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.

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Which Skill Sets Are Important for a Technical Writer?

techwriting

This article first appeared in Writing Assistance, Inc.

Like any profession, becoming a technical writer requires a mastery of a certain set of skills. When large manuals were the standard in the profession, this skill set involved primarily writing and illustration skills. But today the worlds of communications and technology have evolved dramatically. How has that evolution affected the skill set required for a technical writer?

Writing skills – For a technical writer, writing skills can never be overlooked. The technical writer still needs to write in a clear and concise manner and to be able to convey information appropriately for a variety of audiences.

Technical skills – The technical skill set of a technical writer depends greatly on the subject matter, product, or service that requires documentation. Hardware and software documentation differ in the skills that the technical writer needs to bring to the table. Additionally, pharmaceuticals and other manufacturing industries have specific requirements that translate into knowledge the technical writer must have.

A technical writer asked to document a developer’s guide may need to have a pretty good handle on specific programming languages, while a technical writer tasked with documenting a weapons defense system might need a high degree of engineering comprehension as well as a solid knowledge of government documentation standards.

Tools skills – Of course, a technical writer needs to know his or her way around computer systems, since they are used to produce documentation in a variety of formats. Specific tool knowledge, such as Adobe FrameMaker, MS Word, MadCap Flare, RoboHelp, and even PageMaker and Quark really depends on the tools the organization has come to rely on in order to produce its technical documentation.

However, technical writers are accustomed to learning – it’s really what they do, and most are capable of learning a new tool quickly and efficiently.

Interviewing and listening skills – Technical writers need to know how to ask questions. They also need to know who is the best person to approach and they need to have a feel for the varying personalities and preferences of the people – the subject matter experts, or SMEs – in order to know how best to approach them.

Once the technical writer has found the appropriate SME to approach, strong listening skills will be required to capture the information necessary and to know which follow-up questions need to be answered.

Design skills – An appreciation for the visual can be an important part of the skill set of a technical writer. Even the earliest technical documents didn’t consist of just the written word.

To a growing extent the technical writer needs an appreciation for graphics and formatting as well as illustration skills. Depending on the needs of the organization, these skills may only need to be rudimentary or they may need to be very advanced.

Usability and testing skills – A technical writer may also be asked to take an active role in usability and testing. Even if not asked to take a role, the technical writer knows that validation of the documentation is important – the confirmation that the product works the way it is documented to work. In some organizations, the technical writer is an important part of the User Experience team.

These skills are just a small part of what a technical writer brings to the table. The skill sets of a technical writer vary widely, depending on the technical writer’s experience and educational background.

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