5 Questions Every Technical Writer Needs to Ask

One of the best skills a technical writer can bring to a company is the ability to ask good questions. When a technical writer shows up at your firm, he should be inquisitive and eager to learn about your content. Starting with the same kit of questions a journalist uses (what, who, why, where, when, how) the technical writer works with subject matter experts to ferret out the information the end user needs.

1. What is it?


Despite claims to the contrary, not knowing the particulars about a thing can put a technical writer at a distinct advantage. Why? It’s about empathy—about 75% of the time, technical writers are writing for people who share their initial ignorance, so they ask the best questions.

Subject matter experts, by contrast, may suffer knowledge blindness, a form of ennui brought on by over-exposure to the content. Experts have been so exposed to the difficulties of the subject matter, they can hardly remember how hard it was for them to learn it. As a result, assumptions are made, steps are skipped, and conclusions are drawn that seem premature to the reader.

A good technical writer exposes these oversights and writes with the fresh perspective of the reader who is new to the content.

Questions to ask:

  • What is it?
  • What is it used for?
  • What problem does it solve?

2. Who is it for?

Know Your Audience

Technical documents fail not so much because of poor content but because of poor audience assessment. As you can imagine, a software guide that patiently explains what a computer is to an audience of programmers is going to miss the mark—by a long shot! It’s about finding the Goldilocks zone of information—not too basic, not too complex, just right.

I took a PHP programming course in which the instructor got up one morning and launched into 45-minute lesson on how to use “regex”. I couldn’t follow him at all until my thirst for context finally overcame my patience and I blurted out “Where would you use regex?” To which he replied, “Everywhere?” That was clearly no help to me, so I opted for the reductio ad absurdum argument and said “Like on salad?”

This was likely the instructor’s first glimmer that perhaps I was in the wrong class, and this also coincided with him assuming a more condescending tone with me until the end of the term. He was otherwise a good instructor but made the blunder of forgetting that his audience was more novice (in my case, infinitely more) than he.

Armed with a good working knowledge of the audience for technical content, the writer can provide that needed context. Sometimes, it’s good to risk stating the obvious (that is, provide context even when it’s not necessary) as it provides reassurance or confirmation to all readers.

Part and parcel of knowing your audience is making informed choices about what sort of writing style you should use. If your audience is less educated, for example, prefer a simple direct writing style; whereas, if your audience comes from an academic environment, write in a more formal manner.

Some governmental organizations can tolerate a large amount of passive voice and nominalization (turning verbs into nouns), which other readers would find confusing or even condescending. Which brings me to tone (the other side of style). Tone is your attitude to the reader (or the subject matter). Whether collegial or more reserved, the tone for a document is developed from asking the right sorts of questions about the audience.

Questions to ask:

  • Who is the primary audience for this document?
  • Are there any secondary audiences?
  • What is education level of your audience?

3. Why does your audience need to know?


Where context allows a reader to know the relevance of the content to something already known, purpose allows the reader to know what will be possible as a result of learning this new information.

Going in, very often, the reader has expectations of the document or the subject matter. The reader may already know things about the content or even have prejudices about it. If the writer can anticipate and address these expectations up front, the reader’s job becomes much easier.

Knowing this information may also help the writer tailor what might motivate the reader as well as address any resistance to the subject matter. For example, an in-house technical manual for a workplace automation tool may benefit with a disclaimer that this new innovation is not a prelude to the unemployment line for its readers.

Questions to ask:

  • Why should your readers care to know this information?
  • What expectations do the readers have for this document?
  • As a result of reading your document what will readers be able to do?

4. When do they need to know?


Technical content sometimes has a shelf life that goes beyond ensuring it’s up to date. Sometimes, the information is only relevant to the reader at certain point and then not again. Once when I was working on a set of technical specifications, I found myself in a room with two subject matter expects both arguing about the specifications for the product. How could they be arguing? Aren’t specifications objective?

Once the air cleared, I realized it was not a matter of what we needed to say but where the document was positioned in the Sales funnel (a Marketing term). We were at the beginning, so the prospective buyer only needed to know if our product complied with their equipment standards. Later on (and further down the Sales funnel), the reader would need a different set of specifications that explained in more detail the requirements for installation.

I always provide connecting introductions to sections so that the reader knows if a particular section applies (or not). If a section is dependent on what came before, I mention that. Remember, readers don’t necessarily read technical documents in a linear fashion so it’s helpful to recap with connecting text. Also, readers appreciate knowing if a section doesn’t apply so they can skip it and move on.

Questions to ask:

  • At what part in the process/workflow does this apply?
  • What conditions apply?
  • What exceptions occur?

5. What’s the Structure?


Technical documents are not like novels—nobody curls up by the fire with their lapdog and a snifter of brandy to read their favourite technical manual cover to cover. No. Technical documents are only read when there’s a need. As a result, they’re highly structured to allow the reader to jump about as needed.

Creating the structure for a document is called outlining. The outlining stage of writing ensures the document is laid out in a logical and functional way. An outline usually appears as a document skeleton—just a structure, no details. Once approved, the writer fills in the skeleton with paragraph text. Think of a table of contents that precedes a nonfiction book: Major headings of equal value interspersed with sub headings containing subordinate content.

There’s a design element to structure too. Although readers tend to jump and skip around until they find the specific piece of information they need, technical documents are still written in a narrative (or chronological), so good structure (reinforced with heading styles) leads the reader’s eyes to your intended point of focus.

Questions to ask:

  • What’s the logical flow of the information?
  • What are the major components?
  • Where do sub components fit?

Do you have any questions about your documentation needs? Let’s talk.