Technical Writing – Chris Clements Q & A

Recently, I sat down with Chris Clements, a technical communications professional whose 14+–year career includes notable projects in high-tech for industry leaders Microsoft and Amazon. We discussed his early days on the job, the advice he would give to a new or aspiring technical writer, and the future of the profession.

I hope you find the Q & A as illuminating and informative as I did. Enjoy!

How did you start out as a technical writer? What drew you to the profession?

Prior to my work in high-tech, I was the Associate Director of Admissions at Seattle University. I have a MAEd in Human Resources Development and Training. My technical communication career started in 1998 when I was working at Microsoft as a technical editor.

I'd say the common thread running throughout my career has been developing a strong writing background and an ability to explain complex concepts simply and effectively – plus I've always had a strong aptitude for technology. Technical writing seemed like a perfect fit.

Describe some memorable projects that you have worked on.

Windows 2000 Server, Visual Studio Team Foundation Server, IPv6, Windows Networking Technologies, developer tools on the Windows Azure platform and, most recently, Retail Help at Amazon. All have been (or are presently) very exciting to me because of their cutting-edge and game-changing qualities.

What are some important skills that a technical writer needs to develop?

  • Writing – You have to be a really, really strong writer. As the adage goes, "practice makes perfect." Reading a lot helps even more. An abiding love for the perfection of the craft: That's the idea.
  • Design – Know how to present information, when to use graphics, when text is getting in the way, etc. Understand all of the aspects of content architecture and get to the point where you can innovate and define some of the requirements yourself.
  • Passion for technology – You have to love technology as much as or more than any hobby or endeavor that you've ever pursued. You live it. You are a tester, a hacker, a gadgeteer – and as part of understanding how technology works, also focus on understanding why some technology doesn't. In essence, you want to understand technology fully, deeply, broadly, and in any other way imaginable.
  • Investigation – You must think of yourself as a "beat reporter" of technology. Like the news, technology changes daily. You walk your beat and learn as much as you can, whenever you can. Remember, though, that it's not all "work": It's also finding things about technology that you connect with, and the fun of not knowing where that will lead.
  • Empathy – This is fundamental. Without it, your work is relatively thin. You have to understand customers. You have to know what they need to do, what they want, what motivates them. You have to get inside their heads and deliver the answers to their questions, the steps to the tasks that matter most, the value that makes your product the best instead of anything less.
  • Simplicity – You take really complex stuff and make it easy to read, understand, and act upon. Your content must be easy to consume, and easy to use. It should answer questions about tasks and scenarios instead of being mere descriptions of the technology itself. Your content makes your technology stand apart from competitors. Not an easy task; but if it sounds like a fun challenge to you, you’re probably a natural technical writer.

What advice do you have for a new or aspiring technical writer?

Well…I hope you've been taking notes. No, seriously, I recommend reading a ton of technical documentation. Think a lot about what works and what doesn't. Emulate the best and think about how you would improve the worst. Help your neighbors with their technical challenges. Write easy-to-follow instructions for your grandmother, so she can send mail, check Facebook, and print a letter. Do whatever it takes to understand users and think about what they need. Whether you end up writing a Getting Started guide for Garage Band or API docs for a developer framework, you need to understand your audience. Practice, practice, practice…and then practice some more. It's like muscle memory. You get better and better at asking the right questions, thinking about the right objectives, and delivering the right content.

How has the profession changed over the years? Where do you see it heading in the future?

I think that the profession has grown from one of specification to scenario. In the past, technical writers covered technologies as fully and completely as possible. In many cases, they attempted to describe all of the capabilities, features, and functions. And, let's be clear about this…technology often provides a very large and rich set of possibilities.

I think today, however, that some of the best in the profession are most interested in what the majority of people are actually trying to accomplish. Sure, this comes with descriptions of technologies, but the emphasis is on the set of tasks that someone can actually do. It doesn't matter if you're a developer, an IT admin, an information worker, or someone trying to send e-mail. You want to get something done. Time is precious (you might not even have a minute to spare), so you want content that gets you to the point of "done" with whatever it is that you are trying to do. Simple, concise, minimal, and very specific. That's how I think things have changed. I expect more of the same in the future.

More from Chris Clements

Darren B. Lurie
STC Washington, DC – Baltimore Chapter member
Washington, DC

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