What is a Technical Writer?

A technical writer is responsible for creating technical documents and manuals for various products and services. Technical writers are skilled in translating complex technical information into clear and concise language that can be understood by non-technical audiences. They work with subject matter experts to gather information and produce documentation such as user manuals, product specifications, and technical reports. Technical writers may also create training materials, online help systems, and other support materials to help users navigate and understand complex products or systems.

Technical writers often have a background in a technical field such as engineering, computer science, or science, but this is not always a requirement. Many technical writers also possess knowledge of specialized software or tools used to create and publish technical documents. In addition to writing skills, technical writers must also be able to work collaboratively with subject matter experts and other stakeholders to ensure that the documentation accurately reflects the product or service being documented.

What does a Technical Writer do?

A technical writer sitting at a desk and going over written material.

Technical writers play a crucial role in translating complex technical information into easy-to-understand language for the end-users. Their work is not only important for the success of a product or service but also for ensuring the safety and satisfaction of the end-users. Technical writers are also responsible for ensuring compliance with industry standards, regulations, and best practices. Their ability to communicate technical information clearly and accurately is essential for ensuring the success of any technical product or service.

Duties and Responsibilities
The duties and responsibilities of a technical writer can vary depending on the industry and organization they work for, but generally include the following:

  • Researching and gathering technical information: Technical writers work closely with subject matter experts to gather and understand technical information that they will be documenting.
  • Writing technical documentation: Technical writers create various types of technical documents such as user manuals, training materials, technical reports, product specifications, and white papers. They must ensure that the documentation is accurate, complete, clear, concise, and easy to understand for the target audience.
  • Editing and proofreading: Technical writers must edit and proofread their documents to ensure they are free of errors, both grammatical and technical.
  • Collaborating with teams: Technical writers may need to collaborate with various teams such as product management, engineering, and customer support to ensure that their documentation is consistent with the company's standards and the product's development.
  • Updating documentation: Technical writers must keep their documents up-to-date with the latest product releases, and work with subject matter experts to ensure the accuracy of the information presented.
  • Formatting and design: Technical writers must be skilled in formatting and design to make sure that their documents are visually appealing and easy to navigate.
  • Managing multiple projects: Technical writers may work on multiple projects simultaneously, so they must be able to manage their time effectively to meet project deadlines.

Types of Technical Writers
There are several types of technical writers, each with their own specialized areas of expertise. Some common types of technical writers include:

  • Software/Technology Technical Writer: This type of technical writer creates user manuals, help documentation, and other technical documents for software and technology products.
  • Medical/Scientific Technical Writer: This type of technical writer creates technical documentation for medical and scientific products and research, including clinical trial reports, research papers, and regulatory documents.
  • Business/Finance Technical Writer: This type of technical writer creates technical documents for business and finance products, including proposals, contracts, and other financial documents.
  • Engineering Technical Writer: This type of technical writer creates technical documentation for engineering products, including schematics, diagrams, and user manuals.
  • Marketing Technical Writer: This type of technical writer creates technical documentation for marketing materials, such as white papers and case studies, that explain complex concepts in a way that is easy for the target audience to understand.
  • Educational/Instructional Technical Writer: This type of technical writer creates technical documentation for educational and instructional materials, including textbooks, training manuals, and e-learning modules.

Are you suited to be a technical writer?

Technical writers have distinct personalities. They tend to be artistic individuals, which means they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive. They are unstructured, original, nonconforming, and innovative. Some of them are also investigative, meaning they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive.

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What is the workplace of a Technical Writer like?

Many technical writers work in a traditional office environment, either in-house for a company or as a contractor. They may work independently or as part of a team, and may collaborate with subject matter experts, editors, designers, and other professionals. In these settings, technical writers may have access to resources such as databases, research materials, and software applications that help them create technical documentation.

Remote work is becoming increasingly common for technical writers, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many technical writers can work from home or other remote locations, communicating with their teams via email, phone, and video conferencing. This flexibility allows technical writers to work from anywhere, as long as they have access to a computer and an internet connection. However, remote work also requires technical writers to be self-disciplined and able to manage their time effectively.

Technical writers in scientific or engineering fields may work in lab or research environments, where they collaborate with scientists, engineers, and researchers to document experimental procedures, data, and results. Technical writers in manufacturing industries may work in factories or production facilities, where they document assembly procedures, quality control processes, and safety procedures. In these settings, technical writers may be required to wear protective equipment and follow safety protocols.

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Should I become a Technical Writer?

To answer this question, you need to dispel some myths surrounding technical writing and then compare the occupation’s required characteristics and skill set with your own.

