The Technical Writing FAQ

What are the primary skills of a technical writer?

The first skill a technical writer should have, of course, is writing. You should be able to write in a clear, concise manner. Technical writing is not poetry or prose. Depending on where you work, you may or may not be able to add some stylistic flair. Either way, your job is to clearly tell your audience exactly what they need to know, and everything they need to know.

The second skill you should have is knowledge of a technical subject. My emphasis has always been in the field of computers, which is probably the largest segment of the technical writing market. Your knowledge can be in many other areas, however, such as science, medicine, engineering, mechanics, or law.

No matter what your area of knowledge, you will need computer skills, especially desktop publishing skills. At minimum, you should know the Microsoft Office suite of applications, especially Microsoft Word. Beyond Office, there is Adobe FrameMaker, which is used in many technical-writing environments. Other publishing packages such as PageMaker, Quark Express, and Interleaf can also be useful. In addition, online documentation tools such as RoboHelp, Doc-to-Help and Lotus Notes are great applications to have on your resume, as are HTML and other Internet skills.

In addition, you should try to develop interviewing skills, because you will probably find yourself interviewing technical people to get the information you need for your documents. Often, they will have no idea how to tell you what you need to know, so it is up to you to figure out how to draw the information out of them.

How do I become a technical writer?

This is my most frequently asked question, and a difficult one to answer. I can only tell you how I got into it. I have spent my entire adult life (and a good deal of my youth) as a writer of some form or another. When I entered college, I became first a reporter for and eventually the editor of my college newspaper. It was exciting, interesting, and very stressful. When I chose a major in college, I finally settled on creative writing, with a minor in English. I took very few technical courses in college and I have never taken a course in technical writing.

What I did do was work with computers, constantly. I got my first computer when I was 13 years old and I have never been without one since. In high school and at the beginning of college, I took some programming classes, but only about three of them. The rest of my computer skills I acquired either at home or on the job. When I transferred from my community college to the University of Arizona, I got a job in their computer department in the ‘Courseware Library for Instructional Computing’. There, I was exposed to just about every micro platform available at the time (IBM, Apple/Macintosh, Next, Commodore) and hundreds of software programs. I enjoyed it and I eventually began to teach seminars in Macintosh computing to the faculty and staff. While doing so, I wrote some short manuals and performed other various desktop publishing functions. After college, I had a series of jobs, all of them either computer, publishing, or writing related, until I eventually found myself out of work and needing a career path. I had done some technical writing as part of my past jobs, and I decided that I should dedicate my efforts towards building a career there.

Despite being broke, I managed to acquire my own copy of FrameMaker, and train myself on the package, adding that to my skills in PageMaker. I also taught myself HTML programming and learned to read C and other languages that I had not visited in many years. I sent out over 300 resumes and refused to settle for less than what I wanted. I used up all of my unemployment and dug myself deeply into debt.

Then, I received two job offers. The first one was to work as an Internet content developer for my local newspaper. It paid eight dollars an hour for 30 hours a week of work. I was willing to take it, and would have, but right as I was about to I got a call from a contract agency I had sent my resume to. Another local company was looking for a technical writer for a six-month contract. It paid $20.00 an hour, but much of that got sucked up when I opted for salary and benefits such as medical and dental insurance, holidays, sick days and vacation days. In the end, I started at $29,000 a year and after 6 months I renegotiated to $35,000. As my experience has grown, so has my pay.

What should I take in college?

As an undergraduate, I focused on creative writing and English. If I had gone to college with the goal of being a technical writer, I would still have majored in English or Creative Writing, but I would have minored in a technical subject such as computers or one of the sciences. For some, engineering may be a better choice than science. Even if you are a college graduate, you should consider supplementing your education. An associates degree in computers or another technical subject will prove you have learned the basics.

For graduate studies, more and more colleges are offering Technical Writing or Professional communications degrees. I recently went back to school to get a degree in professional communications.

I’m just out of college, and I want to be a technical writer, but I have no experience, how do I get my first job?

The first technical writing job is difficult to get, especially if you were a writing major and did not major (or even minor) in a technical subject. The first thing you need to do is prove you can write. This involves creating a sample of your work, which is not easy to do without having a specific project. What many people do is try to find a short, badly written manual (There are thousands) and re-write it. The other approach is to write a manual about something you know. The key is to have proof you can do the work.

Do I need a sample?

