CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a technical writer.
Is becoming a technical writer right for me?
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Make the most of English classes. Pay attention to how books and articles are organized. Learn how to write clearly, concisely, and accurately. Build computer skills. Learn to use desktop publishing software, to handle graphics, and to write code in HTML. Develop a grounding in the physical and life sciences.
While some technical writers find work with an Associate’s degree or certificate in technical writing, the field is dominated by writers who have earned a Bachelor’s. Job candidates with a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science typically have an edge in the job market.
Volunteer, find mentors, and network
Volunteering is often the first step in creating a portfolio. Prospective technical writers can begin working on their portfolio in high school and continue the process while earning their undergraduate degree. The local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) may have projects for which they need volunteers. The STC also maintains an active mentor board; students can find a mentor by completing a profile that can be posted on this board. Local businesses may welcome an offer to have someone with a writing background create an instructional manual or technical document for them. Attending technology seminars, conferences, and events may also lead to opportunities.
Working on an open source project is another excellent way to gain experience in the field. An internet search for ‘open source projects’ provides access to these projects from around the world. Each summer Google hosts a ‘Summer of Code’ event that pairs students with mentors. The annual project pays selected students a stipend to spend their break writing code and learning about open source development.
Through all of these experiences, students are likely to find mentors and develop a valuable network of contacts.
Certifications (optional / recommended)
Professional certification is available through the Society for Technical Communication, the largest professional organization for technical writers. The STC certification program is three-tiered.
The Foundation certification exam tests knowledge and understanding of best practices in technical communication.
The Practitioner certification demonstrates mastery of applying best practices and leading others in their use. This designation is awarded to candidates who pass a written test and an evaluation of one or more pieces of their work.
The Expert certification is based on completion of a set of required work products and expert interviews.
In addition to providing industry certification, the STC maintains a large job bank and career center. The Society also addresses trends in the field in its publications Intercom and Technical Communication Journal and in a public blog called The STC Notebook.
The American Medical Writers Association offers extensive continuing education programs and certification credentials in medical writing. These certificates are available to professionals in the medical and allied scientific communication fields.
Build a portfolio and your reputation
The key to an effective portfolio is diversity. This is especially true for individuals in freelance versus in-house roles. Experience across industries and documentation types is a freelancer’s lifeblood. For all professionals, however, a varied collection of work is vital to showcasing skill and creativity; establishing a reputation; and advancing in the field. Quick user guides, comprehensive manuals, help files, video tutorials, and journal articles are among the work products that should over time be included in a professional portfolio.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to become a Technical Writer?
Aspiring technical writers can earn a four-year Bachelor’s degree, a two-year Associates’ degree; or a technical writing certificate, which typically takes six months to complete. Most technical writers have a Bachelor’s and most employers ask for this qualification.
What are Technical Writers like?
Based on our pool of users, technical writers tend to be predominately artistic people. At first, the description of ‘technical’ writers as artistic may seem incongruent. In fact, this prevailing characteristic further dispels the myth that technical writing is dull and uncreative. The crafting of language, whether to write a poem or a user manual, is always an art.
Steps to becoming a Technical Writer
The process of becoming a technical writer demands more than a commitment to formal education. Because the field involves ongoing collaboration with experts from many subject areas and often many different industries, it requires a dedication to lifelong learning.
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.
Technical writers only write about highly technical, scientific, technological, medical, or systematic 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 are one of those people who never reads instruction manuals in favor of ‘just figuring it out,’ you may have the aptitude to become a technical writer. If you like to investigate, explore, and figure out how 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 on the job.
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 to become a Technical Writer
Technical writers are employed in a vast array of industries, from healthcare and insurance to engineering and manufacturing. Knowing their specific area of interest may help students decide what type of undergraduate education to pursue.
Most employers in the field prefer candidates with a Bachelor’s degree. English, communications, journalism, and science majors are typical choices for aspiring technical writers. Once they earn an undergraduate degree, students may seek out further career preparation via a short technical writing certificate program. Alternatively, they may elect to complete a double major Bachelor’s, combining English or creative writing with a scientific or technical field such as biology, engineering, mechanics, graphic design, or computer science. Some schools offer a Bachelor’s program in technical communications that focuses on the development of writing skills and also provides a foundation in business, mathematics, science, and technology.
The simple fact is that there is not a fixed path to becoming a technical writer. Tech writers may begin their careers with a background in programming or database development and then move into writing. Or they may start out as writers who go on to gain experience in the high-tech industry or another field. Tech writers do not have to be tech experts. It has been said that developers are so close to their products that they cannot see the big picture. Technical writers whose job it is to create user-friendly documentation are better served by a wider perspective and by a lesser familiarity. They need to be informed generalists who know what to ask and where to find relevant information. They serve as the objective middle man between developer and user.
The variety of potential employers for tech writers is large, because most organizations in most industries need to present complex information in a simplified manner. Opportunities may exist with:
Colleges and universities Software development companies Internet design firms and multimedia content providers Corporate communications and human resource departments Construction and safety companies Oil and gas companies Mining companies Medical technology firms Pharmaceutical companies Insurance companies Military contractors Federal, state, and municipal government departments Private research organizations Non-profit organizations
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, technical writers are beginning to take a multimedia approach to their work, adding web design and software knowledge to their skill set. This is likely due to advances in web-based and mobile technology, which have propelled the profession from the relatively straightforward writing of manuals to more complex instructional design, information architecture, and web writing. This evolution in the field makes jobs and contract opportunities more plentiful, but also more diverse and specialized.