A software engineer might start technical writing as a side job since many companies require technical documentation.
If you're a software engineer enjoying technical writing and are thinking of transitioning full-time, this article has everything you need. If you're interested in learning via video then watch below. Otherwise, skip ahead.
How to Transition to a Technical Writing Career?
When you start the transition to technical writing, constant writing can be quite a technical challenge. But, the more you write, the better you get.
The software development background is the primary touchpoint between an engineer and a technical writer. Since many technical writers have the required tech skills, explaining technical things and abstract concepts is easier.
Naturally, the easiest way to start your technical writing career is inside your existing company. If you're currently working as an engineer for a specific business, you already know the insides and outs. You have a clear overview of technical communications and internal web development. Most importantly, you know people that can help you get a head start.
If that's not the case, but you enjoy writing technical documentation, there are several ways to break into technical writing.
Take Technical Writing Courses
Depending on your confidence in your current tech writing skills, you might want to brush up on your tech writing first. A great way to do that is to find a tech writing program or take a technical writing course.
Depending on your technical writing experience, it might take some time to master writing, so a course is a great way to speed up the process. There are multiple online courses that you can find either on online learning platforms, college pages, or websites that teach all the technical details.
Besides knowledge, another benefit is certification. Technical writers typically start by pursuing a bachelor's degree in technical communication or English. The degree helps them land their first tech writing jobs before accumulating enough experience.
But for you, going to college takes too much time. Although your software engineering experience and computer science background helps with landing jobs, having an official technical writing certification will make job hunting easier.
If you're transitioning inside the same company, the certification won't be as helpful. But if you decide to switch companies, having a certificate helps.
Alternatively, you might already have the necessary knowledge and skills. Either way, it's never a bad idea to take a course and become an even better technical writer.
Connect with Professionals
As an engineer, you already have connections with writers and other software developers, so you don't need to do as much networking. But, it's never a bad idea to meet new people, especially when starting a new career.
A quick search on community websites such as Reddit will connect you with writers who enjoy writing technical documentation as much as you do. More importantly, you can find technical writers from different industry fields.
Another great professional resource is LinkedIn. You might already have a LinkedIn profile, making online networking much more effortless.
Alternatively, it's also a good idea to get in touch with coworkers from your previous job and not only engineering teams. Tech writers are in demand, and the estimated job growth is 7.36% until 2030. That means that everybody needs tech writers, even those in the business directly.
Create a Tech Writing Resume
You might feel that your previous job resume is enough. While engineering does give you a competitive edge, you need a technical writing resume.
Your resume should include all your past engineering experience since it's a clear sign of your capability to write good documentation. Furthermore, don't forget to include any technical writing courses that you take.
You can find technical writing resume templates online to help you present your tech skills in the best light possible.
Expand Industry Knowledge
As a software developer, you have the knowledge you need. But if you're planning to become a full-time technical writer, you need a mind shift.
Explaining complex concepts to your intended audience isn't as easy as it sounds. Often, knowledgeable people have difficulty explaining a concept in simple terms. They get lost in complex phrasing.
A technical writer doesn't need to know everything about the industry. They need to have a fair understanding of the topic at hand. Meaning, more knowledge doesn't necessarily make a person a better writer.
Although writers typically specialize in a specific industry, as an engineer, you'll need to exit your engineering comfort zone.
A great way to start is to expand to related fields such as software design or marketing.
Depending on your experience, full-time writing can be quite a technical challenge. You need to write both internal documentation and external for exciting new features. Meaning, you'll have more than a single target audience that is primarily non-technical people.
So you don't falter, set practical goals. For example, a great starting goal for technical writers is to write a flawless first draft. What's tricky about creating documentation such as end-user manuals is reviewing your work.
It's easier for a software developer to know when they did a good job. Although the software building process is arguably more complex, it's evident if the final product doesn't work.
When you start, you'll need an editor to proofread the copy to ensure it's simple and self-explanatory. But as you write more and more perfect first drafts, you'll notice patterns that make an excellent copy.
Finally, although your job is to write, that doesn't mean that you'll get all the necessary data all the time.
Set yourself the goal of having necessary data without having to backtrack once you start writing. This way, you'll learn to gather information independently instead of depending on others.
Since a technical writer is a hybrid between a writer and a software engineer, the skills you need are somewhat unique.
