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How to Become a Technical Writer

Growth Trends for Related Jobs

Thanks to a love and deep understanding of the written word, technical writers have the ability to take complex thoughts and ideas and present them in a way that’s understandable to the masses. Not just writers, they’re all-around communicators, using words, as well as pictures, diagrams and graphs. Some companies even give technical writers the title of technical communicators because it better conveys the full scope of a technical writer’s job.

What Is a Technical Writer?

The job of a technical writer is important because they take complicated information and make it usable and accessible to audiences that need that information. Technical writers are more than just writers – they are technical communicators creating technical documents. What is a technical document exactly? It’s any type of document the writer creates, such as instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles and other documents that convey complex ideas. Technical documents may also include multi-media pieces such as videos, audio files and interactive presentations. Just like the name implies, technical writers deal with technical information in industries like medicine, information technology, software development and manufacturing. While designers and engineers create the blueprint for the actual product or service, technical writers come up with the blueprint to explain how to use it.

What Do Technical Writers Do?

Technical writers create and author documents that their company disseminates through various communication channels. Their writing may be used in company memos, white papers, presentations, website copy and even social media content. Some technical writers author instructional manuals and other content to go with a product or service that helps the end user best utilize it.

Along with writing, they gather and research information and may even develop some of the data themselves. When a technical writer receives an assignment, they will ask additional questions to figure out the best type of document for the information. Taking into account the audience and their needs, the writer crafts copy that fits the audience’s voice and needs.

Technical writers that work with companies that create products and services will work directly with designers and developers. This gives them a better idea of the product or service’s use and purpose, so they can convey that to the audience. At times, the writer will offer insight into how to make a product or service easier to use – this not only benefits the consumer but requires less explanation and interpretation from the technical writer. When needed, the technical writer authors frequently asked question pages so users can easily find answers to their questions.

If any other writers in the company create content, the technical writer edits that copy and makes sure it adheres to the company’s voice and standards. When the information is especially complex, the technical writer uses other means to present to the final audience. They create graphs, charts, drawings, photographs, diagrams and animation, combining words and graphics into cohesive package. The technical writer coordinates with the marketing or communications department to figure out the best way to distribute the information.

Once the information goes out, the writer’s job continues, editing and revising as new information comes out. They also gather feedback to continually improve the content. Technical writers working in academia or research institutes may also writer grant proposals to secure funding.

What Steps Are Needed to Become a Technical Writer?

The path to becoming a technical writer starts with a love for writing and a keen understanding of the English language. Technical writers also have additional expertise or knowledge in a specific area like engineering, computer software or product manufacturing. Typically, most employers require a college degree in a related field. For example, software developers want candidates with a degree in computer science or a similar degree. Other times, employers may ask for a bachelor’s or associate degree in journalism, communications or English combined with a secondary degree or minor in a technical specialty. Writers who hold a bachelor or associate degree in a writing-related field can often use previous experience to show competence in a technical field. According to O*Net Online, about 35 percent of technical writers hold an associate degree and 33 percent have a bachelor’s. So, the level degree is not as important as the type of degree combined with experience.

A degree or experience in web design is also a big plus, as many companies are moving to more graphic and Internet-based outlets for information. Certifications can give candidates additional legitimacy in the industry but aren’t usually necessary to secure a job. The Society for Technical Communication is one of the most popular organizations offering technical writer certifications and continuing education. Others are tailored to specific industries, such as the American Medical Writers Association and the National Association of Science Writers.

Once a writer secures a job, they will undergo training specific to the that company, learning the company’s writing style, voice and expectations. Training at a company can include online classes and webinars or physical writing tests and assignments. Sometimes, the training is a simple as receiving the company writing manual and getting to work on your first assignment, learning as you go.

After several years on the job, a technical writer may be able to work their way up the ladder, gaining more responsibility and maybe even overseeing teams of junior-level writers.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Be a Technical Writer?

Not only do technical writers need to have excellent writing skills, they must also understand the complex processes of the industry they work in. A writer’s audience may be very specific or it could be broad, including people with varying professional backgrounds. The technical writer continually evaluates the audience and must be able to choose the right voice, modality and method for presenting that information so that everyone in that audience can understand it.

