How to Become a Technical Writer
When I finally went to college, I knew exactly what I wanted to be: a writer. I envisioned writing creatively and publishing loads of novels. I took nearly every writing course offered by my university.
What I learned was that the chances of publishing a novel were extremely remote and could take some years with no income. That just wasn't an option for me since I had myself and a young child to support. So, I started researching other options and found that my college offered a Certificate of Technical Communication.
The certificate took 36 credits of consecutive classes to complete. I didn't really know what a technical writer was, so I did research on the online job sites. Turns out there are tons of tech writing jobs in the U.S. that pay pretty darn well. The job descriptions sounded like something I could do, although the writing would be not at all creative. On the other hand, it would mean a paycheck, benefits, a retirement fund - plus I could write the great American novel on the weekends, right?
What is a Technical Writer?
A technical writer basically designs, creates, and maintains documentation that explains how to operate, care for, fix, obtain support for, safely use, etc., technical devices. Product writing could describe the use of anything from a lawn mower to a nuclear submarine.
The documents are rarely in print form any more, but are produced in HTML or XML and converted into electronic, computer-accessed instructions and help files.
Normally, the tech writer has to work with engineers to learn how to properly use the machine, software, or device, taking notes and photos, then turning these into instruction documents that users can understand.
Less frequently, engineers may write a document then hand it to a tech writer to 'translate,' edit, and format for publication.
Reality check: Either way, the tech writer works with a large variety of people and has to coordinate demands from engineers who don't agree with each other, upper management who isn't aware of the details of the project, product management who decides what goes into the product, quality control who reviews only the product - not the documentation to make sure it matches the product, design staff who is often overburdened with other department demands, and more.
The basic skills you can learn in school: document design, editing, technical writing (very different from any other kind of writing). In addition, it is helpful to have a working knowledge of some of the software you may need to use on the job: Word, RoboHelp, Photoshop, Adobe Acrobat Pro, Distiller, Dreamweaver, PageMaker, FrameMaker, or whatever an employer is using to produce their documents. Sometimes, the employer is willing to train a stellar graduate on their particular software, if they have the resources to do so.
However, over my 10 years as a technical writer, I have found that, in order to impress your boss while not tearing your hair out or having a nervous breakdown, the following qualities are important:
- A natural grasp of good grammar and vocabulary
- A bit of perfectionism (extreme attention to detail) along with the ability to pull back and see the entire document as the user will see it.
- A sense of humor
- Insight into various personalities
- The ability to figure out what motivates each person you work with
- The ability to see the big picture (What does the company want to accomplish with this document?)
- The ability to communicate clearly and defend your position (only if it benefits the company). After all, you are the professional in your field.
- The ability to stay calm in the face of crucial deadlines
- Flexibility (software features may be added and removed five times before the product 'goes out the door.')
- Know that even if your professional opinion is overruled, you are not the boss. Just be sure to get it all in writing, and keep those e-mails!
Go Where the Jobs Are
Living in Boise, Idaho (not exactly the technical capital of the U.S.), it took me 9 months after graduation to find an actual tech writing job at a computer manufacturing company. I learned new software and interacted with engineers who explained to me the various parts of their computers and servers and what they did. I turned this information into instructions for the user who would buy the equipment.
Basically this $29K per year job was a learning experience and resume booster that served me very well in obtaining my next job, but it wasn't paying the bills.
After a couple of years at this first job, and continuously searching for new jobs in my area, I realized that they just didn't exist. Although I'd lived in Idaho for 30 years, I realized I'd have to move to progress any further. After a lot of online research and some submitting of resumes online, an interesting thing happened: Headhunters started contacting me and trying hard to convince me to fill the position they were hiring for, almost all positions in the Eastern U.S.
In Idaho, I couldn't find a better job anywhere, whereas in the East, they can't find enough qualified tech writers - and are willing to pay big bucks for employees like me. Weird.
The first job I took was actually with a branch of the company I currently worked for, so references and assurance of my work ethic were easily conveyed. The jump in pay was to $55K, including an all-expenses-paid trip for the interview, then another trip with my daughter for house hunting, movers that packed up my house and car and transported them to Virginia, stored them, then unpacked me two months late later. Then came the final moving trip, with a free corporate apartment and use of a nice rental car for two months. In all, the company spent over $23K just to get me to work for them. That was almost a year's salary in Idaho!
As it turns out, if you want a great salary with a great company, you sometimes need to be willing to head to the government and technology belt.
Since then, I moved easily to two more companies and currently am being paid over $86K. Writers who get a security clearance are golden, easily making $115K and up in government jobs and the tons of jobs with companies that build things for the government.
With the tech writer education, you will know exactly how to create an awesome resume, but I repeatedly heard from employers, that they had interviewed, but could not hire, so many writers because the writers could not produce samples of their work.
So, as you gain experience (hopefully starting with internships in college), be sure to save samples of your work (and written recommendations). The only problem here is that many writers work for companies with sensitive materials that cannot be shown to the public. In this case, you're going to have to explain your situation and create a well-designed manual at home - something like how to use your home computer, along with detailed pictures, diagrams, charts, etc.
Pros and Cons
Being a tech writer, in my experience, has allowed me to provide a good living for myself and my daughter who is now in college. Also, after establishing my reliability with my employer, I now telecommute exclusively and avoid that hour-long commute into and home from work. Those are the pros.
The cons for me are that, as my pay increases, so do my responsibilities and the expectations from my employer. The stress can be completely overwhelming at times. Also, due to the stress, I've been unable to write that novel - maybe when my daughter's out of college, I'll make a change.