What does a Technical Writer Do?

What does a Technical Writer Do?

Almost all the current global industries have an underlying need for technical documentation. So much so that developing such content is a job title in itself. All levels of the corporate and commercial hierarchy need someone to take complex information and turn it into easily understandable content for the end-user. All of that is part of the technical content writer job description. 

Technical writer job opportunities are always available - even more so with the arrival of advanced technology (and the need to explain how it works) in just about every workplace.

In case you're interested in making a career out of technical writing, read on. In this article, I'll give a detailed description of the technical writer's job, the required qualifications for it, and how to succeed as a technical writer.

Let's get started. 

Technical Writer Job Overview

Simply put, a technical writer is someone who writes company documents such as instruction manuals, intermediate to end-user manuals, reference guides, operating procedure guides, white papers, and technical product descriptions.

Writers can work as documentation specialists, creating and updating company paperwork related to training, and developing technical staff.   

Depending on their specific area of expertise, technical writers may also write journal articles, occupational outlook handbooks, and other high-quality documentation.  

Here are technical writer responsibilities at a glance:

  • Research technical information related to their company or department's field of operation
  • Plan technical document development according to company needs
  • Compile information by order of usability
  • Develop and/or edit the required documentation  
  • Organize all technical documents into the database and make copies for data security
  • Maintain a detailed glossary/library of technical terms and documents at all times

Other than these, some writers may have more specific responsibilities pertaining to their professional field. This makes it a diverse job with varying duties. 

For example, medical writers may be required to write drug-related literature and product reviews in medical journals. 

Primary Responsibilities of Technical Writers 

As mentioned in the previous section, technical writing is quite a diverse field, and professionals in it can have a variety of responsibilities depending on the company they are working in. 

Nevertheless, all technical writers have some job duties that are constant among all professionals.

Here are some of the primary responsibilities of all modern technical writers. 

Subject Matter Research

Because they write the very literature that professionals in a field will study to become experts in their niche, technical writers have to be subject matter experts to some degree.

This comes from conducting detailed theoretical research into a professional area or topic and developing content based on their findings. 

While conducting subject matter research, technical writers will:

  • Gather topic-related information from various sources such as journals, competitor literature, dissertations, whitepapers, and even professional social media (LinkedIn, job boards, etc.)
  • Study previously written information on a specific subject and correlate it to their topic
  • Discern useful information and narrow their research down to specific points
  • List those points in order of importance to the subject

Additionally, writers may interview existing experts or even take courses based on the topic they are researching.  

Technical Document Planning

Since technical documents are so vital to the company's operational requirements, writers need to actually plan out their development, instead of simply starting on singular notice. 

This means that each document has to be developed with pre-existing knowledge of how many resources it's going to consume, and what will be its impact once it's circulated. 

While planning technical documentation, technical writers will:

  • Ascertain project scope and resource input based on the complexity of the document
  • Familiarize themselves with the subject 
  • Maintain a work log containing daily tasks for themselves and their team (for senior technical writers)
  • Interview internal experts and managers for insight

In some instances, (senior) writers operate as full-time managers for the technical writing team. In this capacity, they're responsible for developing systematic writing approaches for more efficient work, as well as setting timely targets for team members. 

Skill Requirements for a Technical Writer

While most skill requirements for the basic technical writers are fulfilled by the qualifications needed for the job, there are some skills that each potential writer needs to develop.

Here are some of the prime skills that technical writers need to excel at their jobs.

