A technical writer’s character traits

Indexing

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!

Final thoughts

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.

A technical writer’s character traits

13 thoughts on “A technical writer’s character traits

  • February 11, 2015 at 2:46 pm
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    The MBTI stuff is well and good. But I don’t think it gets to the heart of what makes someone a good technical writer.

    Sharon Burton, who understands technical writers as well as anyone, maintains that curiosity is the Number 1 trait. She’s right: being curious, constantly wanting to learn, is essential. Without it, you won’t last long as a technical writer.

    A good technical writer also needs to be creative — to create a product that’s readable and visually appealing, to find solutions to vexing problems, and to see the world a little differently than everyone else.

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    • February 11, 2015 at 4:25 pm
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      I agree, creativity is important if you want to be a good TW. However I don’t think curiosity and willingness to learn are specific enough to TW alone. Aren’t they just as important for all vocations?

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      • February 12, 2015 at 10:09 am
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        George – thank you too for your comment. I’m sure ‘curiosity’ is important for many professions, but I wouldn’t agree that it’s essential for all. I sometimes think that I would be a good police inspector because my curiosity, analysis and organisational traits are also required for that. But there are many vocations that benefit by people being able to carry out routines without being distracted by wondering ‘what if’. As for ‘willingness to learn’, yes just about everyone will succeed in life if they are keen to not only learn quickly and well, but also work hard… but some of that depends on finding the vocation that interests you (scientist/nurse/diplomat/etc.), i.e. suits your natural traits!

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        • February 12, 2015 at 2:00 pm
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          Yes, it’s fair to say that having the natural tendencies you listed will help someone get off to a good start in technical writing. Curiosity and creativity need to be the underpinnings. It might help to mention that, for me, there’s a lot of overlap between “creative” and “analytical.”

          You mentioned the fill-in-the-blanks jobs, the ones that deliberatly restrict variance and creativity. Those are precisely the jobs that have become commoditized, that are usually done by the lowest-paid people in the profession. Yes, those jobs exist. But I’d say that if you want any kind of meaningful future in technical writing, you need to brush up on your creative/analytical skills.

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          • February 12, 2015 at 3:42 pm
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            Larry, I agree with most of what you say in these replies (as I do generally in your blogs, posts, STC comments, etc.). I think that you and are may be fortunate in that we have opportunities when starting projects, and indeed in the daily write, to be creative – compared with some who are more limited. And while the majority of the vocations that don’t lend themselves to creativity are the lower-skilled and lower-paid ones, there are some where order and precision are vital that are not down at that end of the scale (e.g. accountancy).
            The only point you make I’m curious to hear more about is the “a lot of overlap between ‘creative’ and ‘analytical’.”… To me and the dictionary “analytical” is “using logical reasoning” whereas “creative” is the “use of the imagination” and so I would see the overlap as minimal. But sure, to excel as a technical communicator, you need to not only be logical, analytical, orderly and precise but also be creative as far as your remit and financial constraints permit.
            It’s something I love about my job – the way I need to have so many different skills to analyse a project’s needs, question with genuine curiosity the details, consider options, creatively design solutions, and work methodically and with precision, and be willing to adjust where it becomes appropriate, to arrive at a final output. Not many people have all the traits and skills required in the right proportions!

          • February 12, 2015 at 5:01 pm
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            Thanks, David. Where creative and analytical overlap is in the act of confronting a problem (or any situation) and finding the best way to respond. One needs analytical skills to get a true grasp of the situation and assess the various options; and one needs creativity to find responses that might not be obvious, that might be “out of the box.”

    • February 12, 2015 at 10:06 am
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      Larry – thanks very much for your reply. Yes indeed, I do agree that ‘curiosity’ is very important for a technical writer. Good point. But that alone clearly wouldn’t be enough – the technical writer needs to ‘analyse’ the details and ‘organise’ their findings into an appropriate structure (both at the macro and micro scales). But whether being ‘creative’ is crucial, I think it depends on your specific role – many technical authors are given strict formatting and structural rules to follow that deliberately restrict variance and creativity (gladly, for most of my projects, I’m not!). I think the fascinating thing from looking at Myers-Briggs and other character trait studies, is realising that each profession attracts people with certain (and different) natural tendencies, but nobody has ALL the traits and skills, so we all have to work on improving the things we’re not naturally good at. It just is a good start if you naturally have most. … Does that sound fair to you?

