A Guide to Careers in Technical Writing

Technical_TypingWritten by Allan Hoffman

To some people, any job with the word “writer” in the title looks like it must be a blast — the next best thing to working on episodes of “Mad Men.” If spotting the job title Technical Writer in your job search whets your appetite to learn more, here’s a guide to the profession.

Is Technical Writing for You?

“If your goal is to write a novel, this is not the job,” says Saul Carliner, a former president of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). “Although the finished product is something you wrote, there’s a lot of collaboration. You’re interviewing people. You’re coordinating. Twenty to 30 percent of your time is writing.”

Contrary to what many assume, working as a technical writer involves much more than sitting alone at your PC. The job requires plenty of contact with technical professionals, from programmers and project managers to machine operators and medical technicians. Solitary? Not quite. Collaborative? Most definitely.

If you’re considering a job as a technical writer, one way to learn if it’s for you is to spend several hours reading and reviewing computer manuals and online help systems, like those for your operating system and assorted applications. Ask yourself a simple question, Carliner suggests: “Is writing this what I want to do for a living?” Also, remember that companies use most technical documentation for internal purposes — no one in the outside world will ever see it.

But the field has broadened to include a variety of job roles and responsibilities, as the name of its leading professional organization, the Society for Technical Communication, suggests. Technical communicators write and edit technical manuals, but their work may also include producing online tutorials, web-based training, and other materials for industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing.

And the pay? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median technical writer salary was $64,610 in 2011.

What Background Do You Need?

As a group, technical communicators come from varied backgrounds. According to an STC membership study, the five most common academic backgrounds are English, technical communication, science or engineering, computer science, and journalism,. Anyone with a technical background will have an easier time breaking into the industry, as it shows a facility with technical topics and the ability to work with industry professionals. Consider taking courses in the following topics to build a foundation:

  • Technical Writing: Typically offered at colleges and community colleges as a way to gain an overview of the field and develop writing samples.
  • Web Design: A way to gain an understanding of design and presentation issues.
  • Programming: To help you gain a better understanding of how software is created.

Do You Need to Know Specific Programs?

You should know Microsoft Word, if you don’t already, and you’ll be better off if you’re familiar with FrameMaker or RoboHelp, two programs often used for writing technical documentation. Knowledge of Web production tools also is an asset.

Can You Move into Other IT Jobs?

Technical communicators often move into jobs as programmers, systems analysts, information architects, and project leaders. Others shift into sales or management roles.” It’s a great way to get into an organization, and then move into a different job,” says Carliner.

Whatever your goal, the more technical know-how you acquire, the better. Throughout the information technology world, people who have superior communication skills and can hold their own with die-hard techies command a premium.

How Do You Get Experience?

Budding technical communicators should seek out internships, volunteer work, and other opportunities to gain experience and build a portfolio of work in the field. You will have a tough time finding a company willing to consider you without writing samples. Consider volunteering your services as part of an open-source project to demonstrate your ability to work on a team and translate technical matters into plain English.

Have something to add? Please share it in the comments.


Changing Careers: From Book Editing to Technical Editing

Written by Leslie Brown

I wanted to be a writer for most of my life, but with a college degree in creative writing, it wasn’t easy to find a job or a career. I knew it was wishful thinking to think I might someday become a successful novelist or poet. So what then?

My career as a book editor

I searched around for any job that had something to do with writing or editing. Luckily I got a break, and I was hired as an assistant editor for a book publishing company in Los Angeles. Aside from answering phones and typing author and agent correspondence, I reviewed unsolicited manuscripts and made publishing recommendations based on character and plot development. I had stumbled into the beginning of my editing career.

After a year I made the move to New York. All the major publishing houses were there and it wasn’t hard to find another position as a book editor. The only problem was that on an assistant editor’s salary, the city was a struggle. So I moved back to Los Angeles and found a job at one of the only book publishing companies in the area. Once hired, I worked with famed authors and budding novelists. But soon the company cut back its business and most of us lost our jobs. So what then?

