on the personal traits that technical writers must possess.

Generally speaking, technical writers ought to possess the following qualities.

Clear and Concise Use of Language

Valuable technical documentation uses straightforward language. In other words, the prose uses a minimalist approach.

This approach enables the writer to present as much information as desired using as much language as needed.

Thus, inflated and overly decorated language gives way to the efficient use of words and grammar.

It is also worth noting that clear writing implies presenting concepts simply. Hence, technical writers must know how to get to the point.

Distractions or roundabout explanations take up valuable space. Readers expect technical writers to deliver relevant content from the start.

An economical writing style, therefore, becomes the most effective way to capture the target audience’s attention.

Empathy for the Reader

Inexperienced technical writers may sometimes lack an understanding of the reader’s perspective. As a result, they may end up “writing for themselves.”

This statement encapsulates the notion that technical writers produce content as if every reader were a subject matter expert. This writing style makes it considerably challenging for the average reader to consume such documentation.

Ultimately, a technical writer must have a good sense of the target audience. This understanding comes from the content’s purpose.

Materials for general consumption require easy-to-understand prose. In contrast, highly specific trade publications require industry-specific language that adequately reflects the intended audience.

Solid Time Management Skills

Producing technical documents requires reading, research, data gathering, and processing time. Therefore, preparing materials for a technical document can become time-consuming.

This situation demands solid time management skills from technical writers. Technical writers may otherwise fail to produce timely content.

Please note that poor time management skills can cause delays in production and publication. For instance, a new product launch may become delayed due to setbacks in user manual production. Such situations can easily derail a corporation’s profitability while marring a technical writer’s reputation.

Proficiency Using Available Tools

Lastly, technical writers must be proficient in writing tools at their disposal.

Nowadays, writing tools go beyond mere word processors. Tools such as automated proofreading tools can go a long way toward improving quality writing.

Also, the use of online research materials such as academic databases can greatly simplify research, thereby cutting down on time.

Technical writers should invest time and effort in uncovering what tools they can use to facilitate their tasks.

This attitude enables technical writers to become more proficient at their craft, thus ensuring timely content.


5 Things to Consider When Hiring a Technical Writer

Hiring a technical writer can become a tricky situation for content producers.

On the whole, choosing the right technical writer boils down to five crucial elements. These elements are essentially a strategy guide content producers can use to determine the right technical writer for their needs.

1. Assess documentation needs.

The first step is determining the type of writer needed for the content under consideration. It is worth figuring out what kind of technical writer is best.

For example, medical content requires a technical writer with a science or medical background.

Similarly, business and financial documents would demand a technical writer with a business degree or practical experience in banking and finance.

Making a clear assessment of the documentation needs allows content producers to define a technical writer’s skills and experience clearly.

After all, the term “technical writer” is a broad concept. Therefore, content producers must be clear on the type of content when planning to define the technical writer’s profile.

2. Find the right technical writer.

Finding the right technical writer largely depends on where one looks.

The most common practice is to ask for referrals. Business partners, suppliers, customers, or associates can all provide useful references to reputable technical writers.

The biggest advantage of working with referrals lies in knowing the writer’s reputation. Trusted sources help ease the anxiety that comes with hiring an unknown technical writer.

Additionally, getting referrals accelerates the hiring process since content producers may already be familiar with the writer’s quality and experience.

Other hiring practices include posting ads on online job boards, contacting writers’ and editors’ associations, or reaching out to a writing agency.

In particular, writing agencies can provide a trusted, single point of accountability for technical writing projects.

Writing agencies often employ a number of seasoned and vetted writers. Agencies also tend to employ a multifaceted team. A writing agency can, therefore, better handle large-scale, complex technical writing projects.

Please keep in mind that hiring technical writers from certain freelancer sites may pose a risk. Specifically, writers on such sites may not have a proven track record or the required experience and skillset. Therefore, hiring a technical writer in this fashion may come with unexpected results.

3. Review qualifications and experience.

Working with referrals can facilitate this part of the process. Content producers may choose to skip this step, especially if the technical writer comes with great references.

When hiring a new or unknown technical writer, going through the writer’s resume, credentials, experience, and qualifications become an essential part of the process. Thus, having a clear vision of what the writer should bring to the table makes this step much easier to manage.

Consider this situation:

An electronics company is planning to launch a new tablet computer. Consequently, the company needs to produce instruction manuals for its end users. The manuals must present the product’s specific technical and operating functions to a general audience.

The company is looking for a technical writer with a computer science, IT, or engineering background for this task. Moreover, the company seeks a writer who has produced user manuals or how-to guides. The preferred writer should feel comfortable working under pressure and be accustomed to tight deadlines. Lastly, the ideal technical writer would be able to furnish samples of previous work they have done.

Based on these criteria, the company can judge resumes to shortlist the writers they plan to interview. Those who do not make the cut can always go into a database for future reference.

4. Interview shortlisted writers.

Once a shortlist is ready, interviews can begin. The main purpose of an interview is to understand the writer’s attitude and personality better. From there, content producers can corroborate information from their resume along with specific clarification questions.

The key to making an interview work is asking the right questions. These questions should shed light on the writer’s experience and ability to handle complex technical writing projects. Here is a list of suggested questions content producers can ask technical writers in order to gain a better understanding of the writer’s skill set:

  • What sort of writing experience do you have?
  • What kind of technologies have you documented?
  • What is your experience with complex technical documentation?
  • What is the biggest obstacle you have faced?
  • How do you overcome roadblocks in a project?
  • Do you prefer to work alone or as part of a team?
  • What is your research methodology like?
  • What is your current availability?
  • Have you worked with other organizations similar to this one?
  • Can you tell us about the impact your projects have had?

These questions aim to elicit responses that can become part of the selection criteria. Most important+, these criteria help form an objective data set to back up the organization’s final decision. Please note that hiring a technical writer based on objective criteria is often the best way to ensure a top-quality project.

5. Work out contract and assignment details.

Professional writers understand the nature of a contractual relationship with their clients. Thus, any reputable technical writer is perfectly willing to sit down and go over the details involving their assignments.

Some organizations prefer to produce individual contracts for every project.

For instance, one manual equals one contract. This contract governs the terms and conditions for the manual’s completion.

Other organizations opt for an ongoing contract in which terms and conditions apply to all projects assigned.

Please note that it is crucial to work out all project details even before assigning a trial project. Addressing details at the outset of a project ensures that all parties have clear expectations going into a project.

Professional writers know that serious companies will do their best to ensure a proper working relationship. It is a major red flag when a technical writer is reluctant to sign legal paperwork or negotiate terms and conditions.

Once the first assignment is ready to begin, it is crucial to go over its requirements in detail.

It is often best to take extra time to go over details. Doing so can significantly reduce the time needed for revisions and change requests.

One Final Consideration

Finding a great technical writer does not have to be a matter of luck. The perfect technical writer largely depends on matching the writer’s qualities with the organization’s needs and vision.

Consequently, all great working relationships begin with having a clear idea of how the technical documentation matches the organization’s vision.

Even a simple user manual must reflect the organization’s attitude. Often, easy-to-use instruction manuals become a token of an organization’s commitment to great service and support for its customers.

Zach Richter 

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