How to become a technical writer

If you are interested in becoming a technical writer, these tips may help you get started. We'll cover a range of approaches for building your reputation as a professional. Also, we'll discuss what is involved in the day-to-day work of technical writers, and what skills you will need to be competitive.

Contents

Tip: If you're looking to get started right away, check out these online courses.

Step 1: Meet the education requirements - a degree in English, Journalism or Science

Most job descriptions ask for a bachelor's degree in English, Journalism, Science, or a related field. A lesser degree, such as an Associate's degree, might get you an interview for some positions. However, if competition is stiff, an advanced degree might be necessary to give you an edge above competitors.

Many universities now offer writing programs with a focus on technical or professional writing. Some of these courses will be managed by the university English department. You may also find technical writing courses in the Engineering program. Talk to an advisor or admissions officer if you have questions about what courses and degrees are available. You may find that the course content differs quite a bit depending on which department manages the course. For example, classes in the Engineering program may have more of a technical focus than those offered as part of an English program.

If you don't have a college degree, you may still be able to land a job as a technical writer. Any previous job experience that relates to technical writing should help. For example, if your previous jobs required a lot of writing or communications skills, employers may see that as a sign that you can handle the responsibilities of a technical writing job.

Many schools are now offering technical writing certification programs. These programs can usually be completed much more quickly than an actual degree, and might help you transition into the field. If you pursue this option, be sure that the certification program covers the core skills, tools, and other subject matter that you will need to work in an entry-level technical writing position. Certification might also give you an edge over other candidates if you already have a degree and some experience in the field, or if you are trying to build a freelance business.

Be sure to make the best of your education. Spend as much time as possible networking with fellow students who are entering the field, and with instructors that have business connections and professional contacts. The friends you make during college might provide valuable job contacts in the future; also, you can offer each other mutual support when you have career decisions to make or are struggling with difficult research questions.

Step 2: Decide what kind of job you want

Before you dive into applying for technical writing jobs, you may want to think a bit about which industry you prefer to work in. Writers are commonly hired in the medical, software, and engineering industries, as well as others. Think carefully about the kind of environment you'd like to work in, as well as the subject matter you wish to write about. I can't emphasize this enough; as a professional tech writer you'll be reading, writing, and editing a ton of content related to the products your company produces. Try to find subject matter that interests you.

You should also research the companies you want to work for; know their products and why you want to work for them in particular. Do they have a company culture that suits your personality? Are you familiar with the products they produce? The more research you do about a company before asking for a job, the better your chances will be at landing that job. Employers like to hire people who are passionate about helping the company achieve its goals.

Step 3: Learn the appropriate skills

To become a technical writer, you must first develop the skills necessary to complete documentation projects. In addition to a traditional education, you can also consider certification programs and training from software or tool vendors. Here is a list of the abilities you will need to develop.

  • Tool knowledge (in-depth word processing, HATT, HTML/XHTML, etc.)
  • Information gathering and working with subject matter experts
  • Project management (scheduling, deadlines, facilitating reviews, etc.)
  • Writing concisely
  • Editing and proofing
  • Publishing and delivery process (probably job-specific)
  • Research

Step 4: Understand the many types of technical writing projects

A career in technical writing will require you to work on many kinds of documentation projects, including the following:

  • Print documents (user manuals, white papers, quick-reference, installation guides, training guides, proposals, etc.)
  • Locally installed or server-side help topics
  • Community-based documentation (knowledgebase, wiki, forums, etc.)
  • Video demos / screencasts

Step 5: Learn what managers are looking for

As you look for a job, keep in mind the traits and skills that managers are seeking. Beyond basic competency as a technical writer, they want to know that you are capable of managing projects, meeting deadlines, and working without to much hand holding. If this is your first job in the field, don't worry. A good manager will help you get settled in and adapt to the department's workflow. Much of what you will need to know will be learned on the job. When you are just starting out, focus on learning the process for creating deliverables, learning company policies, and keeping your projects on track. The ultimate goal is to be able to work independently and get the job done.

Beyond project management, potential employers will want to see some ambition for your career. If you are excited about the field of technical writing, and about certain aspects of your job, you are more likely to perform well and become a key player on the team. Remember, your manager will need to get a sense of how your individual skills will contribute to the success of the department. Where do your strengths lie? Are you a strong researcher, writer, or editor? Are you good at tracking project status and getting things done? Perhaps you are great at resolving technical issues or enhancing the documentation process so that it is more efficient? If an employer can see these strengths, they can better assess how you will contribute to the team and whether you are a good fit for the job.

A potential employer may need to know whether you can adapt to the tools the department uses on a daily basis to produce documents. You don't usually need to be an expert in every tool on the market. Instead, focus on developing a bit of experience with one tool in each class. For example, if you have worked a bit in RoboHelp, chances are you'll be able to adapt to working in Flare or a similar help authoring tool. If you are familiar with FrameMaker or Word, you'll probably be able to adjust to working in a different page layout or word processing program. Don't feel that you need to be an expert right away; just show that you are able to learn and adapt.

You can gain some advantage by researching and experimenting with cutting edge tools that are shaping the field. For example, working with or learning about Content Management Systems or screencasting tools might give you an advantage. Many departments are working to build expertise with such tools, and knowing a bit about them might prove that you can help blaze that trail. Often you can find free or open source versions of these tools that allow you to practice and build your skills.

Step 6: Build a portfolio

A portfolio of professional work can help you demonstrate your skills to potential employers. Let's talk a bit about the kinds of work you should include.

Remember, the purpose of a portfolio is to demonstrate your knowledge. Past projects can show a potential employer whether you have solid writing skills, what your strengths and weaknesses are, whether you are able to gather information effectively, and how clearly you can present information to others.

