What Makes a Great Technical Writer?

When thinking about an exceptional technical writer for USAID proposals, you probably instantly think of a subject matter expert. While subject matter expertise can indeed be beneficial, it's not the end-all-be-all of what makes a great technical writer.

Keylime’s experience working with dozens of winning technical writers has shown us that in reality, the attributes that set the best technical writers apart are often more about their approach to work, their temperament, and their mindset. Cultivating these attributes is a big part of Keylime's signature course, Technical Writing for USAID Proposals (a new cohort is starting April 2nd, by the way!).

Here is a preview of what we discuss in class...

Proposal work is often unpredictable. A great technical writer is like a seasoned sailor, comfortably navigating the rolling waves of uncertainty. Maybe a partner gives feedback that changes certain activities, or a host-country counterpart has needs that weren’t initially accounted for in the program’s design. Maybe the proposal lead changes their mind and shifts the direction of the technical approach altogether. A great technical writer is adaptable, can think on their feet, and quickly responds to changing circumstances. They don’t panic when the tide turns but adjust their sails to keep moving forward.

A Competitive Spirit

The best technical writers are not merely scribes. They are competitors, driven by a desire to win. They understand that their work isn't just about conveying information; it’s about crafting compelling narratives that convince USAID to choose their proposal over the competition. Their words are their weapons, and they wield them with strategic precision.

They are also risk-takers, willing to push boundaries and think outside the box in order to create unique, persuasive narratives that stand out from the crowd. They know that to win, they must differentiate their proposals from the rest, and they are not afraid to take creative risks to achieve this.

An Insatiable Curiosity

Great technical writers are perpetual students. They are intellectually curious and possess a meticulous attention to detail. They are constantly seeking out new information, learning about the latest trends, and finding innovative ways to present their ideas. They are resourceful, knowing where to go to find the information they need to create compelling, accurate, and persuasive proposals.

Mastery Over Incomplete Information

During a live proposal, information is often scattered and fragmented. The best technical writers are like puzzle masters, able to piece together disparate information into a coherent and compelling whole. But what truly sets these writers apart is their ability to make progress in the face of incomplete information. Proposals have firm deadlines—and great technical writers understand this and have honed their ability to make progress and maintain momentum even when they don’t have all the answers. They are aware that waiting for information can lead to delays and missed opportunities. This ability to push forward, to keep the wheels of the proposal process turning, is what makes them invaluable in the high-pressure environment of technical writing. They ensure that the proposal keeps progressing towards its deadline, never allowing the search for 'perfect' information to become the enemy of 'good.' Their focus is always on creating a solid, persuasive proposal that meets the deadline and impresses USAID’s evaluators.

Process Over Outcome

While the end goal is to win, the best technical writers understand that a well-executed process is more likely to lead to a winning proposal. They trust in the process, knowing that consistent, quality work will eventually lead to desirable outcomes. They understand that the journey to success is not a sprint but rather a marathon, where consistency and quality are rewarded over hasty, sporadic efforts. Therefore, they focus not solely on the end goal but also invest considerable time and effort in refining the process, which, in turn, enhances the likelihood of achieving the desired result.

Emotional Displacement

Writing proposals can be a high-pressure job, often filled with tight deadlines and high stakes. The best technical writers are able to set aside personal feelings and emotions, focusing solely on the task at hand. They understand that their duty is to produce the best work possible, regardless of the pressure or stakes involved. Great technical writers understand that feedback, even when it's constructive or challenging to hear, is meant to serve the best interests of the proposal. They don't take it personally, but see it as an opportunity to refine their work and make the proposal stronger. They understand that everyone on the team, from the proposal lead to the subject matter experts, has the same goal: to submit the best proposal possible and win! They welcome feedback, actively seek it out, and use it to improve their work. They know that the best proposals are the result of collaboration and iterative refinement, and that feedback is a critical part of that process.

How to Become Great

In conclusion, being a great technical writer for USAID proposals is about far more than just subject matter expertise. It's about the approach to work, the mindset, and the temperament. The attributes I've discussed in this article are what truly set great technical writers apart.

For those who are interested in learning more about how to cultivate these practices in your proposal writing, Keylime Academy is hosting a course on Technical Writing for USAID Proposals, and our next cohort begins on April 2nd. This course is designed to help you enhance your technical writing skills and put you on the path to success. Contact hello@joinkeylime.com for information on bulk discounts and in-house options!

Jordann El Dorry

Jordann El Dorry

Jordann is Managing Director of Keylime Academy, where she designs and delivers a suite of trainings on business development for USAID.
Cairo, Egypt