Yes. Prospective employers often ask for a sample of your technical writing. This can be a problem because these same employers are likely to tell you that what you write for them is confidential. For this reason, I use a ‘fictionalized’ sample. It is based on a short manual I wrote for one company, but I have gone out of my way to change any company-specific information. This was not fun, but it was the best compromise I could come up with. My sample is about 15 pages long. I keep it this short because the employers often want to keep it or review it, and they are not that cheap to reproduce, especially because I have my sample vellum bound with a transparent plastic cover. I also include an explanation of what publishing package I used and what the requirements and restrictions of the project were.

What is the best way to look for a job?

The Internet is a great way to look for work, and even better if you are willing to move around. I especially recommend indeed.com, which searches severl employment sites at once. I also try to hit all the local technical employment agencies. The easy way to do this is check the Sunday paper of the town you are interested in and look in the computer or technical employment sections. Look for agencies advertising several jobs and get either their fax numbers or e-mail addresses. They do not have to be advertising technical writing jobs. If they place technical jobs, then it is worth the time to get your resume and cover letter to them.

There has also been a growth in resume distribution services. These companies claim to send your resume to thousands of recruiters. I haven’t tried this approach, but if you are interested try: EmailMyResume.com, ResumeZapper.com, and ResumeXposure.com.

What should my resume look like?

Emphasize your technical skills. If you know a software package or computer platform or if you have a scientific background, make sure you supply details. I am a strong believer that good writing skills are far more important than knowledge of a specific subject or program, but the reality out there is that if you know the programs or subjects they’re looking for, then you have the distinct edge in getting the job. Writing skill is far down the list of what they take into account. I have gotten two jobs without even providing a sample of my writing. If you would like to have a professional work on your resume, try: Employment911.com or A and A Resume.

What kind of cover letter should I use?

If you are contacting an agent and not responding to a specific job request, then simply indicate a few basics about yourself. indicate you consider to be your strongest and most relevant skills. Don’t make it long and don’t go out of your way to provide details. If they want to know more, they will ask. Keep it short and simple.

On the other hand, if you are responding to a specific job description, especially if you are responding directly to the employer, then a careful cover letter should be written. Analyze the job description, and in your cover letter state specifically how you qualify for as much of that description as possible. Make them believe that you are exactly what they are looking for. Paraphrase their description as much as possible.

What should I ask for in negotiations?

Negotiations are a difficult process. Most agencies work on the “What pay range are you looking for?” system. This is a tricky system, but one that can be beaten. The key is to ask for more than you expect to get. Do this every time, and by at lease five dollars an hour. I give this advice for an important reason. If you are dealing with an agency and you under-price yourself, you are at their mercy. They will either give you what you ask for, or whatever the minimum in their range is. That is it. End of story.

However, if you ask for more than what their range is, they will then proceed to tell you what the range is. Remember, you aren’t dealing with the employer, you are dealing with the agent, and they know what the job will be bid at. When they tell you your rate is too high, ask what the range is and tell them that whatever the high number is will be good enough. It is possible to price yourself out of a job, but frankly, I’m willing to accept that risk. If you aren’t, then follow your own instincts.

If you are dealing directly with an employer, negotiations are more difficult. The key here is to wait until they are ready to extend an offer. If they ask early on what you want, tell them that you will be happy to listen to whatever their offer is, once they have one to make. If they get adamant about it, then you’ll have to name your figure and take your chances. Again, I recommend starting on the high side, but it depends on your instincts and whether you are willing to risk not getting the job in order to get what you want. I have been lucky enough to be pursued by more than one company at a time, and I have been willing to play the two off each other in order to get what I wanted. There is also a big advantage to already having a job when you look for your next job. You have the luxury of saying no.

The one most annoying question an employer can ask me is my past salary history. This has happened a few times, and I have refused to tell them on some occasions and I have told them on others. In both situations, I never got the job, so I can’t say which practice works best. I always take the question as a bad sign, however. Any company interested in this is not likely to treat their employees well, in my opinion.

What is a good technical writing rate?

There is, of course, no clear-cut answer to this. Rates vary according to geography, experience, benefits, and the current job market. As I write this, the market has been slow for a three years but is now starting to pick up. There are still more writers than jobs, but the numbers are evening out.

If money is a prime concern, then you need to be in a major market. I am currently working in Phoenix. Phoenix is a good market because there are several major technology firms (Motorola, Intel, AT&T, American Express, etc.) and there are quite a few smaller companies that employ technical writers. California in general and the San Francisco Bay area (also known as Silicon Valley) specifically are the largest markets, though they have also been the hardest hit by the slowdown in the technical industries. Dallas, Denver, New York, Atlanta, North Carolina and Washington State are also good markets. In those places, contract technical writers commonly make from $15-60 an hour. Salaried employment ranges from $30,000-90,000 a year. There have been more jobs in the lower part of this range during the slump, but compensation is also picking up.

Is it better to take a permanent job or a contract?

