What does a technical author actually do?

I am sometimes asked why anyone needs to use a technical author (TA), when most people can write English, and someone who develops a technical system or process (a programmer, financier, or engineer for instance) is bound to know it better than an outsider like me.

Making common sense of complex technical information

Well, the first answer I give is that a technical author is like a translator. He or she takes a body of technical information — whether on paper or in the subject matter expert’s (SME’s) head — and translates it into terms that are meaningful to the intended audience. For example, a functional specification is little help to the end user of a piece of software — the user does not generally care how or why it works, but just wants to know how best to use it to achieve a result. And different audiences may need a different slant on the same information — for example, in a medical system, clinical staff will have very different requirements from the technical support people.

Knowing what information is important for the reader

The second part of the answer is that being very close to a subject is not always the best position from which to describe it to others. If you know a lot about something, the tendency is to put it all in writing. A good technical author will be able to see what knowledge is essential to using a product successfully, and what is not. He or she will not be afraid to ask those stupid or embarrassing questions that would never occur to an expert. “Well, why does it work this way, and what happens if I do this instead?” “I don’t understand why I need to fill in these fields.” “The functional spec. isn’t the same as the real thing. Will you be changing one or the other?” The answers to these can add incalculable value to the content of a document, and sometimes to the usability of a product (see below).

Writing clearly, consistently and quickly

A third point that I am usually too tactful to mention is that not everyone is very good at writing information down anyway. Good technical writing is not just a matter of sticking to the rules of grammar and good usage. It is also about finding the right tone for an audience, making sure information is presented consistently in a logical order, is easy to find, and nicely presented. (All this without labouring for hours over each paragraph, of course.)

Testing usability – a free extra

As a bonus, a good author can also be a source of free usability testing for your product. Most of us will (if asked), point out any problems we notice in using or trying to describe the product.