If you enjoy writing about technical subjects and have a knack for condensing complex information, a career in technical writing might just be for you. As a growing field, the demand for technical writers is at an all-time high. If you’re interested in this career path and would like to know how to become a technical writer, keep reading.
In this guide, we’ll provide a crash course on technical writing, followed by a brief job description of a technical writer (roles and responsibilities).
Furthermore, we’ll also lay down a roadmap that anyone can take to kick-start their career in technical writing. If you're looking to learn via video, see this resource:
Let’s get started with the concept of technical writing.
What is Technical Writing?
Technical writing (also known as tech writing) refers to creating content on a technical subject for a defined audience, including, but not limited to, engineers, scientists, business professionals, technicians, and maintenance workers.
The ultimate goal is to convey technical information through unambiguous content to either an internal or external audience. The actual content can take many shapes and forms, including instruction manuals/user manuals/user guides, reports, white papers, case studies, etc.
Technical writing is a form of technical communication, which, according to the Society for Technical Communication (STC), refers to any form of communication that:
- Explains a technical concept
- Is meant for a defined audience
- Leverages some form of technology
Unlike other types of writing – such as book writing, blog writing, social media content development, etc. – technical writing isn’t meant for entertainment or leisure.
It always seeks to accomplish an objective with tangible results. Depending on your area of expertise, that objective could be to:
- Guide a team of technicians through a complex maintenance procedure
- Provide assembly instructions for a technical product (like an industrial machine)
- Explain how to use an enterprise software to a team of business professionals
- Share financial forecast with the senior management of an organization
- Discuss the philosophy or share your solution for a problem with potential customers/investors
There can be several other objectives of a technical piece of content.
At the end of the day, the exact set of rules, goals, and other nuances boil down to the organization/person developing the content.
The Different Areas Where Technical Writing is Needed
Historically, technical writing was only required by STEM fields, such as engineering, physics, chemistry, computer science, information technology, etc.
Today, it’s also needed in various business fields, especially finance and accounting. This means that there are various types of technical writing.
Apart from the basic criteria of technical communication, there are no strict universal rules when it comes to producing technical documentation.
As discussed earlier, it all depends on the people it’s meant for (their ability to comprehend technical information and their qualifications) and the people/organization developing it.
However, every organization does have some sort of a style guide in place to ensure consistency across all the technical documents it produces.
Prerequisites to Become a Technical Writer
Before learning how to become a technical writer, it’s important to understand what the technical writer's job entails.
Technical writers are subject matter experts who create content centered on their areas of expertise.
In simple words, tech writers are content development professionals who specialize in distilling complex information into easy-to-understand content.
Depending on the company, a technical writer can also be a resident engineer, scientist, or a technician, with “technical content development” being just a part of their job description.
They are highly revered for their writing skills, coupled with their technical know-how – a rare combination.
However, the job entails a lot more than simply writing the content.
Like every other position, the exact job description will vary from employer to employer. However, here are a few things that every technical writer is expected to do, regardless of their area of expertise, industry, and experience:
1. Conduct Extensive Research
The primary responsibility of any technical writer is to conduct extensive research.
The hallmark of good technical writing is a solid foundation. A tech writer may be a subject matter expert, but from time to time they are expected to gather data from various sources to ensure whatever information they share is 100% accurate and up-to-date.
After all, the content they produce can have a direct impact on the business bottom line. For instance, a technical mistake in a machine’s preventive maintenance checklist can disrupt operations, cause delays, and even threaten the safety of the concerned personnel.
That’s just a small glimpse of the implications of the job. For that reasons, organizations demand technical writers with decent research skills.
2. Create Personas
Gathering ample data and validating information is just one part of setting a solid foundation for technical content.
The other is having a deep understanding of the people that content is meant for.
For that reason, one of the primary responsibilities of a technical writer in most organizations is to create and manage audience personas.
This helps the writer determine the appropriate tone, selection of words, and the depth when developing the content.
Of course, creating/managing personas isn’t really an everyday task for a technical writer, but it is an important part of the job.
3. Perform Editorial Work
This is a no-brainer.
Technical writers spend most of their time engaged in editorial work.
This involves managing calendars, creating drafts, and going through multiple rounds of edits to finalize the content.
4. Collaborate with Other Team Members
In addition to creating personas, conducting research, and doing all the editorial work, a technical writer’s job also entails consistently collaborating with different team members.
This level of communication depends on the type of technical content being developed by the organization.
Regardless, here’s a list of the people in an organization a technical writer may need to cooperate with:
- Designers – design is a major part of technical content. The layout of the documents, illustrations, charts, etc. can complete a document. Therefore, writers have to work closely with the designers to ensure that everything fits perfectly.
- Web Developers – if the technical content is supposed to be shared as a landing page, the writers naturally have to work with the developers.
- Technical Managers – as mentioned earlier, technical writers are under immense pressure to validate their content. To do that, they consult with the technical managers/engineers/specialists who are well-versed in the concept.
All things considered, a great technical writer needs to be proactive to ensure consistent and timely communication with the concerned people.
If you're interested in learning more about how to become a great technical writer, then check out our Technical Writing Certification Course.
5. Gather Feedback for Improved Work
A technical writer’s job is never really finished.
