How to Get Into the Technical Writing Field

By Charles Fannan

March 11, 2013

So you’ve been thinking about getting into the technical writing field, but you aren’t sure how to do it. First, let’s take a look at the technical writing field and the job outlook for technical communicators.

Technical Writers (members of the technical communication field) create documentation that teaches people new concepts or how to do new things. They write things as simple as how to take care of a plant or as complex as how to create interoperable Java APIs that allow computer applications to talk to each other over the Web. Technical Writers make good money. A recent Dice Salary Survey revealed that the average salary for Technical Writers in the U.S. was $77,656 in 2012.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for Technical Writers is good – employment is expected to grow about 17% from 2010 to 2020. Keep in mind that the technology sector in general has weathered the unemployment storm better than most other fields during the last recession. While other sectors experienced double-digit unemployment rates, unemployment in the technology arena was just 3.8% in 2011.

Now that you know the job pays well and should be stable, especially compared to other jobs in other fields, how do you actually break into this rewarding area of technology? Begin by making sure that you have the fundamental skills and aptitude needed to be a good Technical Writer. You must have strong writing and organizational skills and you should be good at explaining how to do things in a clear, concise manner. Not all good writers can become successful Technical Writers. There are plenty of people who can write eloquent poems and action-packed screenplays, but can’t write a good user guide for a new software application.

Since technical communication is a marriage of writing and technology, you have to be able to learn new concepts relatively quickly and come up to speed with new software applications. You have to be inquisitive and you must be able to get the answers you need from books, the Web, existing documents, and sometimes from inherently uncooperative people. If you’re still interested in this challenging and lucrative field, then you may be ready to take the first step to a new and exciting career.

First download a lot of technical writing documents from the Web – this includes user guides, white papers, administrator guides, standard operating procedures and any other examples of good technical documentation. Get samples from different areas, such as software documentation, biomedical, finance, and anything else that interests you. Be open-minded, but try to focus on areas that you would enjoy writing about.

Next, consider getting a certificate or Bachelor’s degree in technical communication. Carnegie Mellon University, Northeastern University, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and San Francisco State University offer Bachelor’s programs in technical communication. Getting a specialized education will really help your career and will also allow you to network with other students and faculty members in this field. It could also lead to an internship at a company that’s looking for entry-level Technical Writers.

Make sure that you join the Society for Technical Communicators (STC), which is an organization of technical communicators that helps those in the field and provides good, relevant articles on a variety of technical communication topics. Also check out Websites such as techwhirl, tech-writing.alltop, and other good sites that you give you excellent writing, technology, and job insight. Be sure to learn the tools that you’ll need, such as Microsoft Word and Excel, FrameMaker, RoboHelp, Captivate, and Visio. Later, if you get into more advanced areas of technical documentation, you may need to learn the latest single-sourcing applications, such as DITA or MadCap Flare.

You must know the basics of technical editing and the entire technical writing lifecycle. Understand what technical writers do on a typical project and know how to talk the talk. For example, you should know all of the following: master page, running header, page break vs. section break, stylesheet, white space, hyperlinks, grouping, alignment, copy editing, templates, margins, page layout, find/replace, and a lot more. Technical Editing by Carolyn Rude and the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Communications should be in your writing library.

It’s critical that you have good writing samples – many potential employers will want to see what you’ve written to determine if they want to offer you a job. If you weren’t able to get an internship, offer to do some free technical writing. Join openoffice.org, which will give you the opportunity to write some actual software documentation for their products. Another good idea is to write some good software tutorials. Get the latest Microsoft Office suite and write tutorials that show people how to resolve some common Word or Excel problems.

And make sure that you have a pristine, error-free resume. This will be one of your most important technical documents. Although the job outlook for Technical Writers is very good, it’s not uncommon for many people to apply for the same job, and hiring managers are looking for ways to screen people out. A non-stellar or just slightly incoherent resume is one good way for them to screen people out.

Finally, make sure that you network with other people – at school, work, online, in the STC, or anywhere you meet people. A lot of people break into new jobs by networking with others. If you enjoy writing and technology and are willing to take the time to learn the processes and tools, you can have a very rewarding career in this stable and growing field.

Charles Fannan is a Senior Technical Writer and Instructional Designer. He’s worked in many areas of technology, including software development, networking, finance, training, and food manufacturing. Charles has a BA in Technical and Professional Writing and an MA in Instructional Technologies. He also enjoys running, working out, hiking, cooking, music, traveling, and enriching social interactions. 

By Charles Fannan