John Espirian is Google UK’s top-ranked provider of technical writing services. A freelance editorial consultant, he is also a director of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. John recently spoke with us about technical writing, screencasts, and editing and proofreading.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be a freelance writer.
I started out as an in-house software and hardware tester for Internet service providers in the United Kingdom. Later, I moved into the field of quality assurance and managed a team responsible for ensuring consistent standards of communication. Having written and edited content for internal and external customers, I eventually decided to set up my own business as a freelance technical writer; and I went solo at the end of 2009. Since then, I’ve worked with some big clients in the UK and beyond.
For a company, what are some of the advantages of hiring a freelance writer instead of just assigning the task to someone in-house?
Many companies don’t have a permanent requirement for writing services. Rather than hand the task of writing to an existing member of staff who probably isn’t trained for that role, it’s better (and sometimes cheaper) to bring an expert on board as and when needed. Could an in-house employee do the job if they really had to? Perhaps. But just as you wouldn’t ask a doctor to do a bit of dentistry, you wouldn’t give most employees a writing brief and expect them to produce good content.
A freelance communications pro will bring not only a fresh pair of eyes but also a talent for understanding the needs of the business – and, crucially, the needs of the intended audience. The result is better content and less stress for in-house staff, who can get on with their core job instead of worrying about how to fill a blank Word document.
Could you define the term “technical writing” for us and tell us what industries or types of clients you serve as a technical writer?
“Technical writing” exists to instruct the reader. It informs and educates, placing an emphasis on structure and process. This approach naturally lends itself to content such as help guides, installation instructions, and procedural documents. On the other hand, “copywriting” exists to influence the reader. It uses the language of emotion to bring about a change in behavior, often to sell a product.
To give an example of the difference between the two skills, a technical writer would be hired to describe the industrial process of roasting cocoa beans. A copywriter would be hired to describe the smell of a freshly brewed pot of Sunday morning coffee. Both sorts of writers are “describers,” but each has a different purpose.
I usually work with large businesses, but the work is too varied to fall into a neat category. In the past, I have written about TV remote controls, energy-management systems, and university research programs.
What are the hallmarks of a skilled technical writer?
It’s essential to understand the needs of the audience and then deliver content that’s clear and simple. A skilled technical writer makes difficult subject matter easy to consume. Nobody wants to read walls of text, so the modern tech writer has to break content into small, navigable chunks, using visuals to support their message.
Subject matter experience isn’t as important as you might think, but the ability to soak up dense technical information is. Tech writers also need some aptitude in using modern documentation tools such as MadCap Flare or Adobe RoboHelp.
What are some of the most common mistakes you’ve seen in technical writing in recent years?
The biggest mistake is that writers produce content that doesn’t meet the needs of users. A user manual that simply lists all the features of a product isn’t likely to be read by anyone other than the product manager. Instead, writers should remember that the audience will usually read their content to help them achieve a task. “This steam iron has 17 modes” isn’t going to be helpful. “How to iron a woolen shirt” will be much more effective. With attention spans seemingly decreasing all the time, simple, task-driven technical writing is what’s needed.
How does the personal skillset for technical writing differ from that of a typical web copywriter?
I think technical writers are naturally more analytical than typical web copywriters. Researching and making sense of very difficult and often dry subject matter can be taxing, and so the ability to concentrate for long periods is a great skill for a tech writer. That isn’t to say that copywriting is easy in comparison, but copywriting is a far more creative sort of work. Flashes of inspiration can be enough to lay the foundations for an evocative piece of creative writing. Such insights wouldn’t suffice when it came to, say, writing a human resources guide for a corporation.
There are plenty of similarities between technical writers and copywriters: they need to have a desire to communicate clearly and really speak to the audience. But I think that’s true of anyone who wants to make a living from their writing.
You also provide screencasts for clients. What are screencasts, and what purpose do they serve? What benefits do they provide that written content does not?
Screencasts are short video recordings, usually of a computer screen rather than of a person in front of a camera. Screencasts provide a means to communicate technical ideas quickly and clearly.
The Internet is now populated by the YouTube generation. A growing proportion of online users simply don’t want to read instructions. They will search for video first when they need to know how to do something. Writing alone isn’t going to cut it for much longer. People want and expect visuals, and we can and should deliver what they want. This is why technical writers should think about repositioning themselves as technical “communicators.”
Screencasting requires different tools from technical writing – microphones, screen-recording software, etc. – and the process takes some practice. It’s a good differentiator for my business, as many other technical writers focus only on producing written content. I try to go beyond that, producing whatever is most effective for the target audience. The best results usually involve a combination of written and visual content.
If someone said to you, “I don’t need an editor or proofreader for my web copy. My spell-check and grammar software do the job just fine,” what would be your response?
Automated spellchecks will pick up only basic errors. They often won’t pick up correctly spelled words that have been used wrongly. But a good editorial professional will pick up far more than these basics. They will look at tone, consistency, phrasing, and much more. A well-edited piece of writing will present the message in the best way possible while retaining the author’s “voice.” In this sense, great editing is invisible.
The benefits are clear. Readers are far likelier to trust content that has been written and edited to a high standard. No one appreciates text full of mistakes, sloppy phrasing, and messy structure. Editors and proofreaders bring the key messages into focus, and that can only serve to improve the reading experience.
In addition, modern web editors can work with content producers to help them achieve their SEO aims. Molding content to make it more discoverable is an important skill that many editors now offer as a service.
Where do you see the occupation of freelance technical writing in the next five to ten years?
I think long-form technical writing is already well on the way out. Users expect technical documents to be easy to understand, and so I believe that visual communication will become an important skill to master. Google says that video will account for 69% of all online data traffic by 2017. Imagine how high that figure will be in another 10 years. I suspect that technical writers who don’t embrace the move towards video may be left behind. My advice is to stay ahead of the curve by learning these new technologies as soon as possible. The best time to start is now.
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