Start by filling your portfolio with the most impressive examples you have from your past work. Be sure to contact your former employer if you are including examples of their documentation; you may need their permission to include such work in a portfolio that will be shared with other companies. Pick projects that show your ability to gather and write content (manuals written from scratch), manage a project (schedules or gantt charts), and publish content in a variety of formats. Also, include any projects that highlight your strengths. For example, if you developed a process for single-sourcing print and online content, include it in your portfolio.

If the project was a collaboration, highlight areas that are your work. That way employers don't confuse your work with that of your former co-workers.

If you don't have previous job experience, you can still build a professional portfolio; you'll just have to be creative. Find an open-source software application that doesn't have help content and write some. Learn how to use the program effectively and then document the process for others. You can also get in touch with the developers of such projects and offer to document their work; chances are they'll be happy that you offered. You may run into some territorial developers who don't appreciate the value of technical writing, or who think their own attempts at documentation are sufficient, but don't let this discourage you. Just move on to a different project.

Projects from your school coursework can also make great portfolio content. If your classes are well targeted to the field, chances are you will have some projects that demonstrate skills that are in demand. Any papers you've written about technical subjects are great material for your portfolio, and so are web-based projects such as help content or even personal websites. Just make sure the subject matter is appropriate and somewhat professional so that employers don't get distracted from evaluating your skills.

Your portfolio can take many formates. For example, printouts can be neatly arranged in a binder. Online projects can be posted to a personal website. You can also deliver your portfolio content as a DVD or CD. Just be sure that the format is convenient for interviewers to access, and that you follow any guidelines written into their instructions for applying for the job. Also, if your portfolio contains documents owned by a previous employer, be sure that you have permission to distribute them in the chosen format. For example, past employers may be more comfortable letting you show interviewers a binder of your work than allowing you to distribute a CD that the interviewer will keep indefinitely.

Step 7: Build your network in the industry and apply for openings

As many have said before, it's not what you know, it's who you know. Networking is a key factor to finding a job in any field. By expanding your social network you increase the chances of discovering career opportunities.

Several technical writing forums exist, including the techwr-l mail list, the HATT list (for help authoring tools), and more. By participating in these communities and contributing, you can increase your knowledge, get to know fellow technical writers, and build an extensive online profile that demonstrates your knowledge.

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) is also a great place to talk with others about becoming a technical writer. Don't just join and be passive; introduce yourself to other professionals in the field and attend meetings. You can even volunteer to help out. This is a great way for a new writer to get some experience and exposure.

You can also join related professional associations (software developers, etc.) to spread your net a bit wider. This is a great way to meet professionals with skills that compliment your own.

Step 8: Continue learning and developing your skills

The job description of a technical writer is constantly changing due to technology. If you keep up with these changes and adapt accordingly, you will gain an advantage over your competition.

Focus on learning cutting-edge skills. Experience with content management systems (CMS), single-sourcing, social media documentation, and other industry-chaping technologies will help you contribute value to a team of technical writers.

You can learn much about these tools and strategies from industry blogs, periodicals, user groups, and by downloading free trials of software.

How I became a technical writer

I'm dating myself here, but why not...

Once upon a time there was a computer company called Commodore. Back in the early 80's, when I was in the fourth grade and had accumulated an entire collection of Masters of the Universe action figures, they released a computer called the Commodore 64. It was awesome. It used floppy disks the size of textbooks and made crunching noises when the drives couldn't find what they were looking for. (It also booted instantly to a command prompt; no waiting for things to load.) And it ran the best video games I'd ever seen, in full color and with awesome sound.

One day I played Archon on a C64 at my dad's friend's house and was blown away. I had to get one.

I can still remember standing in the computer store three days before Christmas helping my dad fill a box with all the components we'd need. (No monitor; it just plugged into the TV.)

When I got the thing home I started reading the manual. No kidding. (Back then home computers were just a hobby; therefore, it was assumed that if you bought one, you planned on learning how to program it.) The C64 manual had the most incredible tutorial on BASIC programming I've ever seen. It still stands up as a great example of technical writing. I learned about pixels, drive sectors, arrays, and all kinds of stuff I never thought I'd use again. It really made me appreciate the importance of documentation.

I had a friend that read the same science fiction books I did and his dad ran a computer business out of his basement. We'd spend days writing sci-fi word games on his dad's computers and learning how to write code. And when we were burnt out on computers, we'd play baseball and swap books.

As I grew older, the usual distractions (dating, trying to stay out of trouble, and a Kramer electric guitar that I still own) scattered my attention.

By time I entered college I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I picked a major in English Literature because I liked to read books. After I earned a BA in Literature, my advisor pointed me to a Masters Degree program in Professional and Technical Writing. I knew my chances of becoming a beat poet or rock star were slim, so I jumped on the opportunity.

My experience as a graduate student enlightened me to the fact that I actually had some marketable computer and writing skills. Through perseverance my professors managed to pound some very useful theory into my head, and they involved me in some school projects that helped hone those skills. I also learned to further appreciate the importance of documentation, and that technical writing could be a decent and enjoyable way to make a living.

Then, one fateful day, my technical writing professor told me about a job opportunity that sounded promising. My wife and I were just married. College was expensive. So I took the plunge and entered the 9-5 world. I became a professional Technical Writer.

That was nearly a decade ago, and I haven't looked back since.

When I started college I had never heard of technical writing. Now, I can't imagine myself in any other career. I just sort of fell into it through my love of books and computers, and the guidance of some great teachers. And the rest is history.

So that's my story. That's one way of becoming a highly-paid technical writer.

See also: Technical writing career advice from 11 experts.