The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Technical Writers

Jan 24, 2016   //   by Barry Saiff   //   Blog, Concepts and Definitions, How-To, Reference Articles  //  19 Comments

A Technical Writer’s maximum potential can be uncovered through developing these 7 habits, regardless of which country they are operating in:

1. Do not take it personally (learn)

Don't take it personally

Great technical writers thrive on criticism. They understand  that it enables them to improve, and to improve the accuracy and readability of their content. So, don’t take criticism personally. Use it to your advantage.

2. Learn before asking (respect, impress)

Learn before asking

Learn as much as you can from available resources before asking questions. In this way, you can respect others’ time and impress your colleagues with your ability to ask intelligent questions.

3. Ask (often)


Technical writing requires good people skills. Don’t attempt it alone. Ask questions. Ask for help.

4. REWRITE (always)


Pick 3 of your favorite writers. If you were able to see their first drafts, you’d probably think, “I can do much better.” The best writers in the world are the best re-writers. Always rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more.

5. Acquire Feedback (test, reviews)

Acquire Feedback

Technical writing is almost never 100% on the first draft. Without adequate testing and review, accuracy is often unattainable. Make sure you get the feedback you need to excel.

6. Understand (before publishing)


When you start, you may not fully understand your subject matter. That’s fine. By the time you publish, make sure you do understand. If you don’t understand what you write, your readers are not likely to understand it, either.

7. Contribute


Notice things. Does the prototype work as expected? Are the user interface labels capitalized consistently? Ask questions. Make suggestions. Be a part of the product team.

Agree or disagree? We’d love to hear your comments below.


  • Nice advice which is very useful.

  • I think these habits are dead on! Totally agree!

  • Nice Tips. Main practice that Writers should adopt

  • Excellent list!

  • Thanks, these are great! What does everyone think about: don’t wait for direction (especially as a lone writer). Do everything else on the list, but also don’t wait to set your own direction. Priotize making a difference for customers. Keep an open mind as to who has contributions to make in any area of the project, including for them in content strategy, and for yourself in design or wherever … again, especially as a lone writer.

  • Thanks for your comment, Sheldon. I think whether “don’t wait for direction” applies or not really depends on a lot of factors. If, for example, you are a brand new technical writer on a team of experienced writers, it might be wise to hold back before publishing, and seek peer review first. I think the 7th step, Contribute, sort of covers this – make suggestions, raise issues.

  • Great list. I’d also add “Consider where/why/how users will access the content before starting”. Having a clear understanding of user interaction can inform every other choice in the process.

  • Probably the most important thing I learned at the beginning of my 35 year career as a free lance contract tech writer was that my writing was not “my writing.” Everything I produced belonged to my employer. I wasn’t writing a novel or a feature article or a love letter, I was putting into words what my employer wanted me to say, the way he or she wanted me to say it. You really don’t become an effective tech writer until you get past the ego thing.

  • Sheldon wrote that tech writers should take control and set their own direction. As a free lancer I worked on over 20 projects in many different companies from coast to coast and border to border. Sometimes I was a part of a team and learned to be a team player which was required. Other times I was the only writer and definitely had to take control and charge off on my own in order to get the job done. All 7 “habits” apply; they just need to be applied differently in different situations. If you stay with one company for most of your career that’s one story but for my situation my watchwords were mobility, adaptability, and diversity. The “diversity” came from working in both the defense and commercial industries and writing many different kinds of technical documentation using many different writing, drawing and utility programs. So even if your whole career is spent in one company as a team player “diversity” is still important.

  • Good idea, Sara. I think maybe I should create an advanced 7 habits, or a Senior Technical Writers version.

  • Very good comments, Gary. You’ve identified a key aspect of technical writing – it’s not about the writer, it’s about the user, and of course the client/company. I did try to limit the 7 habits to things that apply in the wide variety of situations and tasks that technical writers of all levels have to deal with. Thanks very much for your comments.

  • Thanks for the cool summary of the almighty-Technical-Writer habits. Sounds as if we’ve got plenty of space for development, cause as the Bible says: ” Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.
    Another irreplaceable skill would be listening and being patient. Some projects are a long-haul and it’s worth waiting, not to run out of your lives in this “game”. I’ve recently got pleasure from reading another blog article on the same topic .
    As a rookie in the sphere, I am constantly striving to develop these habits. A long way to go!
    Looking forward to a Senior Technical Writers version.

  • Good stuff here. The explanation for #2 can’t be stressed enough, based on my experience – people skills are HUGE. I’ve always written in IT. Oftentimes in my writing, my SMEs and stakeholders were highly technical people (engineers, etc.) who were low on emotional intelligence. I have always been told in reviews that people skills are among my strengths. And I’ve realized, in retrospect, how much that’s helped me in engaging the technical-minded folks I’ve had to glean information from – how to motivate them to share with me, while also helping them through the experience. …that it needn’t be miserable (which also ties in with your #1.) But truly – becoming skilled at guiding your SMEs in how to feed you information is invaluable. To the point of that #1, don’t take it personally. I’ve always found that relatively easy to do in that I merely respect the opinions for what they are, and from whom they’re originating. If the feedback that’s being offered is relevant to the topic, and from someone who is a paid expert in that topic, then, of course they’re feedback is wonderful. If not, then consider the source, thank them and merely move on without judgment. It’s just that simple. You’re both there for the work – nothing more, nothing less. Respect that for what it is.

  • 7 Habits will be featured in an April 14th Webinar: How to Motivate and Empower Globally-Competitive Teams of Content Professionals?

  • Did you miss the April 14th Webinar? We’re having an Encore Session on May 6, 2016, 10:00 AM, Pacific Time.
    A second chance to learn more about the 7 Habits!!!
    Complimentary Webinar: Motivate and Empower Globally – Competitive Teams of Content Professionals
    Register at:

  • “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Technical Writers” goes international…Motivate and Empower Globally-Competitive Teams of Content Professionals, International Edition on May 19, 2016, 8:00 AM London time! Register for interactive discussion:

  • Brilliant!

  • Great advice, I agree with all of these. However, there should be an eighth one, which is “know your audience”. I think this is one of the most important considerations for a Technical Author.

  • Be a polymath.
    Learn how to learn; how to listen; how to ask the right people the right questions.
    When it comes to system behaviour or performance, trust: a) users; b) supporters; c) testers; d) system architects; e) developers. In that order.

Leave a comment

Saiff Solutions In The Media

- TechWhirl
- Nominated for 2015 Rice Bowl Asean Start Up

Click image to enlarge


“After Symantec acquired Brightmail in 2004, Barry played key roles in integrating the information development team and their content into Symantec’s then-developing Unified Content Strategy. Barry [Saiff]’s experience, product and content knowledge, and leadership qualities helped the Brightmail team to become a trailblazer within the company. The processes, tools, and practices they helped to develop for content management are used throughout the company, thanks in large part to Barry’s participation in numerous cross-departmental teams. Barry is a natural leader who can effectively contribute to any endeavor. He has a passion for serving customers that drives him to create and evangelize process improvements and to collaborate effectively with diverse groups and individuals. I would be glad to work with Barry again.”

Alexia Idoura (nee Prendergast)
Senior Manager, Symantec
February 16, 2011

Read more testimonials here.