You already have the first half in the bag with your experience in the technical field. Here are some technical writing skills that you need. Some of them you probably also possess. If you don't, simply being aware of them as you work will help you get better.
The main reason technical writing can be challenging is that you need to communicate with everybody properly. As you research, you need stellar verbal communication with your team. When you start writing, you need better communication to present the subject.
Since you have experience writing code, you have some of it covered. But tech skills don't address coding. It also includes team, product, project management, and marketing. Although you might need those initially, they are essential for moving up in your technical writing career.
As mentioned previously, lousy research creates the foundation for a disaster. Knowing where to look and what to look for is your ticket to becoming a better technical writer.
This one is a no-brainer. But remember that technical writing is more than piecing proper grammar and vocabulary together. The content you write is the window to your company's product, and plain writing isn't enough. You need to know for whom you write and why you write. Otherwise, you'll find yourself rewriting the exact copy over and over.
Depending on the organization, some technical writers work as technical editors. Other companies separate the two job positions. Your editing skills should develop alongside your writing skills, but remember that the editing POV differs from the writing POV.
Responsibilities After You Transition
Responsibilities vary depending on if you're writing for the user or for the company itself.
The technical writer doesn't need to explain the software building process when writing for users. Imagine a company that develops a search engine for finding freelance jobs. The end-user doesn't need to understand how the service’s back end works. They need to know how to use the service effectively and how it helps them in their everyday lives.
For internal documentation, a technical writer might need to explain the software development for team members that aren't developers but require the information to make proper decisions. A great example can be the product management team that consists of people who lack software design knowledge.
The writer is responsible for writing both innovative pieces and cold data documents. Tech writing also requires proper research and proofreading as there's little room for error.
Although responsibilities vary from business to business, some of the core responsibilities are:
- Explain technical concepts in the simplest way to the intended audience.
- Write documentation for internal needs such as company decision-making.
- Communicate with the product team to understand the developer's perspective.
- Analyze and gather information independently.
- Understand the rhetoric relevancy for the specific audience.
- Review and edit existing content.
Although simple products require less tech writing, the more complex a product gets, the more essential technical writers are. This is especially the case for B2B SaaS companies since they often struggle with convincing the customer of why their product is better than the rest.
Finally, software development teams are constantly developing internal tools, and without proper documentation, the benefits can get lost as the communication gets weaker.
How Much Do Technical Writers Earn?
Since the demand for technical writers is growing, you can expect the average salary to increase accordingly.
Technical Writer vs Engineer - Benefits
Finally, let's go over some of the technical writer benefits over software engineers.
- On average, a technical writer has less strict deadlines. There's usually a couple of deadlines, such as product/update release date.
- There's less back and forth mainly because you'll face fewer bugs and errors than an engineer.
- Although this can be a subjective matter, another benefit is that you're closer to the user. Many engineers get stuck creating a product without getting any feedback.
- You interact with different teams inside the company besides the development team.
Although some people don't like communicating with other people every day, if you enjoy writing technical documentation, you probably like talking to people.
Becoming a tech writer is much easier for someone with an engineering background than a background in writing. The main reason is that you already understand the product you need to write about.
Learning to write simple yet effective copies is also tricky, and it takes time to get into that tech writing flow.
Becoming an excellent technical writer requires time and effort. But if you want to make the career shift, you're bound to achieve the goal sooner than you think.
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about technical writing.
Is a technical writer a good career?
Many businesses need tech writers, especially in the software development industry. A tech writer has a unique mix of computer science understanding and engaging writing. Since most professionals focus either on one or the other, a technical writer is a valuable asset, making it a solid career choice.
How to get hired as a technical writer?
As an engineer, the easiest way is to seek out a technical writing opening inside your current company. If you're looking for a completely new job position, start by connecting with the right people. When you get a job opportunity, mention your engineering experience to boost your chances.
What makes a good technical writer?
A good technical writer has a balanced set of skills. That includes stellar word-crafting but also an in-depth technical understanding of the topic. While it can get time-consuming to master both sides, it is also rewarding.
If you are new to technical writing and are looking to break in, we recommend taking our Technical Writing Certification Course, where you will learn fundamentals of being a technical writer, how to dominate technical writer interviews, and how to stand out as a technical writing candidate.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He had his first job in technical writing for a video editing software company in 2014. Since then, he has written several books on software documentation, personal branding, and computer hacking. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.