  • Outstanding Communication Skills: As a technical communicator, part of the technical writer's job is making sure the documents and content they write are easily understandable by whoever it's meant for. This is why technical writers need to have excellent communication skills with an ability to transfer knowledge without resorting to complex content.  
  • Tech-Management Skills: Since most modern companies (SMEs and corporations) use software for data processing and housing, technical writers need to know how to effectively manage advanced software systems for storage, research, etc. Furthermore, if the writer is employed in a technical field, they should have at least working knowledge of functional software and machinery. 
  • Related Technical Skills: While it's not necessary for writers to have experience in the area that they're writing about, it's beneficial to have at least some practical knowledge of how certain aspects of it work, from a technical standpoint. For example, an information technology/computer science writer should have experience with a practical cybersecurity implementation, to better write on it.
  • User Experience Development: This relates to the point about communication skills, in that writers need to be able to provide the optimal solution for each of the pain points of a user/reader, in their content. In addition to that, it's necessary for a technical writer to address the subject in an effective manner if they want their version of the content to be adopted. 
  • Effective Information Collection/Research: The ability to conduct research in an efficient and manner is one of the fundamental skills for a writer. This is even more important for technical writers, who need to refine and streamline their search to where they can collect the most useful information about a subject in the shortest possible time.
  • Detail-Oriented Writing Skills: While most technical writers work with the ability to insert the required details in their content, the most successful ones know exactly which details will be most useful to the reader, and which information is not as useful in the long term. 
  •  Single-Source Selection Skills: Some projects may require writers to create multiple documents on the same topic, but for readers of varying proficiency levels. This is where the ability to select one good technical knowledge source comes in. Writers need to know which source has ample information to benefit all readers, while also knowing how to spin the content to suit the beginner AND advanced reader. 
  • Critical Thinking Skills: Critical thinking is associated with non-technical writing, however, it's just as important for technical writers who wish to explore journalistic work. Critical thought will allow readers to discern between valuable information and fluff, and ultimately create content that provides readers with a solution instead of data that raises more questions. 

Overall, it pays to be not just a talented writer with a knack for picking out the most important details from a sea of data, but also someone who can then transfer that knowledge effectively to the audience.  

Required Qualifications for a Technical Writer 

The exact qualifications of a technical writer depend on the industry and company they are employed in. 

However, most writers need to have a few basic qualifications.

These are:

  • Bachelor's degree in English (or industry-specific faculty), with 2-3 years of experience for an intermediate writer, and 4-5 years for senior writers
  • Vocational diploma in technical writing or content development
  • Undergraduate degree and extended internship in the applied faculty

In addition to the above, technical writers need to have some experience in writing professionally, in either a technical or academic content development capacity.

Candidates with a high-school diploma may also get a job as junior technical writers. However, they will usually be required to attain higher education before they are allowed to progress to senior positions. 

Technical Writer Salary and Job Statistics

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for a standard technical writer is $72,850 a year.

There were 58,400 technical writing jobs reported in the United States, in 2019. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates an annual growth rate of 7% till 2029.

This number is higher than the average for similar jobs.

It's also estimated that the recent popularity of web-based corporate management software systems will open up more jobs for technical writers in the near future. Furthermore, as companies experience a digital transformation, the technical writer job description is bound to become more diverse and skill-intensive. 

Interested candidates can set job alerts for full or part-time job postings for in-house writers, as well as freelancers. 

How to Become a Successful Technical Writer

Technical writers and documentation specialists have varying success parameters, depending on what their day to day tasks revolve around. 

If they are developing instruction manuals for machinery maintenance, their success will be calculated by the success rate of maintenance technicians. 

Similarly, if they write product specifications, descriptions, and/or reviews, they will be judged by the successful administration or usage of the product, due to helpful reviews. 

In any case, writers have the ability to develop the skills that will enable them to succeed in their chosen area of technical writing.

Here are some of the steps writers can take to ensure success in the technical writing realm.

  • Consume the content developed by thought leaders in the industry of choice. Subject matter experts and industry influencers are the best sources of content-related insight for aspiring writers. Study as much of their content development process and techniques as possible and find patterns that can be adopted. 
  • Take multiple online courses and continue professional education. There are tons of online courses and certification programs that can deliver up-to-date industry knowledge, as well as unique insights into the profession that you wouldn't get with a degree or even while working.
  • Explore multiple writing avenues and content types. Limiting writing capabilities to a single style will not only limit the variety of jobs you get but also stunt your growth as a writer. Make sure to expand your horizons and attempt various different types of content, from manuals to medical notes, to even machinery descriptions.
  • Learn how to use technical writing software. There are tons of tools and software platforms designed for documentation and technical content development in mind. Learn how to use the ones that offer the best options for your specific type of technical writing.

Ultimately, the measure of success for a technical writer is how well they are able to grasp the subject they are writing on, and how well they are able to convey their knowledge for content consumers. 

Ending Note

Adopting technical writing as a career can be very rewarding for candidates who are interested in exploiting creative content development abilities in a technical capacity.

Faculties such as engineering, medicine, architecture, and business administration are all very conducive to technical writers who are willing to take the aforementioned steps to technical writing success.

In conclusion, if you're interested in a position as a technical writer, make sure to find out which technical content type is suited to your writing abilities, as well as the job responsibilities of the position you are applying for.

 

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