Technical Writer in Training: Trial and Error

My third week as a technical writer is coming to a close and I think I’m getting my bearings, slowly but surely.

In the past three weeks I’ve written two minor release notes, one fairly large one, and two newsletter articles. I read Adobe RoboHelp HTML 10: The Essentials, The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing, the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, and Medical Billing: A Practical Guide, and now I’m settling in to pour over my department’s manuals and release notes in an attempt to learn the software and absorb the cadence of technical writing.

This is all just trial-and-error, but here are a few things I’ve been doing that I think are helping me get up to speed in a new company and a new field:

  • Playing with the technology. I spent my entire first week reading Adobe RoboHelp HTML 10 and following along on the computer. I started as a complete novice and now I feel comfortable creating, editing, and publishing help projects, at least on a basic level.
  • Taking notes. Every time I sit down with my boss or a team member, I take notes as profusely as possible. At the end of every week, I distill those notes into a Word document, organizing them, reiterating what I’ve learned, and creating a searchable reference resource for myself.
  • Gaining background knowledge. Before I read Medical Billing: a Practical Guide, I had a vague idea of what my company’s software did – heck, I had a vague idea of what my company did. Then I spent an afternoon learning about medical claims and the billing process and now… I still have a limited understanding of the subject, but the jargon is no longer foreign to me and I describe in broad strokes the purpose of the software I’m writing documentation for. That’s kind of important, right?
  • Creating my own style guide. My department already has a style guide, but I’m a kinesthetic learner and as such I am never going to memorize a list of capitalization rules posted on a website, so I created my own style guide. I retyped the whole document, adding additional categories as I work my way through the existing documentation. Every time I notice a “rule”, I add it to the guide, and every time I notice an inconsistency I make a note of it so I can ask for clarification.
  • Learning how to write. When Hunter S. Thompson first began to write fiction, he used a typewriter to copy the entire texts of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms in order to learn about the writing styles of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I decided to try a similar experiment – whenever I have down time, I transcribe the text of existing documentation into a Word document. I am at once reading the documentation, learning about the software, and attempting to develop muscle memory for the writing style of a technical manual. The jury is still out on the efficacy, but because I’m a weirdo, I quite enjoy the transcribing.

I have a million more things to say, but in the interest of brevity I’ll save it for next week.

*Originally posted on theleastshrew.com*

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