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Working as a Technical Writer

Updated on July 7, 2013
No...  a little more than this!
No... a little more than this!

What do technical writers do?

Have you ever wondered who writes the little booklet that comes with a DVD player, or who creates the step-by-step instructions for flat-packed sets of drawers? Technical Writers (otherwise known as Information Designers or Technical Communicators) take the complex information that the designers and manufacturers create, and then 'translate' this into user-friendly information that the customer needs.

What skills are required to become a technical writer?

Generally speaking, a technical writer possesses a mix of writing, research, business, and design skills. And although every position and project requires a different mix of these skills, it is accepted that there are ‘core’ skills that required. These can be described under several broad headings:


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– Writing and editing

Excellent writing and editing skills are a must. Currently there is a popular movement to write using concise, plain English language. As a professional writer, you must have a solid grounding in the mechanics of grammar, spelling, and appropriate style.

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– Research

Every new project requires research to fully understand how a product is used, applied, assembled, or stored etc. This information often comes from a subject matter expert (SME) who is involved in the design, engineering, or creation of a products. It is the Technical Writers responsibility to gain a full understanding of the product (or service) being documented. This is usually obtained by interviewing the SME, and is called 'primary research'. Effective note-taking, questionnaire design, and attention to fine detail are highly desirable skills during this stage.

Other research skills that are often used involve searching technical journals, books, and other written sources that support the primary research. This is termed 'secondary' research.

– Audience analysis

Documentation should never be created without having a clear understanding of those who will be using it. Every audience is different, and requires documentation written with a different structure, tone, layout, and style. To effectively write for different audiences, technical writers may interview those who will use the information, or might create an average 'persona' of the user.

– Project management

Taking a technical writing project from conception to completion is often the sole responsibility of the technical writer. Projects have deadlines and are subject to strict business plans, and when projects fall behind schedule someone loses out. Project management skills enable appropriate scheduling of each stage of writing the documentation. This ensures the product and the documentation are ready at the same time... on time.

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– Interpersonal skills

As the key person responsible for the design of documentation, a technical writer needs to liaise with managers, SMEs, and other interested parties, to complete their work. These people often have their own deadlines and responsibilities that limit the time they have to spare. Good interpersonal skills can make an important difference when trying to encourage someone to give you their valuable time and attention.

– User testing and user experience

These terms relate to the testing of how documentation is understood by the user. Clear and accurate documentation not only needs to transmit the intended information, but also needs to be appropriate for its intended use. Questions to ask might be:

  • Where is this information used?
  • Who is using it?
  • What do they already know about the product?
  • What level of English is appropriate?
  • Should it be a physical (paper) document, or an on-line resource?

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– Design

Having perfectly crafted words that convey your message may be a waste of time if the user can't find the information they want. There aren't many who read a manual from front to back, they often 'flick' to find the information they need. Badly designed layout of information may severely reduce its usability, which of course is one of tits primary functions.

– Graphics

Although a technical writer is not a graphic designer, having an understanding of the basics of graphic design is required. This doesn't need to include graduate level skills, simply an understanding of visual aesthetics and the graphics requirements of a project.

The next steps...

This isn't a definitive list of skills, but it is a good overview of what's required. To take your technical writing career further, consider enrolling in a technical writing or information design course. There are many good courses around the world, and many can be completed online.



About the author

Mark trained in communication engineering when he was 19, and then later completed a degree in medical radiography. After ten years as a practising radiographer, he travelled for two years with Gill, his wife, and is now training to become a technical writer in Christchurch, NZ.

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    • wtaylorjr2001 profile image

      William H Taylor 4 years ago from Binghamton NY

      This is very informative, and I thank you for sharing this as I am forced to wonder how does one go about becoming a technical writer? Do we assemble a portfolio? How do we get our clients? How much do we charge? As you read these questions it is possible to infer that I am interested in such things. Yet I am ignorant of how to go about setting up a technical writing business.

    • Mark S Waterhouse profile image
      Author

      Mark S Waterhouse 4 years ago from Christchurch, NZ.

      Hi William, sorry for the late reply.

      Your questions were my questions when I first considered tech writing, and I still can't answer them all. I've spoken to a number of technical writers, and some don't have formal qualifications — they started out in IT. One guy I know just applied for a job and then proved his worth through interview.

      I live an hour away from town and hope to work from home one day, but I expect I'll have to work in town for a time before this can happen.

      My advice would be to phone your nearest college that teaches tech writing/information design, and ask their advice. This is the Society for Technical Communication website— http://www.stc.org/ they have job listings, courses, and other resources.

      Thanks for the comments, and hope I've helped.

    • profile image

      judy hawkins 4 years ago

      I always wanted to become a good writer until taking classes in Charlotte North Carolina and writing a Spot and showing it on National TV in 1980. Wow was I proud! judyhawkins115a@gmail.com Time:9:38 PM Date:12/17/2012

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      I got into tech writing because it seemed a good fit for me, and my first resume basically said I knew technical stuff (proved by a technical degree) and I knew writing (proved by my having correct grammar on my resume) and I read the Chicago Manual of Style (which didn't really prove anything except that you'd probably have to be a writer to want to read it). This, plus knowing someone who knew someone who was hiring (which is apparently the way a lot of jobs get landed) was enough in my case.

      As far as I've noticed, all technical writers think all other technical writers are moderately to completely incompetent, so it's not like you're proving your worth against an accepted standard.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image

      Kaili Bisson 4 years ago from Canada

      Excellent Hub Mark and I wish you luck in your chosen field. I have been a technical writer for many years, but of a slightly different sort. I work in IT and I take very technical descriptions that folks like Technology Architects write and turn it into text that mere mortals can understand. Technical writing is a good career choice and if you have a talent for it you will not be without work.

    • Mark S Waterhouse profile image
      Author

      Mark S Waterhouse 4 years ago from Christchurch, NZ.

      Thanks All for the input, I think it adds a lot to a hub to have real-world feedback. Thank you Kaili for the encouraging feedback — a little goes a long way!

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 4 years ago from California

      Mark,

      Great hub! I love to write and have an IT background, so I've thought about training to be a technical writer. This is very helpful information.

    • Mark S Waterhouse profile image
      Author

      Mark S Waterhouse 4 years ago from Christchurch, NZ.

      Thanks for kind comment, I'm sure you'd make an excellent tech writer/information designer.

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