If you’re a tech brand gearing up to hire the perfect wordsmith you’re probably wondering what to look for in a technical writer. Even if you’ve hired tech authors before, you’re about to make a substantial investment in your brand through this hire, and it’s natural to want to get it spot on. Fortunately, getting things spot on is the forte of the technical typing monkey, which means you’re in luck.
That being said, you still need to know what you’re looking for beyond an affinity for technology and the ability to be very particular about the words used to describe it. Technical writers are very different to creative content writers, although many technical writers are also exceptionally creative content marketers. There’s also a lot more to being an effective technical writer than meets the eye.
Finding the perfect talent to add to your team is never easy, regardless of the role. To help you out I’ve put together this guide, to walk you through the various skills and attributes you should be looking for in your new techie genius, along with which can be compromised on, and to what extent, and which are absolute deal breakers.
Before I go into detail, it’s important to know the answer to three vital questions…
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What Exactly Do Technical Writers Do?
The technical writer is a unique breed of professional wordsmith. We’re the ones who explain the inexplicable in simple and concise terms, answer the questions plaguing your clients, create how-to videos and tutorials that teach your tribe, pen the instruction manuals your latest tech wizardry requires, put together your catalogues, user manuals, and contracts, and work the alchemical magic that ensures you have the white papers and articles needed to position you as an innovative, trailblazing, thought-leading brand in your niche.
When we write your blog posts they’re designed to make your technology more accessible to your consumer base. If you have readers and customers who need to understand what you’re selling, why they desperately need it, why it’s superior to your competition, and precisely how to use it, you need a technical writer.
So, if you need all of that delivered in an accessible and user-friendly manner that holds people’s attention and doesn’t waste their time, you need a technical writer.
What Level Of Technical Writer Are You Looking For?
Technical writers typically command a lot of money on the open market – the national average is around £40K in Britain, $70K in the States, with some technical writers commanding six figure salaries depending on their level of skill and experience.
A truly spectacular technical writer is like gold dust, and their salary will reflect that. Which means you want to really make sure you genuinely get the best of the best.
It’s important to consider your budget before you go looking. You can hire an amazing mid-level technical writer for around £35-40K. If you want someone with more experience or highly specific experience you’re going to need to bump that up considerably. And if you really need a tech-savvy writer but you’re working with a startup budget and can’t manage more than £25K, a fresh writer with a little less experience and a bucket load of potential is what you should be looking for.
What level of experience do you need, and what do you have the budget to support?
At this point it’s also worth considering if you need to hire a permanent member of staff, or would be better outsourcing your technical writing to a freelancer. The latter has a lot of benefits in terms of flexibility. It can also allow you to hire a writer with more experience.
Rather than spending £40K on a salary for a full year, you spend the same amount on the specific content you require, paying for less time but more talent.
How Tech-Savvy Are We Talking?
In addition to experience levels, there is also the level of technicality you need from your writer. You may need someone to write highly technical manuals, instructions, specifications, or other documentation that is intended for industry professionals – engineers, developers, computer scientists, etc.
If that’s the case you need a highly technical technical writer, one with qualifications and/or a lot of experience in your specific field.
If, on the other hand, you need someone to make killer content to attract clients, instructions for people who lack expert experience in your technology, and how-to or tutorial videos to help your clients use your stuff, you still need a technical writer, but you don’t need one with the same level of expertise as the people building your product or service.
In fact, an absence of formal and expert-level technical education is an asset to a writer crafting content intended for non-professionals, because they speak the right language. A lot of technical writers have no formal education in the technical subject(s) they write about, but they’re incredibly passionate and technically minded, and have chosen to specialise in making technology accessible to everyone.
So are you looking for a highly technical tech writer, or a casually technical tech writer?
What To Look For In A Technical Writer
Now you’re completely clear on the type of writer you need, here’s what you should be looking for in a great technical writer…
Exceptional Writing Skills…
This is something of a no-brainer but it really needs emphasising.
Your new tech author needs to be able to write.
With passion, and zeal, creativity, dedication, precision, and clarity.
It’s very easy to get so caught up in the desire to find someone who is technically qualified, you forget to check they’re actually capable of stringing a sentence together. More than that, you forget to ensure they’re able to do so in an innovative way that’s relatable, readable, and fully in line with your brand voice.
Spelling and grammar are important, however they’re not the only things that go into having full command of language, and like any writer worth her salt, your new tech-savvy author needs to be so at one with the words you can almost reach Nirvana simply by reading her work.
Professionalism And A Cracking Portfolio…
If you’re wondering how to judge a writer’s writing ability, take a good, long, hard snoop at her portfolio. Read her CV. Ask her if there are other samples of her work that aren’t available to the public (we often ghostwrite and have samples of projects we can’t post!).
Reading samples of a writer’s work will give you a very good idea of whether or not you like their style. Just remember, that style will vary from client to client, as we adapt to suit the needs of their product, service, or brand.
