How Technical Writing Made Me a Better Author

I’ve been in technical communications field for eight years now—first as a technical editor for six years, and currently as a technical writer for two years and counting. Regardless of what kind of products I was reading or writing about, or which company I was working for, the core skills remained the same. And I believe those skills have strengthened my work as a fiction writer as well.

Here are some of things technical editing and writing has taught me:

Pay attention to word choice and repetition.

To write in what’s called global English, the key is to use as few words as possible to make a point, and use those same words consistently. While brevity is not usually a problem for me, noticing word usage was a skill developed over time. See, when you’re installing software, for example, you want to “Click the button” or “Tap the button” if it’s a touch screen. If you pepper the document with “Select the button” or “Hit the button” just to spice it up, that’s going to increase your translation costs and potentially muddy the meaning of your words.

In fiction, it’s encouraged to vary your word choice. If you use a word too often, especially if it’s a fancy word, your readers will notice, and it could take them out of the story. You also don’t want to be too wordy, unless maybe you’re writing literary fiction. Then, you do you, you profound being. Whether I’m reviewing my work or someone else’s, I use the same type of editing skills to ensure consistency, or lack of consistency, depending.

Fact checking is important.

Working with subject-matter experts (SMEs) is a necessary part of the tech writing gig. It’s something I was mostly shielded from as a technical editor, but I saw the frustration some of the writers had to go through. Now, I work with engineers daily to make the best content possible, and it’s not always easy. In the end, we all want to make our products safe and user friendly, and we have to work together to do that.

No one’s going to get injured reading my books, presumably. But, having facts that don’t line up will frustrate the reader and possibly result in negative reviews. For example, Brit with the Pink Hair takes place in Toronto, where I’ve been a couple times, but that’s it. I had a Canadian beta read it for me, and she was able to let me know the aquarium I referred to had only been there for five years when I had my 26-year-old character saying she used to go there as a child. Whoops. Sure, I could’ve found that information with a quick Google search, but it didn’t even cross my mind. That’s why I needed a SME.

Formatting is easier using templates.

As technical writers, we live and die by our templates. And if you don’t, you’re probably doing it wrong (sorry). Createspace offered (offers?) a paperback template that I’ve tweaked and used to make all my books so far. For e-books, I use a template in Scrivener, but I’ve recently started using Draft2Digital to format my final e-books, which I highly recommend trying. A template can be as simple as using something you’ve created before and changing the content. Or, you can find a template online if you’re just starting out.

Besides adhering to templates, I’m used to looking for details that equal a professional-looking final product by getting rid of irregularities. These can be things like extra tabs, widows and orphans, jagged margins, inconsistent dashes (don’t get me started), etc. Maybe a reader wouldn’t notice them other than thinking something was “off,” but it all adds up.

It works both ways too! Fiction writing has also helped me in the workplace. Thanks to formatting my paperbacks, I was able to introduce my coworker to section breaks when he ran into a problem in Word. High five!

Live and breathe your brand.

So I’m a nerd and enjoy reading style guides. *Shrug* It just means I’m in the right field. Companies have standards for where their logo should be placed, how big their logo should be, what colors should be used, what fonts should be used, etc. etc.

Authors can learn from that, and I’m still working on being more consistent with my branding.

So, tech comm professionals, did I miss any? Authors with day jobs, how do yours interact with your writing?