Introduction to computers

While pouring over lists of jobs, I kept seeing ads for word processors. It was 1983, and I didn’t know what they were. But if it had something to do with words, I thought I’d better find out. One day soon after, I saw a free introductory class to word processing. When I got to the class, the instructor asked if someone would help demonstrate what a word processor could do. I volunteered, and as I moved words around on the screen and formatted them with simple commands, I became completely hooked.

The personal computer industry was growing fast, and I thought there must be something a writer could do. As it turned out, there was a great need for computer manuals. I felt a door open.

My career as a technical editor

Again I got lucky, and without too much effort I landed a job as a technical editor at a major computer company. I completely embraced the technology, and my new career took off. Working closely with programmers, subject matter experts, and graphic designers, I wrote and edited user guides, installation manuals, online Help, computer-based training, release notes, and later, web content. There didn’t seem to be an end to the technical communication opportunities.

Today I am still fascinated by technology, and am still writing about aspects of it.

Have something to add? Please share it in the comments.

Playing with NLP


Written by Teresa Goertz

People like people who like themselves. It was the first quote—though not the last— that Master NLP Trainer, Lindagail Campell, used to kick off the evening’s presentation, Picking up the Cues. Lindagail describes Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) as a comprehensive set of skills for personal growth and professional development, including verbal and nonverbal communication, psychology, language, modeling, strategic thinking, and perception. These skills are “the difference that makes the difference” between poor to mediocre performance and excellence both at work and at home.

Circling back to the first quote, let’s see how it applies to technical writers. Technical writers like other technical writers because they share similar traits or behave in a similar fashion. That’s great, but what’s a technical writer to do when they encounter SMEs, execs, bosses, coworkers, and others who aren’t like themselves? Here are a few simple NLP exercises you can use right now to improve your communication skills.

Build rapport

One of the easiest things to try is to establish rapport with another person by observing their body language, the tone and cadence of their voice, and the words they use. Building rapport is like a dance. If one partner is mismatched, rapport goes down, but if partners are on or about the same level, rapport goes up. For example, you dread your Thursday morning teleconference because a coworker practically bellows into his speakerphone. Sound waves hit our larynx and hurt our eardrums, and our instinct is to retreat, but that doesn’t help us when we want to be heard. Modulate the tone, raise the volume, and change the tempo of your voice. When you take your cues from the other person, you can drive the outcome of a situation to one that better suits your needs.

Be flexible

Many of us have probably noticed that when we make a slight change in our behavior, it can create a significant shift in another person’s behavior and often tips the fulcrum of any relationship toward a positive slant. For example, if your boss walks into your office and stands over you during the conversation, you might feel she might has the upper hand. You probably sense that there’s an even greater imbalance of power than normal, but if you stood up, you’d be on a more equal footing. Your boss would probably sense the shift and without mentioning what she was feeling, she would react accordingly. She might surprise you and offer you an opportunity to influence a new project that was previously out of your reach.

Set boundaries

When you’re caught in conversations with people who always drone on and on, and you can’t get a word in because they never seem to draw a breath, make sure you have a plan. While they’re talking, look closely at them and listen for a gap, even a small one, usually when the person pauses slightly or takes in a little air. That’s when you can interject with a question that interrupts their train of thought and makes them think differently. For example, you might ask them a leading question, such as ‘which part of this conversation do you want me to be sure to remember’? The person might react by being pleased that you think what they’re saying is important. Moments later, you’ll often hear them quickly summarize the salient points so you can be on your way. You’re interrupting the pattern and reframing the conversation. Here’s another example. Let’s say you receive a call and you know you won’t have much time to talk. Right away, share your agenda and set a time limit. You’re bringing the rules of engagement up front so that there’s no misunderstanding and everyone is aware of the parameters.

NLP offers some good building blocks for improving how you communicate with others. You don’t have to remain stuck in old patterns that don’t work for you and often hinder a relationship from moving forward. Try a few of these exercises and see if just a slight change in your behavior doesn’t shift a situation in your favor. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: There are no victims, only volunteers.