What do Technical Writers Do?
By Laura Kilgore
Technical writing, contrary to popular assumption, is not a one-dimensional role. When I first became a Technical Writer, I pictured myself poring over hard-copy documents, red pen in hand, making good use of the secret hieroglyphics of Editors that I had learned so proudly in college. Green eyeshades and a clacking printing press may have also been featured in my imagination, but I was a bit idealistic. Yes, I do always print out the draft I get of a new document, and there is something empowering (and self-validating) about filling in the margins with notes and adding my proofreading marks to the lines of text, but really, this is only a fraction of a Technical Writer’s role.
So what do we do?
Know the content
I was surprised to find, in my first freelance project in the aerospace industry, that a good Editor does not need to understand the content of a document in order to effectively edit it. Any skilled Technical Writer can tell instinctively if a sentence is grammatically correct. I wasn’t going to learn enough rocket science to catch the full meaning of the document, but, over time, the ideas in the text did become more familiar.
That being said, it is better to know the content, and a good Technical Writer will make the effort. I will always pick up on more and deeper problems in a document when I understand what I’m reading. One of the first things I learned when I started working with engineers is that they enjoy explaining their subject. Since then, many a word-smithing session has transformed into a useful lesson, complete with dry-erase diagrams and a plethora of information.
There have also been times when I turned to Google for information. “Christmas Tree” was high on the list of confusing terms in the oil and gas industry, but brainstorming sessions with authors took on a whole new meaning when I discovered exactly what it was. My eyes were further opened when I saw a real-life Christmas Tree or ‘X-tree’ in Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. So while it’s not absolutely necessary to be an expert in the topic, Technical Writers do make a concerted effort to understand the basics.
Edit the content
And then, of course, there’s the actual editing.