The Myths

  • Technical writers only write about highly technical, scientific, technological, or medical topics.
    This is probably the biggest fallacy of all. At its core, technical writing is about conveying factual information, for a particular purpose, to a targeted audience. Producing material for an engineering firm will certainly be of a complex and technical nature. But technical writers create a wide variety of documents, including schedules, training manuals, product descriptions, reference guides, and even press releases.
  • Technical writing is boring and lacks creativity.
    Typically, people assume that the act of writing is creative. Technical writing, however, is perceived as dull and boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Technical writers cover almost every conceivable topic and they can be asked to create anything from a spec sheet for a piece of machinery to a journal article.
  • Technical writers need a technical background.
    A talented technical writer does not need to know anything about the subject matter before starting a project. Whoever hires you is the expert. It is your job to read provided literature, ask intelligent questions, conduct research as needed, and transform the materials into comprehensible text for the intended audience.
  • Technical writing has a very rigid structure.
    While there are certain standard elements in many documents, the writer is charged with finding innovative ways to present information and ideas and make them stand out. Some material may be rigid or dry; its presentation does not have to be. In fact, unexciting data or info often provides the biggest challenge to a writer’s creativity.

The Required Characteristics

  • Love of learning
    If you like to investigate, explore, and figure out how and why a product, device, or app works, you have the mindset to learn new things.
  • Teaching mentality and imagination
    Being a technical writer means that you need to be able to break down complex information and make it simple. You have to avoid jargon and use language that gives users without technical experience exactly what they need when they need it.
  • Attention to detail
    Do you have the natural ability to follow up on details? Are you the one who finds the one typo in an article or notices when someone misuses words? Do you enjoy reviewing, proofreading, and editing your own or others’ work? If so, you possess some of the traits that will help you produce quality documentation.
  • Flexibility
    As engineers and product developers tweak their designs, technical writers will be called upon to adjust their related documentation. There will inevitably be times when you are asked to move from one ‘emergency’ to another, and then back to the first one. The ability to adapt and roll with the punches is imperative.

The Required Skill Set

  • Communication skills
    Technical writers are seldom authorities on the subjects they write about. In this role, therefore, you cannot be too shy to ask the ‘dumb questions’ that make engineers really think about their answers. In short, you have to be a talented communicator, listener, and interviewer; part journalist and part investigative reporter.
  • Writing skills
    This is the core competency demanded of a technical writer. Simply stated, your job will consist of taking technical material and explaining it in easy-to-understand ways. In other words, it is up to you to make the reader feel smart.
  • Documentation tools skills
    Knowledge of tools used to produce technical documentation is an asset. Some commonly used tools are Adobe FrameMaker, MadCap Flare, RoboHelp, PageMaker, and Quark. But as already noted, technical writers are accustomed to learning – it is really at the foundation of what they do – and most are capable of learning a new tool quickly and efficiently.
  • Graphic design skills
    To a growing extent, the technical writer needs an appreciation for graphics, formatting, and illustration. The need for knowledge in these areas varies from project to project. Required skills may be rudimentary or advanced.
  • Usability testing skills
    A technical writer may be asked to take an active role in testing usability and validating documentation. Confirming that a product works as it is documented to work is vital.

Technical writing perfectly combines writing and technology. If you love the richness and versatility of the English language and you are fascinated by the evolution of technology, this may, in fact, be the career for you.

How long does it take to become a Technical Writer?

The time it takes to become a technical writer can vary depending on the individual's education, experience, and career goals. Here are some possible paths to becoming a technical writer and the estimated timeframes:

  • Bachelor's Degree: Many technical writers have a bachelor's degree in a field such as English, Communications, or a technical field related to the industry they want to work in. It typically takes four years to complete a bachelor's degree program.
  • Certification: Some technical writers may choose to earn certification in technical writing, which can help demonstrate their skills and knowledge to employers. Certification programs vary in length but typically take a few months to a year to complete.
  • Internship or Entry-Level Job: Many technical writers begin their careers with an internship or entry-level job in the field. These positions provide valuable experience and help technical writers build their portfolios.
  • Continued Education and Professional Development: Technical writers may continue their education and professional development throughout their careers to stay up-to-date on industry trends and technologies. This may involve attending conferences, taking courses, or earning advanced degrees.

Overall, it can take several years to become a technical writer, but there are multiple paths to enter the field. It's important for aspiring technical writers to gain experience through internships, entry-level jobs, or freelance work, and to continually update their skills and knowledge through education and professional development opportunities.

Technical Writers are also known as:
Technical Documentation Specialist