20 year content strategy veteran, Sharon Burton. Sharon Burton consults about content strategy, content business issues, social media and managing post-sales customer experience issues.
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The most important trait of a technical writer

The most important trait of a technical writer
The most important trait of a technical writer 4.73/5 (94.67%) 15 votes

I have read a few discussions on LinkedIn lately about what core skills a technical writer needs. The answers have ranged all over, from high technical skills to proper grammar and spelling.

I have one word for you:

Curiosity.

That’s it. That’s the difference.

Why?

I can teach someone to write. I can give them the Good Writing Guidelines, I can set up a structure that they need to follow to create topics. I can teach the basics of any tool we choose. I can teach them about audience and what the audience needs and how that impacts us.

What I can’t teach is the curiosity to ask questions, to poke at the product, to constantly ask “What if…?”

And that difference is what makes a good technical writer, perhaps even an excellent technical writer.

Why ask why?

If you’re curious, you’ll learn more about your tools. You’ll ask more about your audience. You’ll think to ask important questions about the product you’re documenting. You’re thinking about everything as you do it, to understand more deeply everything you work with.

If you’re curious, you want to keep learning for the delight of learning and that’s shown in your work. You may not use all the information you learn about, for example, in the products, but you will have the understanding to know what makes sense and what doesn’t.

That curiosity will make you a better employee or consultant, too. Because you keep asking questions and relating it back to what you’re doing.

Seriously? That’s it?

Yup. That’s it. We can teach you the rest. Because you’re curious and want to know. But without that curiosity, you don’t want to know, no matter how much I or anyone tries to teach you. And that makes you a mediocre technical writer, at best.

Non-curious means you just want to format information other people give you. And that’s not going to help anyone, least of all our users.

Our field deserves more from you.

Thoughts on what makes a great technical writer?

Your thoughts? Am I wrong?

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By Sharon Burton

17 Comments

  1. Rita Martin

    I could truly relate to your article because I have been told by project managers and application developers my curiosity makes me a good writer. Although sometimes annoying to others, being curious is a must in our profession!

  2. Thank you, Sharon, for the article. It indeed can be summed up in one word. But, for me, that one word is not curiosity, but “Willingness.” It’s the magic word that makes us curious – to explore, learn, grow, teach, and inspire. It is willingness that separates a writer from a curious writer. But, the hard fact is, no one can teach you to be either curious or willing to learn.

  3. A great reminder – when I’m curious, I am at my best.

  4. Sharon, boy do I agree – and I would add, the ability to make connections between the things we learn through our curiosity – even – or especially – when they don’t seem to be related!

  5. Kyle Dallaire

    I could *not* agree more! with everything in this piece and seriously wondered if I was the only one who believed this. Glad to learn that I am not!

  6. Jim Duszynski

    This is key, especially when presenting offering the user possible problem areas – those weak areas in the product that can cause a user to get out of sequence with the task – while progressing through an instruction. By asking ourselves, “what if someone experiences this or does this, where do they end up?”, we can help the user get back to doing something real with our product instead of calling the help desk.

  7. You are so right Sharon. All the other skills can be taught and honed over years of experience, but the genuine curiosity is something you either have or not. It cannot be taught.

  8. Rick Broquet

    Curiosity is the trigger. Steve coupled eagerness, I would say passion, for sustained effort. In order to obtain understanding one must apply critical thinking/reasoning with application (test, measure, adjust then repeat); which speaks to Neal’s point of figuring out what works.

    These are all qualities that successful individuals have regardless of their chosen profession.

  9. It’s also the same thing that makes a great editor.

  10. Patti Tornquist

    “You may not use all the information you learn about…”

    I like that sentence. We have to remember that as we evaluate content from SMEs. The customer usually doesn’t need to know about the underlying design principles, but we can often use those principles to help explain concepts or troubleshooting tips, if needed.

  11. Steven Brooks

    Eagerness pairs well with curiosity. Together, they help a writer seek understanding and sustain them when they are figuring out the best solution, among several good ones, to a problem. It’s also great when managers are aware of writers with a high curiosity level and allow them to work through ways to improve their business.

  12. Carolyn Watt

    Sharon,

    I wholeheartedly agree. It’s the curious mind that is practical AND digs deep into how the product or system works. I too have taught many people to write but the ones that excel are those that put themselves in the users’ shoes and ask why.

  13. Gisele

    Well said! It’s the kind of curiosity that keeps you up at night. You have to know. What if I do this? What will my user see or do? Can I do it this way instead?

  14. Great point, well said!

  15. Yes! Thanks, for reminding us, Sharon.

  16. “Non-curious means you just want to format information other people give you. And that’s not going to help anyone, least of all our users.”

    Exactly. And we’ve been seeing those types of jobs disappearing for the last decade (or longer).

    To add to what you’ve said, if you’re curious you’ll also want to figure out which types of content work for your audience and the best ways of delivering that content.

    • Sharon Burton

      Neal, you’re totally right! If you are curious, you’ll keep asking stuff like: Could we be doing this better? Delivering it differently? In other ways? How do we know our audience still wants it this way?

      And so on.

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  3. Most important trait of a technical writer | TechCommGeekMom - […] See on www.sharonburton.com […]

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