Beyond that, have a nosy at the professionalism of their website and/or social media platforms. If they’re on LinkedIn check for shared contacts and ask someone you already know what their experience of this person is. Read the content they create for their own website or personal passion projects.
The Ability To Translate…
I mentioned this briefly earlier, but it’s worth reiterating. While you may not need a literal translator capable to converting your content to every language known to man, you need a writer who can speak both your language and the language of your clients.
Next to writing skills and industry knowledge the ability to translate tech talk into plain language your potential clients can understand is, hands down, the most important virtue to look for in a technical writer. If your clients are also experts, this isn’t usually too difficult, but it’s usually the case that your expertise is higher than that of your clients – if it weren’t you wouldn’t have something they needed. You don’t necessarily need your writer to speak at the expert level you would expect from those creating your product and service, but they need to be fluent enough to completely understand what you’re selling and how it works.
So your writer needs to bridge the gap between your expert genius and your clients’ level of understanding (whatever that level may be).
The ability to take information that is highly complex and technical, and transform it into easily understood, digestible content that is informative, valuable, and… dare I say it… entertaining is a fine art skill.
Do not hire a technical author who lacks it!
Exceptional Chameleon And Communication Skills…
Great technical writers are all chameleons, seamlessly blending into existing teams, adapting to new working environments and subject materials, and fully capable of adapting their writing style to suit the specific product, service, brand voice, and goals of the client.
If you check out a writer’s portfolio and the styles on display don’t completely fit with your business vision, don’t immediately dismiss them. Take a look at the different styles on display and consider how adaptable they are.
Have a chat with them.
It’s unlikely they will already be writing in the perfect brand voice for your business – if they were, there would be nothing unique about that voice. Instead, look for someone with excellent chameleon skills and the ability to communicate well with a range of people in a variety of contexts – email them initially, then follow it up with a call, or hop on a video chat. See what they’re like with both verbal and written communication. Take a look at their testimonials and see what their existing clients and employers have to say about them – are they easy to get along with? Do they listen and articulate their opinions well? Were they able to adapt to the brand needs and craft a voice that effectively reflects the ethos of the businesses they were working for?
An Eagerness To Learn…
Writers are naturally curious. It’s usually how we become writers, and often we didn’t receive a formal education in the art of writing, let alone technical writing. It’s a skill and career path you learn and advance by doing it, exploring new subjects and techniques, practicing, pushing your boundaries, stepping out of your comfort zone, and all of that is an ongoing process.
A great technical writer should have a passion for their craft that drives them to continually improve their skills and try more, learn more, not only about the art of writing, but the business of marketing through content, including all the latest tricks and trends, and the development of the industries and niches they’re writing in. You’re looking for a writer capable of absorbing any and all information concerning your company’s technology and the information pertaining to it. They should not only be capable of learning about it, but naturally curious and eager to explore it, and areas related to it.
The tech industry thrives on innovation – you need a writer who isn’t just keeping up with the curve, they’re capable of getting just a little bit ahead of it.
Graphic Design Skills…
This one will depend on your business and team. If you don’t have an in-house graphic designer, or a freelancer you outsource your design to, your new tech writer is going to need to do more than just write.
Even if you have someone who handles graphic design, and your company handles writing and design separately, design is extremely important when it comes to creating technical content. The way our writing is presented has a huge effect on reader experience. If your technical writer is capable of both writing and designing they will be far better able to take a holistic, creative approach to document creation, which takes advantage of design.
Basic Web Design Skills…
On a similar theme, a technical writer will often need at least basic web design skills. Again, if you have a small team and don’t have a dedicated website developer/manager, your writer will likely be responsible for not only creating content, but uploading it to your website, and making sure it looks great and provides the best user experience possible.
The ability to use basic coding and web designs isn’t essential in a technical writer, but it’s incredibly useful. It lets you ensure every piece of content posted is perfectly tweaked for maximum UX. It’s also really helpful if they’re capable of making slight adjustments to the overall design of your website to ensure their content is as easily read as possible.
It’s unreal the number of times I’ve tweaked fonts, colours, text size, image placement and more just slightly, and it’s proven to be the difference between a post or page that converts like a charm, and content people immediately click away from. Being able to code also allows you to create things like link jumps, which make your content more accessible and user-friendly.
A Little Psychology And Sociology…
Having a basic understanding of the psychological and sociological facets of writing is another thing that isn’t a necessity for a technical writer, but it’s a huge bonus.
We’re writing for people, after all, and while the subject matter may be highly technical, the whole purpose of our job is making all that techno babble understandable, relatable, and succinctly deliverable to people.
Clients, coworkers, investors, whatever – whoever is reading what we write they’re human, with needs and motives. Understanding these allows you to create higher quality content with direct and immediate take-away value for the reader.
There is, for example, a huge difference between creating how-tos, user guides, and instruction manuals for B2B and B2C audiences. The former requires depth, detail, and complexity, while the latter runs on simplicity, succinctity, and a down-to-earth tone.
If you understand how your readers think you can not only create technical writing, you can empower your readership through it, helping them reach their goals while achieving company objectives.