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  • February 19, 2015 at 8:12 pm
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    I agree that curiosity is vital (one of my clients calls me ‘Craig Why?’), but there are other vital ingredients that can make or break a tech writer. Two in particular strike me as important:

    *Empathy – not just for the end user but for SMEs too. I see lots of tech writers who understand what the end user wants and needs, but don’t empathise with SMEs anywhere near as effectively. Being able to connect with, and relate to, SMEs is just as important as understanding end users….if you are in the SME’s bad books, good luck with getting your work done on time.

    *Ability to learn. Sometimes being curious isn’t enough. Asking the right questions is one thing, understanding the answers (and quickly) is another. A tech writer who struggles to pick things up quickly will struggle in a fast-paced environment.

    Humility, thick skin, and an ability to admit you don’t understand are crucial too.

    As for the creativity argument…has nobody else had to think creatively to organise content or figure out what content can be used for single-sourcing? Sometimes the most logical way of structuring things isn’t actually the most useful (or future-proof). It’s not just about the look and feel, creativity plays a part in how we resolve problems too, surely?

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    • February 23, 2015 at 9:05 am
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      Thanks, Craig, for these comments.
      Yes, indeed, you’ve added a couple of traits / skills that aren’t at the top of most people’s list but are definitely needed to excel as a technical author… Empathy isn’t something that comes naturally to many technical writers but the ability to communicate well with human beings as well as computers is vital! And, I agree, having both humility and a thick skin are a huge benefit.
      I think what this shows is that it takes far more than most people realise to be an excellent technical writer, and requires most people to improve the skills that don’t come naturally to them.

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    • March 11, 2015 at 4:55 pm
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      I think it’s interesting that the categories you came up with were all I’s and T’s, no extroversion or ‘feeling’ characteristics. I think tech writers need a little bit of both introvert and extrovert – it definitely takes a self-motivated person to do a job that is largely solitary, but an extrovert’s heart can be very helpful when advocating for your department, getting invited to meetings, getting the answers you need from SMEs, etc.

      Obviously there are limitations to any kind of categorization that attempts to lump an entire group of people into a few characteristics, but overall those traits seem about right.

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      • March 12, 2015 at 12:36 pm
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        Hi Kaylin. Thanks for your comment.
        I only stated the most common MBTI categories, but of course there will be technical writers who come from all 16 categories. And, yes, there will be a few character traits that are more prevalent in those categories that would be useful in a job like technical writing (and the extrovert’s willingness to spend time with others is definitely one). However, they would have to develop the skills that they don’t possess naturally to fully succeed as a technical author – which everyone does to some extent of course, only the people not in the INTJ / ISTJ / INTP categories may have more that they need to develop for a successful technical communications career.
        This was part of the reason for the article, to point out that to excel as a technical author needs a large range of traits and skills, and that while some people may naturally possess many it’s true that everyone needs to work on those areas not comfortable to them.

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      • March 12, 2015 at 6:08 pm
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        Well, I don’t think you need to be an extrovert to fight your own corner. That might just be down to my interpretation though.

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  • March 13, 2015 at 10:52 am
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    Craig, yes it’s an interesting point, and widely slightly misinterpreted, about the differences between introverts and extroverts in a psychological sense… and you’re absolutely right that an introvert can have strong opinions and principles and want to defend them.
    The real difference between the two is in which world do they feel most comfortable, the inner world (e.g. thoughts) or the outer world (e.g. people) and want to spend their time and direct their energy? But because extroverts like being with other people more than on their own, they tend to be very comfortable in group discussions. But that’s not to say that, for instance, INTJs don’t have strong principles that they will defend vehemently.
    So, it’s complicated. Broad categories and identifying character traits, skills and personality types, can help identify and improve the understanding of oneself and others… But we’re all individuals and we’re all different (to quote Monty Python) and so must find our own ways to become excellent technical communicators by making the most of our own strengths and reducing our own weaknesses.

    Reply

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