Howard’s Web Site:
Mapping the Field of Technical Writing

Last updated 17 June 2007


In this document I’ve had a go at listing the skills I think might be used by a technical writer, to begin to get some idea of the full scope of our profession. Obviously no employer‘s going to expect all these skills—some of them are quite peripheral. My intention’s not to frighten off aspiring technical writers, but rather to begin to create a map of this ill-defined territory—one that can be modified and added to—in the hope that we all get a better understanding of who’s out there and so can maybe better represent our profession.

I left out generic skills like team-building, priority-setting, etc, that I thought didn’t contribute to defining the field of technical writing. I almost certainly also left out other important skills simply because of ignorance or oversight—and I could well have misrepresented others for the same reasons. I intended this to be a collaborative document and I’m well aware that this first attempt is limited by my own experience. Please me your input and (polite) suggestions, if you want me to incorporate them here, or feel free to use anything here as part of your own document.

Please don’t assign any importance to the order in which I’ve listed the skills. Once we’re satisfied that this map adequately covers the ground, the next step would probably be to distinguish which areas in this map are the most important—which correspond to skills that should be in every technical writer’s repertoire—and which areas are right out on the boundary—corresponding, perhaps, to specialist areas that have little demand, or perhaps to specialist areas that may be in demand but properly belong in the map of another profession.

One important thing we could do would be to identify, and come up with names for, some of the most common groups of skills, to give both technical writers and employers a language to talk more precisely about skills and requirements.


Thanks to all those who sent email with suggestions and corrections—notably Daryl Colquhoun, Rhonda Bracey, Michelle Hallett and Irene Wong. I’m also very grateful for valuable input from members of the ACT branch of the ASTC, particularly Deborah Cross—though I can’t be sure I captured everyone’s comments accurately (please give me your input again if I missed it!).    Hide

Language skills






Plain English, jargon-busting

rhetorical techniques, persuasive writing

writing for an international audience

organising and managing translations


writing for an audience, reader empathy

Experience with different ‘genres’ (types of deliverable)

policies and procedures


marketing material

specification documents



maintenance documentation

quick reference guides

training and support materials

on-line help

Analytical skills

coming to grips with complex concepts

extracting information from technical data

asking intelligent questions, interviewing subject-matter experts

searching for information

organising information

audience analysis

indexing, classification, categorising, structuring

end user/audience analysis

information analysis

information architecture/structure

People skills

interviewing and other (legal) methods of extracting information

cultural sensitivity


word-processing (Word, FrameMaker, Write, WordPerfect, LaTeX, etc)

on-line documentation tools (RoboHelp, etc)

web editing tools (Dreamweaver, FrontPage, HTML editors)

content management systems (AuthorIT, TeamSite, Vignette, Documentum, Zope)

screen capture and recording (HyperSnap, SnagIt, Captivate, Camtasia)

spreadsheets (Excel, Calc, etc)

presentation tools (PowerPoint, Impress, etc)

database tools (Access, etc)

desktop publishing (Publisher, InDesign, etc)

graphics editors (Illustrator, CorelDraw, Visio, PhotoShop, …)

version management software (VSS, Subversion, etc)

video and film-making equipment/editors (FinalCut Pro, Adobe Premiere)


familiarity with the basic concepts and methods of graphics software (including the distinction between vector-based and raster-based graphics)

knowledge of formats used for storing graphical data

Design skills

presenting information

visual layout


Document management, QA

version control

implementation of QA systems

use of version management software (see above)

user interface design and manipulation

Standards and Legal Requirements

familiarity with specific industry standards

implementation of standards

creating and using style guides


Subject-specific knowledge

engineering background

IT concepts and terminology (programming, databases, networking, release management, …)

financial concepts

medical concepts

Web design

basic concepts, use of Dreamweaver, FrontPage, etc



scripting (JavaScript, CGI scripting, …)

advanced techniques (ASP, PHP, …)


heuristic analysis

Information management

content management


search algorithms


devising exercises


learning needs analysis


adult learning concepts


Ancillary skills

business analysis

business processes, ITIL, Prince 2

software testing



documentation project management




interface design

user/usability testing


knowledge of processes of printing (offset, bleeding, imposition, binding)