This depends on the job, of course. I originally chose to go the contract route because I knew that with a couple more years of experience under my belt, I would be able to command much more money than I would when I began, far more than I would be able to count on through raises. I also had no family to support, so I had a certain freedom to move around and to take risks. I did take a permanent position once, but permanence in this industry is an illusion. I have continued to take contract work and I prefer it.

If you do contract, you will find that you are generally treated differently from regular employees. This will vary widely from company to company, but you may or may not find yourself with a little less respect and acceptance, especially as a technical writer. You are disposable. Also, you will be expected to do your own training. Rarely will companies finance training for contractors.

On the up side, you generally attend fewer meetings and deal with less company politics. Also, I have always tried to get my training on the job. Moving from company to company has given me the opportunity to learn a variety of applications that I would be ignorant of if I had only been at a single company all this time.

To me the key difference between contracting and regular employment is one of attitude toward the company. When I am contracting I consider the company to be a client. I probably work harder to give them what they want, but I have less personal interest in the outcome. Even if I feel the project is flawed, I do what they ask because they are a client and that is my responsibility to them. As an employee, I get much more caught up in the reasons for projects. I am more likely to object to a course of action I don’t feel helps me or the company because I feel it is our mutual responsibility to succeed. I am more invested in the outcome and less concerned with pleasing the company. This may be different for other people, but I think it accurately reflects my past attitudes.

Why are there more contract/consultant jobs then there are permanent jobs?

The hard fact is that most companies do not value technical writing. They bring in writers to fill a specific need, often because they have been required to provide documentation for a project. Many companies bring writers in at the end of a project to document what has already been created rather than include writers in the full product cycle.

Why don’t more companies value technical writing?

Much more emphasis is put on the programming side of products than on usability and documentation because these are viewed as secondary issues. I strongly feel this has helped lead the technical industry into its current down cycle.

Technical writers are viewed as a luxury. As valuable as I feel my skills are, and can be to a company, the company can still function without me. If the programs or systems are undocumented, or if they are poorly documented by programmers or analysts, it will not damage the company as obviously as if the program fails to get developed. I happen to feel that a company that spends money on good technical writers will get a very high return for its investment, in more satisfied customers, smoother processes and greater institutional memory. I believe that dollar-wise this can make money for the company, but those are categories that are difficult to measure and often hard for management to comprehend.

Also, some companies do not understand what a technical writer does. Some consider writers to be glorified secretaries, and do such things as give them notes to type up or even have them take minutes at meetings. Part of the problem is that secretaries and administrative assistants have also become a thinning breed, and management (not the upper management, who have secretaries, but the lower management and team members) are desperate for anyone who can make a document look good. I once found myself at a company that constantly asked me to attend meetings simply to record the minutes. I comforted myself with the fact that I was paid $36 an hour to do it, but I also started looking for my next job,

What types of documents do technical writers create?

The range of writing a technical writer performs varies widely. Much is dependent on the technical specialty of the writer and of the needs of the company. You may find yourself a part of one large project, or overseeing dozens of smaller projects. You might write manuals, articles, proposals, white papers, product descriptions or any of a hundred other types of documents.

My specialty is writing manuals, especially user manuals and programmer manuals for specific software applications. This is the technical writing I enjoy most, because for me it involves solving problems and figuring out puzzles. To write a user manual, I need to think like the people using the program and try to tell them what they need to know, rather than what I would need to know or what the programmer would need to know. For me, this is a lot of fun and very fulfilling.

There are dozens of different types of writing that come under the banner of technical writing, however. Many people document processes. Processes can be just about any system by which something gets done. For example, in order for a company to generate a payroll, certain actions must be taken, such as logging hours and generating checks. All of those steps are part of a process, and intelligent companies document those processes so that, if an employee leaves or a system goes down, they have something to consult in order to get themselves on track. One name for this type of document is SOP (Standard Operating Procedure).

Another type of documentation is SLA (Service Level Agreement). The SLA describes exactly what a provider (company or department) will do for a customer (another company, another department, or an individual). These can be highly technical documents or busywork, depending on the service and the company.

Proposals, often written in response to an RFP (Request For Proposal) document are much like SLAs. They describe what work will be done, but they require more writing finesse because they are also pitching the service. The company is proposing to sell a service. I have written several proposals, and depending on the request and the company, they can be quite interesting or more busywork.

These are just a few examples of the types of work technical writers perform.

21 thoughts on “The Technical Writing FAQ

  1. Landing a technical writing position without some sort of degree is difficult. You would find yourself competing against a fairly large pool of applicants who do have degrees, and most companies do pay attention to those things.

