English Majors in the Business Jungle: A Career in Technical Writing

English majors make great tech writers
English majors make great tech writers | Source

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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Comments 4 comments

Lauren 4 years ago

I am currently pursuing my degree in English and have been considering a career in Technical Writing. Do you have any advice regarding how to obtain Technical Writing experience? With the current job market, I believe employers are looking for people with both writing and technical experience.

Thanks.


carolapple profile image

carolapple 4 years ago from Suffolk Virginia Author

If you can write well and also show an ability to understand and explain technology, then it should not be difficult for you to break into the technical writing field. I find that employers do look for an Englsih degree when seeking a tech writer. These days excellent writing ability is more difficult to find than technical expertise, and if you have both you have an advantage. I work in the software field so I generally write software user manuals and other computer-related documents, but there are many kinds of technical writing. To get experience on your resume perhaps you can find some temporary work technical writing or editing.

When you apply for a job, it helps to have some writing samples. To build your writing portfolio, perhaps you could write some simple procedures for people who need help doing something on a computer. For example, your Mom wants to learn to use Google+ but doesn't know how to get started. Write her an attractive user-friendly guide and then make a copy for yourself. You could also write some technology-focused articles here at HubPages!

I wish you the best of luck!


Lauren 4 years ago

Carolapple, thanks for your advice! I am particularly interested in the computer software division in technical writing, so in order to enhance my knowledge in that field, I'm considering taking programming classes at a local community college.

I will work on that portfolio in the meantime.

Thank you, again, for the advice and wishes. I definitely need them!


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 13 months ago

You are so right-on! Have you ever tried to read instructions written by a Japanese tech writer on how to install and operate a Japanese-made piece of equipment? Can't be done. Even my engineer husband says so.

I work as a legal editor. Years ago when we were a tiny fledgling agency, we required all prospective employees to pass a rigorous editing test. We merged with a gigantic agency that was hiring mostly political science majors, not English or communication majors. I finally got our boss to talk to TPTB to require undergraduate English or journalism degrees in the drafters and editors. A political science major may get you around the court system, but it won't enable you to prepare documents for legal publication. So now they do require employees to be fluent in writing English or some other form of communication like journalism or technical writing, not just law or political science. After all, legal drafting is just another form of technical writing.

I also believe that good writers are born, not made. We just need some honing on skills that are already there. I saw one young lady drop out of a journalism major because she didn't have the ability. Too bad, too, because her father owned the local newspaper in her town, and she had not inherited his writing ability. So anyway, good hub.

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