English Majors in the Business Jungle: A Career in Technical Writing
The road to a career in technical writing
Many college graduates with degrees in English seem to end up working as technical writers. But what is the connection between studying literature and technical writing? And is technical writing a good career path for English majors? The connection is writing ability and yes, technical writing can be an excellent career choice – if you have a good attitude and are willing to educate yourself in relevant areas of technology.
As a college English major, I read great novels, short stories, poetry, and drama, and slammed out numerous 2:00 am essays on my Sears Selectric typewriter (it's been a while since I was in college). I learned about theme, symbolism, character development, point of view, and theories of literary criticism. I still believe literature is among the most worthwhile and personally satisfying areas of study and I applaud and encourage anyone who chooses this path to an educated mind.
Some English majors go on to teach high school English, or they continue to graduate school and then teach on the college level. I did not want to get a teaching certificate to teach in a public school because it seemed like a lot of effort and expense to get to a place I really did not want to be. I found I could have taught English in a private school, but when I compared the likely salary with my living expenses, that career path did not seem feasible either. So to make a long story short, I became a technical writer.
How your degree in English qualifies you to be a technical writer
When employers advertise for a technical writer, they often list a degree in English as a qualification for the job. It is difficult to see, at first, how the ability to read literature and write critical essays qualifies a person to write and edit technical reports, software user manuals, or procedures for operating heavy equipment. Perhaps by requiring an English degree, employers are assuring themselves that applicants for the job will have some writing ability, a skill that seems to be in short supply. Scientists, engineers, and technicians are hired for their knowledge and skills, and these qualifications do not necessarily include writing.
In fact, it seems that the ability to write well is a skill increasingly prized by employers. A 2010 Troy University survey indicates that employers rank writing among the lowest rated skills exhibited by their college-educated employees. Many of my employers and co-workers have expressed similar opinions and I have seen enough less-than-stellar writing in my 20 or so years as a tech writer to be able to personally attest to this trend. However, even the best grasp of grammar, sentence structure, and style will get you only so far in the business world; you also need an actual understanding of your subject matter. The most eloquent sentence describing the glories of a new wireless communication system is not going to fly if the information is incorrect.
The importance of research skills
Lucky for us tech writers and our employers, English majors are highly skilled in research. We didn’t pull all nighters piecing together term papers on bird imagery in Emily Dickinson for nothing. Many times I have been assigned to write or edit a document about some technology or computer software that I knew very little (okay nothing) about. But there is Google, there is Wikipedia, and yes, there is even the public library.
Your employers will probably encourage you to rely on resident subject matter experts (SMEs) for help with the technical concepts. But if you want a deeper understanding of the subject matter and also the respect of your SME co-workers, you will do well to conduct some research on your own. In the Internet age there is really no excuse not to educate yourself about the subject of any document you are assigned to work on.
Technical is writing is not boring (usually)
Perhaps you are considering pursuing a career in technical writing but you are afraid it will be boring. Perhaps you are a creative or philosophical type who finds nuts and bolts or codes and standards stuff too dull for words. But I can assure you, this is a misconception that can keep you from pursuing a lucrative and satisfying career. As a highly intelligent creative person, you have the ability to make technical writing, if not exciting, at least interesting enough to hold your attention for the span of an eight-hour day.
I find that technology in itself can be interesting. It is easy to get absorbed in any subject when it comes to working out the problems involved in conveying complex information in a clearest, most comprehensible way. My first goal is to make sure my information is accurate. Then I make sure it is clear and as easy as possible to read for the intended audience, and then I go for the Holy Grail of technical writing – making it interesting! This challenge is usually compelling enough to prevent the onset of boredom and can even be exciting enough to occasionally get my blood pumping.
Technical writing can sustain you while you cultivate your creative genius
But let’s face it. No matter how riveting it may be to figure out the best way to write that lucid procedure for the end-user, tech writing will probably not satisfy your desire to create wonderful innovative prose or poetry and almost certainly will not lead to a book signing at Barnes and Noble. If you have creative writing ambitions, your technical writing job need not prevent you from pursuing them. In fact, the job can sustain you and keep you from being a starving artist while you work on that masterpiece. Technical writing jobs are relatively plentiful and the business world needs people who have skill with words. We English majors can help them out and make a decent living at the same time!
Source: Troy University 2010 Employer Survey. Accessed 24 Jan 2011.
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