1. Fundamentals

A good technical communicator___

  1. is a master of basics (grammar, spelling, syntax, etc.);
  2. is a skillful proofreader;
  3. knows the principles of routine editing, and particularly the forms of editing his/her document is subject to according to the discipline or industry its content concerns;
  4. understands indexing, since this crucial part of the document might be his/her responsibility;  
  5. knows the approved dictionaries and general style guides;
  6. knows the specialist style guides that are considered standard in the discipline or industry that the document's content concerns; and
  7. is familiar with the essentials of design, layout, typography, and readability.

S/he must have solid ability in written language and a meticulous eye, both for the intricacies of grammar and syntax and the printed word itself.[1] Few things damage a document’s credibility more than a rash of typographical or (even worse) grammatical errors, yet proofreading is regarded by many writers as, like indexing, a mechanical sub-process unworthy of status as a significant component of the art; but simple ‘noise’ can and does render documents redundant.

Standard works on writing are plentiful,[2] and a competent technical communicator needs, at the very least, to know of them. Style guides and more particularly specialist reference works deserve a place in the arsenal of every technical communicator, as every field has its conventions and idiosyncrasies.

Depending on the organization in which the technical communicator works, s/he might have no influence in broader design, visual, or readability issues. But if s/he has, their importance ought not be understated: studies by Schriver and Hartley (1994) concluded systematic spacing increases readability, and Keys (1993) found that using colour and typography to good effect enhances clarity.

Knowing what is likely to be edited out of a document might obviate much of the editor’s role, but nevertheless hones a measured and precise writing style. Understanding the principles of editing has a secondary benefit: at some point, it is probable the writer will graduate to organizational work that will likely involve quality control duties, of which editing will almost certainly be one. Technical communicators, of whom so many cannot resist overwriting, should recall that Redish (1993) reported after studies that people read only as much as they have to and no more.[3]

[1] The days of the pica rule may be drawing to a close, but 14 of the 25 respondents to my questionnaire wrote that leaving mistakes in work was a habit of the worse technical communicators they had encountered.

[2] Of these, Strunk and White: The Elements of Style; Blake and Bly: The Elements of Technical Writing; and Bernstein: The Careful Writer – A Modern Guide to English Usage are among the most often cited in authoritative bibliographies. Key general reference works include the Chicago Manual of Style, Oxford Style Guide, Oxford English Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. More specialist resources are as numerous as the subject fields they strive to cover: McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms, Newton’s Telecom Dictionary, American Medical Association Manual, and the Microsoft Style Guide, are indispensable to communicators whose writing even touches on such content.

[3] Sageev (1994) reported that a 1986 study found managers at 150 research and development companies spent about 30% of their time reading reports, memos, proposals, and various other technical documents. Similarly, Paradis, Dobrin, & Miller (1985) found managers at Exxon spent on average 35% of their time reading non-essential information.