  2. I really like this article. It has answered most all of my questions. Thank you! =)

    I’m a computer technician, have been for 3 years, but I’ve always loved writing. I find myself correcting technical documents or explaining them to others, but I have never written one myself. I do write short stories and do editing for others I know who also write short stories, but that is a different story. It was recently suggested to me that I consider a career in Technical Writing. I’ve been in college for half a year, planning a major in IT/Computer Science and minor in English. Is this a good path, or would it best to major in English and minor in computer science?

    Thank you for writing this article.

  3. Biske,
    There is no right and wrong between those two paths. A degree in a technical field is an excellent thing to have and an English Minor goes well with it. An English degree with a technical minor is also a solid path toward technical writing. If you were to try a double major, and get a degree in both fields, you would probably find even more success.

    John Hewitt

  4. Hi,

    I’m kind of a new technical writer looking for work. I have a solid education for technical writing with a BA in English and college training in Technical Writing. After I graduated, I wanted to live abroad so I signed on for an internship program which sent me to Grenada, WI where I wrote technical manuals based on ISO standards for the Grenada Bureau of Standards. That was six months. After that, I went to Trinidad where I got a two year contract as a Communications Analyst in the health sector. It was really interesting stuff.

    Now, I am back in Canada and I have been looking for work since February. I’ve had four interviews but no offers. I have not even had call backs for second interviews. Recruiters say that my writing is good and I seem to have a solid understanding of the documentation process but they are all not interested after they have interviewed. Is there anything that I can be doing to improve? Perhaps you have interviewing tips for TWs with not a whole lot of experience. I have a real passion for tech writing. Manuals have always interested me and I am just eager to continue in a profession that love so much.

    jl

  5. I’ve been a newspaper reporter for 20 plus years. After resigning recently, I am contemplating a career change. I’ve also been fascinated by computers, Linux in particular. Is there any advice for breaking into the technical writing field? Do you know of other journalists who’ve made a similar transition?

  6. Dear John,
    Can you kindly give me some feedback on this. Could Medical clinical trials involve technical writing as well. And any suggestions how to get contracts.I am based in Australia.

  7. I’m a biology teacher who really finds a certain joy in writing and creating a finished product. Is a career path in technical writing feasible?

  8. I ma Sharmila, working as a technical writer in an MNC – hardware profile. I have done my Me in applied electronics.

    I fpund some usefull information here. Thanks!

    Sometimes I feel that (in my point of view) the tech writers are not considered as essential resource for the company. I do get frustrated because of this thinking. how to make the company and other (engineers) to feel that tech writers really play vital role in the company?

  9. Pingback: Reader Question — How Do I Get Training in Technical Writing? | I'd Rather Be Writing - Tom Johnson
  10. what are the a-z of technical writing? it’s actually my homework. i can’t find it. HELP! my teacher gave us an example like B- brevity and S-simple, Z-zest. like that. i cant find it in the internet. i dont even have a book on technical writing.

  11. Hello john ,
    Thank you for helping aspiring technical writer’s like me ,
    I’ve been in programming field as a programmer for about 1 yr , now I’ve discovered that i really like writing and that is why decided to go into tech writing. Please give me some information/guidance as to where i can get sample user guides. I’ve looked for user guides on net but there are different formats , so which one to adopt and how long it should be so it should be appealing to the interviewer.

    Thanking in Anticipation

  12. Pingback: Technical Writing–Seven Challenges : Freelance Writing Jobs | A Freelance Writing Community and Freelance Writing Jobs Resource
  13. Hi John,
    Thanks for your informative session.I am 27 now having Bachelors in Mathematics with poor grades.I am currently employed with the government and previously worked with Thomas Cook in Bangalore as customer care officer.
    I fed up with my mechanical work and I am contemplating a permanent career shift now.I think I am having a flair for writing and I have just joined for an on line programme from TWB in Bangalore.
    Do you think that with this modest background and almost an “old” age for starting a new career, can I ever get in to any good MNC in India ( Particularly in Bangalore).
    Please elaborate the scope of TW in the Middle East and in Europe at various levels for a person like me.I am planning to work there after some time.
    Thanking you in advance

  14. Numerous unversities offer technical writing degrees or certificates. All the “tech writers” I have met that did not have degrees or some kind of formal study do not have the qualifications to hold this job.

  15. hi john,

    i’m also a technical writer, mostly for complex systems operation and maintenance instructions and i am currently searching for a way to improve my pricing method in such a way that by knowing the general details from a job offer (such as the scope, the number of machine stations, the technologies involved) i will be able to estimate the number of pages needed , thus sending a more accurate price offer.

    do you know any moduls/general rules/method/application that can help?

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