How Important are Specific Software Skills for a Technical Writer?

By: Writing Assistance Inc.

Being a technical writer requires an individual to have a variety of skills, not the least of which is a strong sense of communicating to a target audience. However, many a technical writer has been passed over for employment because the tech writer lacked experience with a specific piece of software – such as Adobe’s Framemaker. Unfortunately, this can extend so far as insisting on experience with a specific version of the software or else that candidate can be vetted out of the hiring process very quickly.

While in some cases insisting on experience with a specific software tool may be justified, employers shouldn’t overlook the fact that technical writers are skilled in learning and then passing on what’s been learned to others. If the technical writer doesn’t fully understand the product or software he or she is charged with documenting, presenting information about that product or software in clear terms is impossible.

In the case of technical writers who specialize in software documentation, the tech writer is charged with reading about and using the software, consulting whatever existing documentation is available, and then discovering the software’s hidden nuances and intricacies. Additionally, the same tech writer may not have had experience with a specific software tool being used by the employer or client, but may have had to learn to use an equally difficult or even more complex software tool in his or her past.

How much of a stretch is it then to think that such a tech writer wouldn’t be able to pick up on learning a new software tool quickly and soon become an expert in its use?

Use It Or Lose It – The Technical Writer’s Dilemma

In some cases, a technical writer may have had training on a specific software tool. In fact, he or she may have had more training than someone who is currently using the tool but who is not yet making the most of its available features. However, because that perfectly capable tech writer does not yet have experience using the tool on a project, the writer is turned away. Without direct experience on a project where the tool is used, it’s likely that this tech writer’s training will soon prove to be near worthless. In using and mastering a complex piece of software, the old “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” saying can be painfully true.

Ten Years’ Experience or One Year Times Ten?

Just as there are technical writers who have no experience with a documentation tool like RoboHelp, there are those who have used RoboHelp but still don’t get it. They don’t know much about the software and have never taken the time to master it – they are using it in a robotic manner because they are told they have to. Whenever they run up against a problem they have to find help. Ironically, some won’t even take the time to look for an answer within the tool’s own documentation.

The question then becomes: “Would you rather hire the tech writer who has experience with a specific software tool who could care less about mastering it, or a technical writer who doesn’t yet have experience with the tool your department is using but who is curious and eager to learn? Especially if that writer has a strong knowledge of the underlying technology that the tool uses – such as a knowledge of XML or HTML.

Other Skills Can Trump Software Knowledge

A very strong technical writer who has great writing skills, strong technical skills in other areas, good interviewing and listening skills along with good people, time management and project management skills is often a far better match for a documentation project than one who is deficient in some or all of these areas but is experienced with using a specific piece of software.

Additionally, a technical writer who has experience with a prior version of the software tool should also be considered. Differences between versions are typically not at all difficult to overcome – especially for someone who by their nature has a sense of curiosity about how things work.