Even after crafting and publishing the technical content, they need to assess how it performs.
This entails collecting feedback from the audience it was meant for.
For an internal audience – such as a team of technicians or engineers – collecting said feedback is easy. You can simply ask them if it accomplished its goal(s).
However, if the content is meant for an external audience – say, a panel of investors – collecting said feedback isn’t always so easy. Unless you directly ask the people reading it for feedback, it’s not so simple to attribute the success of the actual project/product to the writing.
In any case, a good technical writer has to figure out a way to collect that feedback, analyze it, and use it to improve their work.
How to Become a Technical Writer
The road to becoming a technical writer isn’t as simple as merely completing a bachelor’s degree and seeking employment.
There are a few prerequisites that you must meet, skills you must acquire, and additional steps that you need to take along the way in order to build a successful career for yourself.
If you’re an aspiring technical writer, here’s a complete roadmap that will help you kick-start your dream career:
1. Invest in the Right Education and Training
First and foremost, you have to build a solid foundation for your career. This entails creating a strong academic background.
If it’s still not too late, consider getting a college degree in a technical field such as computer science, engineering, or physics.
As a technical writer, if you’re not a subject matter expert, chances are that the opinions you share independently won’t be considered credible.
Specializing in communication fields will also be worth it, but make sure you know about the technical side of the job.
That being said, investing in the aforementioned formal education programs will certainly give you a massive competitive edge. However, that alone won’t guarantee success.
For that reason, in addition to acquiring a college degree, you must also invest in different technical writing courses.
These courses will provide you with the knowledge you need to enter this field. Furthermore, they’ll help strengthen your professional profile and grab the attention of recruiters.
2. Work on Developing the Right Skillsets
Skilled technical writers are high in demand. Certain courses/certifications will help you develop some of the required skills, but for the rest, you’ll need to make some extra efforts.
Basic writing skills are prerequisites. But for recruiters, being just a decent writer isn’t good enough.
On top of written communication skills, a great technical writer should also have good command over verbal/spoken communication skills due to the day-to-day collaborations they have with others.
Furthermore, decent critical thinking, interpersonal, and good management skills are essential for the job.
In addition to the soft skills discussed above, there are a few in-demand technical skills that can go a long way in setting yourself up for success.
First and foremost, proficiency in popular software programs (such as Microsoft Office), work management tools (like Asana), and content management systems (such as WordPress) is required.
3. Start Consuming Technical Content
Contrary to popular belief, a writer doesn’t get better by writing more.
To polish your writing skills, reading is far more important.
For that reason, you should start consuming any form of technical content that you can get your hands on.
Look up real examples of technical writing on the internet. If you’re drawn towards a particular type of technical content – such as user manuals, white papers, business plans etc. – search for their examples specifically.
Looking at the actual content and taking inspiration from the experts will help you gain a better understanding of the job.
4. Start Writing (Even if it Doesn’t Pay)
As you gain the relevant credentials, develop skillsets, and garner inspiration, you also need to start applying everything.
If you’re just starting out, you may apply for an internship to gain some work experience.
However, you don’t necessarily have to gain practical hands-on experience in a professional setting. You should also start developing different content assets as a hobby to polish your skills, show them to a willing expert, and get feedback. Or better yet, look up tech founders on LinkedIn and volunteer to develop content for them (they might even hire you on a full-time basis if they like your work).
You can also select the best content and build an online portfolio to show off your skills to potential recruiters.
5. Apply for Open Technical Writing Jobs
All that’s left to do is to actually apply for technical writing gigs.
Since the job market for technical writers is so competitive, newcomers don’t really fare well as freelance writers.
Unless you’re lucky to find an independent project, the best way would be to apply for technical writer jobs.
From new tech startups to well-known giants such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc. advertise for new jobs every now and then.
Put together a strong technical writer resume, set up solid profiles on platforms like Indeed, LinkedIn, and Glassdoor, and set up alerts for any open positions near you.
Due to the nature of the job, you can also apply as a remote technical writer at a company situated in another state (or even country).
Is a Career in Technical Writing Worth it?
Now that you’ve learned how to become a technical writer, is a technical writing career even worth pursuing?
The answer: It depends.
Like every other career path, success isn’t guaranteed. Some writers are more successful than others. At the end of the day, it all boils down to how committed you are, your current skillsets, and where you’re situated.
Here’s how much they earn according to different platforms:
- Glassdoor – according to Glassdoor, the average salary of a technical writer in the US is $57,282, with the highest salary capping at $79,000. These figures are based on 6,164 salary reports.
- Indeed – as per the 1,800 salary reports on Indeed, technical writers earn $57,573 on average, which is almost the same as Glassdoor’s figure. Furthermore, the platform reports that tech writers earn an additional $2,000 per year as cash bonuses.
- PayScale – PayScale reports that technical writers earn $60,501 per year on average, with salaries ranging from $42,000 to $87,000.
If you’re truly passionate about this form of writing, and are willing to put in the efforts, you’ll definitely reap the competitive rewards this field has to offer.
But if it’s just one of your skillsets, and it’s not something that you particularly enjoy doing, you should consider keeping it as a side-career and not pursuing it as a full-time job.
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.