A technical writer is usually defined as someone who writes the technical documentation that allows a user to actually use a product. But a technical writer is not necessarily skilled in the particular technology they are writing about. Is this a deal-breaker? No, not necessarily.

But I do have a strong (and sometimes unpopular) opinion that it is an added benefit to have technical skills in the areas you are writing about and to be willing and able to try out the product you are writing about. This is especially true if a technical writer is working in the computer software or hardware field. When I’ve asked other writers if they think a technical writer should have or should develop a technical background, I get a very interesting mix of responses. Typically those with a technical background think this should be the case and those without one are adamant that it shouldn’t matter.

While I don’t think the lack of a technical background is necessarily a deal-breaker, I do think there are significant advantages to having one. A few of these are:

  • You have a groundwork for learning a specific product. You don’t have to start at the very basic level every time.
  • You can speak the same language as the product team. This means an easier time getting information and more respect from the team.
  • You have significant insight into your users. You have a better idea of what they need and what they are used to getting in the way of documentation.
  • You can more easily use the product. Less hand-holding is needed than if you had no prior experience.
  • You can add benefit by pointing out non-standard or odd behavior.

A personal example from a product I worked on several years ago was when I was working with a non-technical editor and I had written some instructions that called out the need to open a command prompt with administrator privileges. My editor had corrected it to needing to be an administrator on the machine and then opening a command prompt. Those of you familiar with Windows will realize these are not equivalent concepts. I changed it back but then went to my editor and carefully explained a bit about the history of User Access Controls and the differences between the two actions. She had used Windows for years but this hadn’t ever been explained to her and she didn’t have the technical background to know the difference. She learned and was glad I explained but what if I hadn’t known the difference?

In addition to being more technical, some highly technical writers that also write sample code and (typically) developer documentation are what are sometimes known as “Programming Writers”. I believe this term first came into use at Microsoft but it’s used more widely these days. A Programmer Writer or Programming Writer knows one or more programming languages and is comfortable reading and writing code in those languages. This is a type of writing where I think you really have to have a technical background or you face a near insurmountable learning curve and will have to get sample apps and codes written for your by someone else. I wouldn’t want to be stuck hoping the code I was given worked and be unable to correct it or write my own.