Interview With Raymond Dumont

Get advice from experts in the field of tech writing!

Dr. Raymond Dumont, from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is a retired professor who directed the master's degree program in Professional Writing. Dr. Dumont also taught graduate-level professional and technical writing courses. He has developed online courses in professional writing and has given faculty training workshops on computer technology.

How has the tech writing field changed?
When I first started working in the field, tech writers were more involved with the end product. Now, they participate in the creation of the product, too. In smart companies, tech writers are part of a team; they work with the engineers, the designers, and the marketing staff. So the broader the tech writer's skills are the better that tech writer will be.

How important do you think it is for tech writers to have a background in science or engineering?
A technical background helps especially with the higher level jobs. It's important to keep in mind, though, that tech writers need to be able to write clearly, effectively, and efficiently. Unfortunately, these skills are hard to find. In fact, many scientists, engineers, and software designers make bad tech writers.

Tech writers also have to be good readers and interviewers.

They have to read technical information, understand it, and then translate it for a lay audience. But, tech writers also have to ask the right questions so they can elicit the desired responses from engineers, software developers, and the like. Because technology is changing so fast, it's important that tech writers be adaptable. They need to create flexibility for themselves.

If I were to create an ideal tech writer, I'd want that person to have some science and business background, preferably in marketing, and some programming skills. But beyond that, she should have outstanding problem solving skills. I've seen so-called tech writers ask someone to fix a minor software problem. If they can't solve problems for themselves, how are they going to do it for others?

What courses would you recommend future tech writers take?
Take as many writing courses as possible, including those in journalism and scientific writing. Document design and graphic design courses are very important as well. With so much being done with the web, tech writers need to know what makes for an effective web site. Along the same lines, introductory courses in programming languages would be helpful.

Final comments?
What you need to understand about tech writing is its tie to products. As technology expands, more and more products are developed. These products need effective documentation so customers can use them. Oftentimes the documentation is so bad, though, people become frustrated and use only a small part of the product's overall functions.

Another point is that some tech writers get caught up in wiz-bang features, like web sites with unnecessary animation. One of the most comical examples is a coffee web site that has all kinds of information on different blends of coffee, but no clear way to order the coffee. Bad design. Bad layout. Lost customers.