Relevant Qualifications And Education…
Formal qualifications in a technical field can be very desirable in a writer, especially if the field you need them to work in requires expert-level knowledge and understanding of extremely complex areas like Computer Science or Engineering. A formal background in writing is also a bonus, so you might look for a degree or qualifications in English or Journalism. Other qualification that can be a good indication you’re onto a winner are communications, marketing, or business degrees.
There are a lot of relevant degrees and qualifications a technical writer may have, but relevant work experience often carries more weight than formal qualifications, particularly if it’s a number of years since the writer graduated. Seeing how they have done in a practical way can usually tell you far more about their suitability than the fact they successfully completed a course.
For example, I’ve done a lot of technical writing over the years, despite not having official qualifications in any of the subjects listed above. I have a BA, an MA, and will have a PhD (as soon as I find time to finish my thesis), but all these are in archaeology. While arguably a social science, I chose the less technical path when it came to my education and got a bachelor and master of arts, rather than science. Even if they had been science degrees they’re still a far cry from computer science or engineering, and yet I’ve worked for a range of companies in both the computing and engineering industries.
Check out your prospective tech writer’s work history, portfolio, and the brand they’ve constructed for themselves online (either on a writer website or social media platform). Three core areas to look for are:
Content Strategy Experience…
Their ability to effectively construct content strategies, rather than simply churning out pieces of content. You may well have a content marketing manager, director, or executive who will tell them exactly what to write and leave them to it. But if you don’t, you’re going to need your new writer to do more than just write – they need to figure out what to write, when, and the best possible form for it to take.
Just be aware that a technical writer capable of effectively creating and leveraging a comprehensive content marketing strategy can command a higher salary due to their extended experience and skill set.
If you’re looking for a junior level technical writer, managerial experience isn’t something you need in your candidate. A tech writer who has experience supervising other writers, or running whole content teams, is not going to be interested in a junior position (it lacks any kind of challenge), or the salary you’re able to offer for such a post (it’s far lower than they’re worth). If, on the other hand, you want a senior technical writer to manage other writers, or take the lead on the content strategy, both managerial experience and content strategising are desirable traits you should be looking for.
Areas They Struggle With…
Even the most experienced technical writers have weaknesses, or rather, areas they dislike, have a lack of experience with, or genuinely struggle to wrap their heads around.
And that’s fine.
Writers aren’t Swiss Army Knives – there are generally a handful of areas we love and are incredibly good at, a plethora of other skills that we’re perfectly capable of doing to a high standard, but aren’t any more capable of than the next writer, and a few things at which we simply suck.
Understanding the latter is important to gauging whether or not a writer has the right kind of technical genius for you – as long as their weaknesses are in areas you’ll never need them to do, this really isn’t an issue!
Analytical Thinking And Industry Knowledge…
While formal education in your industry may be essential to you, what you’re really looking for is a demonstration of analytical thinking, the ability to research and learn, and existing experience writing in your specific field. There are some areas that are impossible to write about technically if you don’t have a formal education in them, ensuring you’re grounded in the theory and practical applications. And yet the extent of specific formal education you look for in your technical writer will largely depend on your field, and tone you want your content and copy to take.
Are you trying to be accessible to the layman? If so, who better to write for you that someone who fully understands your product or service despite having no formal education in its design or use? Someone who can bridge the gap between your team of engineers, or developers, and the clients you are know would love what you do if only they could understand it.
A Good Dose Of Common Sense…
While common sense is a desirable trait in any employee, a technical writer needs to have enough sense to know when screenshots are essential to explaining something, judge exactly how many are needed, and know whether it wouldn’t be better to do the whole thing as a video. They need to be able to figure out that once you have content in one form it can (and should!) be converted into multiple formats. These are just a couple of examples of simple common sense thinking that makes the difference between a decent writer, and a highly valuable member of your marketing team.
So you want someone with enough sense, confidence and self-assurance to make calls concerning the content they create. To stay grounded and be unafraid to ask for input, advice and help when needed. To listen to other opinions and ideas, take them into account and formulate the best possible strategy using all available ideas and resources.
Innovation And Creative Flare…
Creativity is often a trait that’s sidelined in the hunt for a technical writer, precisely because the nature of the job is precision.
Yet technological brands run on innovation over and above everything else, and it’s difficult to create innovative content and develop cutting-edge strategies without some serious creative flare.
It takes a lot of creativity to create tech-heavy text that remains engaging while delivering all the relevant information. Have a look at a writer’s approach to technical content – is it dry and repetitive, similar to a hundred other pieces that do exactly the same thing, or is there personality behind it? Passion – both for the craft of writing and the product in question?
If you can find a writer who embodies all these traits you’re definitely onto a winner, but bear in mind that most writers will excel in certain areas but not others, will have different levels of experience in different aspects of their craft, and will be at different stages of development in certain areas of their career. Remember, a writer who has demonstrated themselves capable of learning, applying themselves to a new area, and excelling in that area has unlimited potential.