Last week, in “Making a Living as a Writer”, I told you about a little known steady paying occupation for writers, called technical writing. This week I’ll share some insights on technical writing as a career choice.
What exactly is a technical writer and what do they do?
I have to admit that I find people’s reactions amusing when I tell them that I am a technical writer. “Aaaaaaaaaah,” they say as they shake their heads with a quizzical look on their face. Or “Technical…….writer,” as in, I comprehend the writer part but what is this word technical in front of it. Before I became one, I had never heard of a technical writer myself, so I certainly appreciate the polite stammering and befuddled expressions.
Very simply defined: a technical writer is someone who takes complex ideas, processes, and concepts and makes them understandable and accessible to an audience [you can find a more comprehensive definition at the Society for Technical Communication (STC)].
Numerous industries employ the services of technical writers; finance, computer, medical, insurance, manufacturing, scientific. They write everything from FAQs, to procedural instructions, to training materials, to white papers. Some technical writers also write grants and website content. All industries need documentation of some kind.
What does it take to become a technical writer?
These days most companies want their technical writers to at least have a bachelor’s degree in something. However, it is interesting to me that as vital as technical writing is to most major industries, there aren’t that many college programs that offer technical writing degrees or even certificates. Here is a brief list of technical writing programs that I found on the internet. DISCLAIMER: I do not endorse any of the schools or programs listed below. They are simply listed as resources.
Many technical writers have degrees in English, journalism, engineering, computer science, medicine, etc. What you have a degree in, isn’t as important as the fact that you have one as proof of your ability to think rationally and write coherently. If you don’t have an advanced degree, though, don’t dismay. There are still plenty of opportunities to break into the technical writing business. Many smaller companies recognize the importance of hiring a technical writer but may not be able to support a full staff of writers or even one full-time writer. This is a great opportunity for experienced freelancers. Newbie technical writers might try some of the job boards like Indeed, Monster, and Careerbuilder for entry level positions.
A successful technical writer has a unique skill set:
- A high level of reading comprehension
- Top notch organizational skills
- Ability to visualize a product or procedure
- Excellent communicator
- Not afraid to ask questions of subject matter experts
What are the benefits of becoming a technical writer?
The #1 benefit is that you get paid to write, also if you’re an information geek like me you also get paid to learn all kinds of new things! Granted, you don’t usually get a byline, but most technical writers can feed a family on what they make. An added benefit is, you get to interact with all kinds of interesting people, products, and ideas. To me, technical writing is a lot like piecing a puzzle together. I get to research to gather my source data which can come from documents, prints, or subject matter experts; I learn all that I can about the product, process, or concept; then I sit down at my computer and assemble the pieces into a coherent whole that my audience can understand.
I can’t say that technical writing is my dream job, but it has offered me the chance to use my writing skills, my talents, and my intellect, and it has allowed me to support my family for the past 17+ years. Check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook at the Bureau of Labor Statistics for more information on future trends for technical writers.