What does a Technical Author do?

A technical author produces deliverable documentation of some kind. This may be a book, manual, set of specifications, web page, script or whatever, with or without illustrations or multimedia enhancements. What is common to all these is that something technical is explained in words. It is the technical author’s skill in explaining something simply and clearly that produces the final result.

However, before the documentation is delivered, very much more has to happen. The technical author’s work can be broken down into four main tasks.

♦ Assessing the audience for the documentation, and the nature of the documentation required
♦ Collecting and sifting the information required
♦ Organising the information to meet the requirements of the audience
♦ Creating the physical documentation

These do not necessarily happen one after the other, of course. Each task is composed of many smaller steps. One task may be begun while others are in progress.

Assessing the documentation requirements

A technical author finds out as much as possible about the intended readership: the readers’ work, knowledge and background, and the depth and breadth of the information they require. Once this is done, it is possible to decide what kinds of documents are required, and how they are to be presented to the readers.

Collecting the information

This is usually the most difficult and time-consuming part of a technical author’s work. The information may be in fragments of documentation already existing (on paper, on disk or online), in computer code, in people’s heads or in other forms. If the deliverable is to be a user or administrator’s manual, the technical author may need to run through the procedures in the user interface.

Most technical authors will prefer to collect as much information as possible from such written sources as documents and code before conducting interviews. This means that they can draw up a list of specific questions to ask, and avoid taking up more than necessary of the time of busy people.

Collecting information is much like scientific research – extracting the hard- to-find, relevant information from much that is irrelevant.

Organising the information

This is an essential step, because documentation that is not organised according to the reader’s needs is almost useless. The reader must be able to find what he or she needs without having to hunt for it. Organisation is generally what makes a good manual rather than a bad one.

Creating the deliverable

If the earlier steps have been done correctly, this is usually the easiest, and sometimes the quickest, part of the process. The technical author presents the information in a clear way using the language most appropriate to the intended readers – non-technical and jargon-free for non-technical readers, and using appropriate technical terms for technical readers.

As part of producing the physical documentation, the technical author may also create templates and house styles. These continue as the property of the client to be used for future documentation.

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