“What makes a good technical writer?” … a question frequently asked on Armada’s Technical Writing, RoboHelp, FrameMaker and Flare training courses, particularly those relatively new to technical writing. The answer, of course, cannot be both concise and comprehensive, though below I summarise what I think are the personality types and character traits suited to technical communication.
People are different
When I write “personality types” I refer to studies like the excellent Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®), which identifies personality types, categorises people by them into sixteen groups, and then explains the relative natural strengths and weaknesses of each group. Personally, I have found that learning to appreciate the fact that, put simply, “people are different” by the comprehension of these personality types, has made me better at my job and more appreciative of the skills others have that I don’t. I do firmly believe that it would be advantageous to us all (in personal, social and work relationships) if we understand each other better and understand ourselves better.
It makes sense that some people are more suited to some vocations than others. Clearly, different professions require different skills. But more than that… judges, social workers, politicians, painters, librarians, technical communicators, and so on, need different character traits and personality types to succeed.
In MBTI terms, there are four pairs of contrasting character preference: Introvert & Extrovert; Intuition & Sensing; Feeling & Thinking; Perceiving & Judging. These are abbreviated to I/E, N/S, F/T and P/J. Someone can be categorised as an INFP, an ESTJ, and so on, depending on which of the contrasting character preferences they instinctively favour – and there are sixteen groups. So, some people are more comfortable in certain scenarios requiring certain skills than others. People can learn and develop new skills but they would be outside their ‘comfort zone’, e.g. doing stand-up comedy, chairing a lively meeting, caring for people with severe mental health needs, writing easy-to-follow context-sensitive help, and so on.
The traits of a technical writer
Technical writers, like all professionals, are not evenly split amongst the sixteen groups. About half of us fall into the INTJ, INTP and ISTJ groups – even though these three groups make up just 15% of the population:
- INTJs can be called “strategists” and usually have most of the following character traits:
Rational; Thoughtful; Analytical; Organised; Reserved; Objective; Determined; Independent; Innovative; Dedicated; Theoretical; Strategic; Perfectionist; Self-confident.
INTJs often consider options carefully, quietly and fully before stating their opinion or making their move. They rarely talk about their feelings. Their self-confidence is not arrogance.
- ISTJs can be called “inspectors” and usually have the most of following character traits:
Rational; Reserved; Realistic; Orderly; Controlled; Practical; Objective; Methodical; Responsible; Detail-Oriented; Pragmatic.
ISTJs are organisers who enjoy creating and upholding order. They are usually no-nonsense individuals who strongly maintain that function is more important than aesthetics.
- INTPs can be called “engineers” and usually have the most of following character traits:
Rational; Innovative; Analytical; Tolerant; Objective; Open-minded; Thoughtful; Changeable; Cool; Theoretical; Self-reliant.
INTPs are strongly individualistic personalities who like to focus on ideas, details, theories – they want to fully understand how the things work. They like to discuss their ideas and debate, and improve the current mechanisms and solve difficult problems.
You may have noticed that there is some similarity or overlap between the groups with character traits like being rational and analytical. These are essential to being a good technical writer. However, to be an exceptional and versatile technical writer, I believe you need more – the need to be able to see the whole picture (to plan the entire help/manual) as well as focus on the extreme detail (for accuracy) … and both get on well with others (programmers, analysts, fellow writers) and self-motivate (work efficiently on your own). And of course, there are additional, specific skills required: analysing systems/products, formulating thoughts, using technology, and writing clearly!
So, how many of these character traits do you possess? If you don’t have any, that might explain why technical writing seems so hard to you! If you have the majority, then that’s a good start!
…Are there important character traits and skills I haven’t mentioned? Do let me know what you think.