A Successful Technical Writer Is…

Recently, I was interviewed and asked what defines success as a technical writer. I mulled over the question for a bit, wrote a draft or two, and found myself completely stuck. Despite it being a goal of mine, I couldn’t put pen to paper. What does a successful technical writer look like? How can we define it?

Attempt 1

In my initial drafts, I was drawn to the naïve, shallow definition of success we’re all taught. Successful technical writers are well known. They speak at conferences around the world. They’re organizational leaders. They’re celebrities in their own right. And then I read that over. Surely, one does not have to be a celebrity to be successful at their job, right? Was I really not going to be considered a success until my name was in lights? Scratch that. Take two.

Attempt 2

My follow-up drafts tried to focus on being a well-rounded writer. Successful technical writers know a variety of subjects and software. They can be placed in any environment and be the subject matter expert. They can answer any question and write about any topic with little to no direction. But still, this seemed off. Many technical writers specialize in certain fields and are very successful. And expert knowledge in all technical communication software seems like an extreme qualifier for being a “success”. Take three.

Final Draft

So let’s try to find a happy medium between the two. Successful technical writers don’t have to be celebrities, but they should be thought leaders. They should be tuned into the technical writing community and stay abreast of the latest trends and topics. Maybe they don’t have to know everything, but they should have expert knowledge in some areas. They should also be prepared to jump into unfamiliar waters and stay afloat.

Is that my final definition? Kind of. Not really. I expect it to change much and often over my years in the field. And, given my need to constantly push myself, I’m sure I will never consider myself a success. Rather, I’ll adapt the definition as needed to set new goals. But for now, that’s where I’m at.

What about you? What do you think a successful technical writer is?

About the Author
Greta Boller is a technical writer located in the Washington, D.C. area. For more information, please visit .

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “A Successful Technical Writer Is…

  1. Craig (@ccardimon) November 18, 2015 / 11:16 AM

    If your employer pays you to be a technical writer, then you are a successful technical writer. You are exchanging your time and skills for money and other benefits. That’s my two cents.

    Like

    • gretaboller November 18, 2015 / 11:23 AM

      Thanks for your input, Craig! I may counter that not everyone employed as a technical writer is necessarily successful at it. That said, I understand where you’re coming from: if your goal is to be a technical writer, finding an employer who recognizes your talents enough to pay you is a success in and of itself. As always, thanks for taking the time to share and comment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Gelwicks November 18, 2015 / 11:33 AM

      I agree with Greta’s comment; however, technical writing is seen as an expendable department in so many companies. If you’re employed doing something you love as a technical writer, that’s a big deal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Roger Gelwicks November 18, 2015 / 11:27 AM

    The common trait of every successful technical writer, I think, is that they are lifelong learners. This goes hand-in-hand with what you already wrote here (“They should […] stay abreast of the latest trends and topics. […] They should also be prepared to jump into unfamiliar waters and stay afloat.”).

    While this applies to most professions, I think especially technical writers can become irrelevant and expendable if they aren’t learning constantly. Technology moves faster than any other industries, and if writers rest their laurels on their own knowledge bases, they’ll get left behind. If technical writers branch out and learn lots of tools and topics, they’ll worry a lot less about their job security.

    Like

    • gretaboller November 18, 2015 / 11:34 AM

      Great followup, Roger. I agree that the drive to constantly learn new things is an important trait in a successful technical writer. We are in the unique situation where we not only have to keep up with new technology in our own field, but in other fields we write about. The more we are open to change and learning new things, the longer we stay relevant and useful in the field. That’s a success in my book. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Like

  3. Larry Kunz November 18, 2015 / 12:25 PM

    The definition of successful depends entirely on how you define success. How’s that for talking like a consultant?

    On a fundamental level, the ultimate criterion for success is creating something that fulfills all of the audience’s needs. But as an answer to your original question – what makes a successful technical writer? – that probably wouldn’t satisfy most of us.

    Perhaps a successful technical writer is one who, if suddenly dropped into any tech-writing job, would be able to meet the requirements of the job by dint of their skills, their experience, and their ability to learn. Influence (thought leadership) is nice, but I think it usually follows from this definition of success rather than being a component of it.

    Finally, as Roger mentioned, success is fleeting. If you’re successful today, you need to keep learning and keep growing if you want to remain successful tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gretaboller November 18, 2015 / 12:38 PM

      Thanks for your reply, Larry! You touch on a point I was trying to make with this post: success is different for every person in each point of our lives.

      It sounds like overall you’re leaning towards a lighter version of my second draft. Successful technical writers are well rounded and adaptable. Meanwhile, the other elements I mentioned are merely signs of success, not necessarily qualifications. Interesting angle. I think I’m on board.

      Like

      • Larry Kunz November 18, 2015 / 12:48 PM

        Then again, I’ve sometimes joked that we won’t have arrived as a profession until we see a technical writer on Dancing with the Stars. So maybe that can be our criterion for success: the first technical writer to do the samba with (pick one) Derek Hough / Karina Smirnoff.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Swapnil November 18, 2015 / 5:04 PM

    Greta,

    How about defining a successful technical writer as one who is well-known by the customers using the documentation? Or is that too far-fetched a thought? Are we not ready for this sort of exposure yet? 🙂

    Swapnil

    Like

    • gretaboller November 18, 2015 / 7:03 PM

      Swapnil,
      Interesting thought! This seems similar to Craig’s idea. Success as technical writer can be considered as local as your day to day job. A good reputation among the user community, support from your employer, or just having a job you enjoy can all be levels of success. Thanks for commenting!
      -Greta

      Like

    • Jennifer October 27, 2016 / 6:22 PM

      I guess I’m a year too late but I stumbled upon Greta’s article today.

      Swapnil, isn’t being well-known contradictory to anonymity, an intrinsic characteristic of our profession as tech writers? Do we not remove our names from artefacts before publishing them? Moreover, it’s hard to give away our identities in our style of writing because our style is dictated by the style guide. Our documents should ideally read like it’s been written by one writer irrespective of how may of us worked on it.

      Or am I getting it completely wrong? Did you mean customers who hire us and give us work rather than the users themselves?

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s