What should you look for in a Technical Author?

Generally the four most important attributes of a technical author should be:

♦ An ability to collect information from diverse sources, and to collaborate with people in technical fields who possess the necessary information
♦ An ability to sift through masses of information, pick out relevant items and organise them
♦ A clear, straightforward and reasonably concise style in writing technical documents. The author should pay attention to detail, including spelling and grammar
♦ Understanding of the requirements of the users of the documentation

Assessing these attributes may be difficult, but samples of the author’s previous work should be inspected. You can ask the technical author about the sources of information used in the previous assignments, and the techniques used to analyse them for the documentation. Ask also how the documentation meets the requirements of the intended users

In the case of the last item, it is very helpful if the technical author gets to meet users of the documentation, for example, through user-group meetings or by involvement in training.

Expertise in the technology that is the subject of the documentation may be important, particularly if the documentation is very technical. On the other hand, using a technical author who is new to the technology may in some cases be an advantage, for example, when creating a user manual for non- technical users.

One of the least important things is the technical author’s experience with the writing tools (Word, for example). Most technical authors will have used a number of word processors and/or publishing systems, and it does not take long to pick up speed with a new one. There is certainly no point in insisting on (say) two years of experience with a particular word processor.

When should you call in the technical author?

The answer is: as early as possible.

If the technical author is writing user documentation, in particular, he or she can give valuable feedback on the user interface. Consider retaining the technical author on a part-time basis from the earliest stages of a project, and involve him or her in the planning and specification of a product or service.

In fact, it may be a good idea to write the user manual instead of or along with the requirements document! Once you are happy with the product that is described in the user manual, then you can enter the specification, design and implementation phases.

Why do you need a technical author?

A technical author uses many skills, in finding, collecting, assessing, selecting and organising information, and finally communicating it to the reader in a clear and concise form to meet the reader’s needs.

Some of this is science, some is art. Some is learned by study, some by practice. Like any other work, this is done with best results if an expert is called in to do it. The technical author achieves the result by co-operating with those who have the specialist knowledge in the systems or technology.

In producing a readable and understandable document, one of the most important things is being concise, but not too brief. A technical author can express the information in the right number of words.

A good technical author can often rewrite a document by a technical, sales or marketing person to reduce the size of the document (in words) by around one quarter or one third. This is without changing the meaning, but making the meaning much clearer. (The actual size of a paper document will not necessarily decrease by as much, because the technical author will use white space better to improve readability.)

How long does it take?

This is impossible to answer without having some information about a specific documentation requirement. The collection and the organisation of information usually take the most time.

At one extreme, collecting the information to be displayed in a table occupying one or two pages may take days.

At the other extreme, a procedures manual for a well-designed application is usually easy and straightforward to write, and a technical author may manage 2,000 or 2,500 words a day on this.

Remember to allow time for creating templates, formatting, creating illustrations, indexing and any other specific requirements.

Also remember to allocate staff time for reviewing the document. This is often forgotten, and is a common cause of delays in creating a document.

What does a Technical Author do?..... - .....What does a Technical Author need?

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