Essential technical communications skills for technical writers include excellent critical thinking skills to evaluate and solve problems and strong attention to detail to handle complex projects. Being detailed oriented also helps the writer craft the best possible instructions, explaining processes in a simple yet complete way. While they work with highly-technical processes and products, writers still need creativity to create engaging pieces that will attract and keep the audience’s attention. Technical writers work with a wide variety of people at any point in a project, so need to have excellent teamwork skills, while still being self-motivated.

Depending on their employer, a technical writer also needs experience and skills in certain software programs and platforms. Common ones include databases like Microsoft Access and Structured Query Language and desktop publishers such as Adobe InDesign, MadCap Flare and PTC Arbortext. Other employers want writers with skills in graphics and imaging software like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Visio. Knowing how to use web platform software such as Cascading Style Sheets, HTML and JavaScript are also good skills to have as a technical writer.

How Does Someone Get Technical Writing Experience?

Experience is always a must-have for technical writers but gaining that experience can seem difficult. Writers can break into the field by taking jobs as research assistants or entry-level specialists. During this time, they can gain valuable experience learning under experienced writers in that field.

Joining a smaller company or firm as an entry-level writer can often mean more opportunities for real-life writing experience right away. At larger companies, new writers generally train under more senior-level writers for a year or more before they’re given their own assignments.

Joining professional organizations like those mentioned can also lead to technical writing jobs and experience. Many of these organizations run job boards for members to view open positions. For example, the Society of Technical Communication offers a career center just for members where they can search for open jobs, post their resumes for employers to find and create personal job alerts for when new jobs are available. The service is free but is only available to members.

Where Can You Find Technical Writing Jobs?

Jobs for technical writers come in a variety of industries. Typically, you’ll find them more in technology-based fields, working directly with computer hardware engineers, computer support specialists and software developers.

Most technical writers work in an office setting, collaborating on a daily basis with fellow writers and colleagues. Some may work from home, connecting with coworkers using technologies like Skype and Zoom. While most work directly for a company, a number of technical writers offer their services on a freelance or consultant basis and get paid per assignment. Several technical consulting firms exist across the United States that companies can hire for short-term or one-time projects.

As of 2016, professional, scientific and technical services employed 39 percent of the over 52,000 technical writers in the United States. Manufacturing employed 15 percent, publishing 9 percent and administrative and support services 8 percent. Technical writers are concentrated in tech-heavy areas like California and Texas but can also find jobs nearly anywhere in the United States, from big cities to smaller towns.

What Is a Technical Writer’s Work Environment?

For the most part, technical writers work full-time. They’re expected to work overtime when a project demands the extra time to complete. Certain jobs may require connecting with coworkers or contributors in other time zones, requiring the writer to work evenings and weekends.

Writers spend a lot of their time in front of a computer, writing, designing and creating. They also take part in company meetings and brainstorming sessions. Sometimes, the writer may get to visit the factory or manufacturing plant for a product so they can get a better idea how that product is made and how it ultimately works.

At times, other travel may be involved. This can include traveling to conferences and seminars, as well as meeting with other companies and businesses.

What Is the Expected Pay for a Technical Writer?

As of May 2017, the median annual wage for a technical writer was $70,930, meaning that half of writers made more than this and half made less, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Writers in the bottom 10 percent made around $42,410 a year, while those in the top 10 percent made over $113,810. Based on industry, writers in the professional, scientific and technical services made the most on average, about $72,150 a year. Writers in the manufacturing industries made an average of $72,130 and those in the publishing sphere brought home $72,090 a year. Administrative and support service writers made $71,150.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for technical writers will grow 11 percent from 2016 to 2026, higher than the 7 percent growth rate for all occupations. Scientific, medical and technical companies continuing to grow at high rates creates a high demand for skilled technical writers in those fields. Writers with a strong background in writing, as well as another technical area, will have the best opportunities for writing jobs. As more and more people rely on technology, the need to convey information about those products and services assures that technical writers will have plenty of work in the future.

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About the Author

From putting together her first resume to editing friends' cover letters, Lindsey has always had an interest in career-related writing. She gets paid to do what she loves - writing - and loves helping others find their dream jobs. Her career-related articles have appeared on work.chron.com, USA Today and eHow.com.