What is the most important skill for technical writing?

TLDR: Attention to detail is the most important skill for technical writing.

Ignoring the obvious requirements, such as the ability to use a computer or read and write, the most important skill for technical writing is attention to detail. And, in my experience, it is the skill that most technical writers lack—in fact, it seems to be a skill that almost everyone lacks.

This post answers why I think attention to detail is the most important skill for technical writing, based on my 3+ years experience. Be advised, however, that my experience as a technical writer might differ from someone else’s experience as a technical writer. The role of technical writing can look very different across industries and is dependent on the needs of the client or business.

Wait, isn’t consistency the first rule of technical writing?

I took an introduction to technical writing course at the start of 2022 (for no reason apart from I was interested) and, in it, I was taught that the first rule of technical writing is consistency. This led me to believe that the most important skill a technical writer needs is the ability to be consistent.

  • Consistent use of style guide
  • Consistent use of clear language
  • Consistent use of terminology, etc.

I don’t disagree that consistency is important in technical writing, but it isn’t the most important skill in a technical writer’s toolbox.

I have worked alongside junior and senior technical writers who held credentials and had experience far beyond my own. And yet, I was disappointed with the quality of their work, and (surprise) it wasn’t because they were inconsistent.

A red pen underlining errors on a sheet of paper
Do you remember when teachers use to correct your homework with red ink?

Consistency is meaningless if mistakes go unnoticed

Once upon a time, I was involved with a large technical project that required the creation, review, and distribution of several thousand engineering documents. I was on a team of about 20 professional engineers (P.Eng) and my role was to simply review the documents to ensure consistent style and format, and identify and correct mistakes before distribution.

Well, let me tell you, there is nothing simple about reviewing several thousand documents.

I couldn’t keep up on my own. So, the decision was made to hire two technical writers. And, I should mention, I wasn’t a ‘technical writer’ at the time; I just had a lot of experience reviewing, editing, and proofreading complex written material from my time at university.

It was my hope that, with the help of two formally trained technical writers, the three of us could share the workload. Each reviewing, editing, and proofreading the engineering documents and, effectively, tripling the output.

But that never happened.

When they started, I would review and validate every document that they finished, and I would make note of mistakes and meet with them regularly to ensure those mistakes did not continue. Eventually, I thought (I hoped) I would no longer feel compelled to validate their work.

Unfortunately, even after months of reviewing, editing, and proofreading the same types of engineering documents, I continued to find mistakes in the documents the two formally trained technical writers had reviewed. Not once during the year they were on the team did I feel confident to let a document they worked on get sent without me looking at it first.

In the end, their contracts were not renewed because they lacked attention to detail, not because they were inconsistent.

I think you meant to write “great INattention to detail”

‘Attention to detail’ is one of those skills that people toss on their resume because it sounds good, is transferable, and is difficult to dispute. I’m confident if you ask anyone in an interview if they have great attention to detail, they will quickly say, “Yes, absolutely.”

Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you don’t.

I rarely meet people who actually have great attention to detail. Even those with careers that depend on the skill lack it, such as the two technical writers I described above. And, the interesting thing is, it is so easy to gauge someone’s attention to detail: just look at their resume.

A resume (or CV) is the one document you should want to get perfect. I’m not talking about how it is formatted, or how many graphics it includes, or how much experience it exudes; I’m talking about their attention to detail (or, rather, their inattention to errors and inconsistencies).

You can learn more about a person from what they don’t write on their resume than what they do write on their resume. And, when I see a technical writer’s resume that has inconsistent styling or formatting, spelling or grammatical errors, or other such mistakes, I don’t even bother reading it. If you can’t avoid mistakes in the most important document in your life, why should I trust you to review, edit, and proofread our documents?

And the worst part about everyone writing that they have “great attention to detail” on their resume is that, for those select few who actually have a great attention to detail, the skill has lost its meaning and value. So, thank you for that.

A squirrel resting on a tree branch looking down at the camera
This squirrel looks like it has great attention to detail ... would probably make a great technical writer.

What other skills do technical writers need (apparently)?

Circling back to the actual topic of this post now (yes, I realize I went off on a bit of a tangent there, but I think it needed to be said).

I was interested in what other people had to say about the most important skill(s) for technical writing, so I turned to Google. The first search result was Wikiversity, and they listed six essential skills of a technical writer (which appear to be borrowed from a post by Tom Johnson):

  1. General ability to write (I agree, but this is common sense)
  2. Facility with technology (I disagree, more on this below)
  3. Ability to write clearly (I agree, this should have been number one)
  4. Talent in showing ideas graphically (Um, I guess I agree, sort of)
  5. Patience in problem-solving (I agree, but it seems a bit irrelevant)
  6. Ability to interact with SMEs (I agree, but should be expanded)

I’m not impressed with Wikiversity’s list. The only two I’d call “essential skills” for technical writers are the ability to write clearly and the ability to interact with SMEs. Though, as I mentioned above, SMEs should probably be expanded. Technical writers need to be able to listen, understand, interpret, and present regardless of who they are interacting with—it just happens to be a subject-matter expert (SME) typically.

The only skill Wikiversity lists that I fully disagree with is “facility with technology”. If all that was meant by this is familiarity with tools of the trade (such as a PC), I’d agree. But what they are referring to is familiarity with the technology a technical writer needs to write about, and that is incorrect.

You do not need any familiarity with the technology you are writing about to be a successful technical writer (though, it might help). I was a technical writer for an engineering firm that specialized in something I knew nothing about, and I excelled in my role. In fact, it can be a massive benefit to not be familiar with the topic, especially if the audience of the written product is, like yourself, a layperson (which is often the case).

Looking at some of the other results on Google, it is a lot more of the same: ability to write, interest in technology, experience with Microsoft Word, etc., etc., etc. The funny thing is that not one of the results on the first page of my Google search for “most important skills for a technical writer” included attention to detail.

No wonder no one seems to have it!

In conclusion…

To be an effective and reliable technical writer, you must have a high attention to detail. All the other “essential” skills for technical writers you find online are meaningless if you cannot:

  • Follow instructions
  • Find mistakes
  • Notice inconsistencies
  • Recognize patterns