What Does a Technical Writer Do?
A technical writer writes company documents such as instruction manuals, intermediate to end-user manuals, reference guides, operating procedure guides, white papers, and specialized product descriptions.
Writers can work as documentation specialists, creating and updating company paperwork related to training and developing technical staff.
Technical writers may also write journal articles, occupational outlook handbooks, and other high-quality documentation, depending on their specific area of expertise.
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 corporate and commercial hierarchy levels need someone to take complex information and turn it into easily understandable content for the end-user. All that makes up the technical content writer job description.
Technical writer job opportunities whether as a freelance technical writer or full-time 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.
If 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, and how to succeed as a technical writer. If you're looking to learn via video, then see this resource:
What are Technical Writer Responsibilities?
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 edit the required documentation
- Organize all technical documents into the database and make copies for data security
- Maintain a detailed glossary and library of technical terms and records at all times
Other than these, some writers may have more specific responsibilities in their professional field, making it a diverse job with varying duties.
For example, medical writers often write drug-related literature and product reviews in medical journals.
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.
For example, if you work as a Google technical writer, you might work on writing documentation on how users can embed YouTube videos. And if you're a LinkedIn technical writer, you might write documentation on how users can create a LinkedIn profile.
Nevertheless, all technical writers have common job duties.
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.
Their expertise 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, or job boards.
- 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 their research topic.
Technical Document Planning
Since technical documents are vital to the company's operational requirements, writers need to plan out their development instead of simply starting on singular notice.
Writers plan the resources each technical document consumes and its impact.
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.
If you're interested in learning more about the technical writing process, I recommend you check out our Technical Writing Certification Course.
Technical Writer Role
While most role requirements for technical writers stay specific to each job, there are some roles that each potential writer needs to develop.
Here are some of the roles that companies expect a technical writer to fill:
- Outstanding Communicator: As a technical communicator, part of the technical writer's job is making sure the documents and content they write are easily understandable. Technical writers need excellent communication skills to transfer knowledge without resorting to complex language.
- Tech-Management Pro: 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 works in a technical field, they should have at least working knowledge of functional software and machinery.
- Technical Know-How: While writers don't need to have experience in the area they're writing about, it's beneficial to have at least some practical knowledge of how certain aspects of work from a technical standpoint. For example, information technology and computer science writers should have experience with practical cybersecurity implementation.
- User Experience Development: This relates to the point about communication skills. Writers need to provide the optimal solution for each of the pain points of a reader in their content.
- Effective Information Researcher: Conducting research is one of the fundamental skills for a writer. Technical writers need to refine and streamline their search to collect the most helpful information about a subject in the shortest possible time.
- Detail-Oriented Writer: The most successful technical writers know which details to give.
- Single-Source Selection: Some projects may require writers to create multiple documents on the same topic, but for readers of varying proficiency levels. Writers need to know which source has ample information to benefit all readers and spin the content to suit the beginner and advanced reader.
- Critical Thinker: Critical thinking is associated with non-technical writing. However, it's just as crucial 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 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 critical details from a sea of data but also someone who can then transfer that knowledge effectively to the audience.
Technical Writer Qualifications
The exact qualifications of a technical writer depend on the industry and company.
However, most writers need to have a few basic credentials.
- 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 technical writing internship
In addition to the above, technical writers need to have some experience writing professionally, in either a technical or academic content development capacity.
Candidates with a high-school diploma may also get a junior technical writer job. However, they will usually be required to attain higher education before they can progress to senior positions.
Adopting technical writing as a career can be very rewarding for candidates interested in exploiting creative content development abilities in a technical capacity.
Faculties such as engineering, medicine, architecture, and business administration are conducive to technical writers who are willing to take the steps above to succeed in technical writing.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some of the most common technical writing questions:
What is a technical writer's salary?
The median annual wage for a technical writer is $50K to $72K, varying by experience level and depending on where you live. Urban areas tend to offer higher salaries than rural or suburban ones. The top ten percent earn upwards of $100K per year, so there's room for growth at all levels.
Is a technical writer a promising career?
A technical writer is a promising career when you enjoy writing and working with technology. You need a good background in English, an understanding of the subject matter to provide effective instruction, and excellent writing skills.
Do I need any formal education for a technical writing career?
No degree is required. Many employers prefer or require at least some coursework in communications-related subjects from colleges or technical schools; those that do often have higher salary expectations.
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 the 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 is considered one of the top product influencers in the world by Product School and one of the top technical writers. He has been writing software tutorials, manuals, handbooks, and white papers for over eight years. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.