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 on the field of computers and software, 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, or mechanics.
No matter what your area of knowledge, you will need computer skills, especially desktop publishing skills. At a minimum, you should know the Microsoft Office suite of applications, especially Microsoft Word. You should develop skills using at least one graphics program, with Snagit probably being the most universally used because it is great at screen captures. If you do things such as flowcharting and illustrating things such as circuits, then Microsoft Visio is a popular choice. Most Adobe tools are handy to have, and old-school tech writing shops love to use Adobe FrameMaker.
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. organizational skills are handy too. You’ll often be juggling several projects.
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 ran up some debt.
Then, I received two job offers. The first one was to work as a 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. That was in the early nineties. It was a start.
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 associate’s degree in programming 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. A few years ago I went back to school and got a Master’s in English with a Professional Writing certification.
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 or portfolio?
Yes. Prospective employers will want to see your work. I recommend that you get a LinkedIn profile post samples of your work to the Featured section of your profile. Try to have at least three items that demonstrate different aspects of your writing. The more you can add, the better.
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 several employment sites at once. I also try to hit all the local technical employment agencies. The easy way to do this is to check Yelp under Employment Agencies. Look for the agencies that list technical positions. Visit each site and figure out the best way to contact them. Most now let you supply your information online. 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. You should also take advantage of LinkedIn, lists plenty of jobs and has the advantage of letting you research companies and the people who work at them.
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. For my most recent job search, the company that hired me did so based on my LinkedIn profile.
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 least ten 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. If 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. Assuming the salary range is not posted, the key here is to wait until they are ready to extend an offer. If they ask early on what you want, turn it around on them and ask what their range is. If they get adamant about you telling them first, 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 the pay you want. I have been lucky enough a few times to be pursued by more than one company at a time which made it easy to ask for a high amount. I’ve also been desperate for work a few times, and haven’t pushed so hard. There is one reason why it is a big advantage to already have a job when you look for your next job. You have the luxury of saying no.
In my most recent job search, the company I went to work for never discussed money until they made an offer. That offer was far lower than I was willing to accept, and I was upfront about it. I let them know that I really wanted to work for them, but it was just too low a number for me to even consider. I assumed it wasn’t going to work out, but they eventually came back with a significantly higher salary and a couple of non-salary sweeteners. I was able to make that work and have been very happy there.
The one most troubling 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 now take the question as a bad sign. Any company that demands 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 in 2021, the job market is in pretty good shape and hiring is brisk. That could change in a year, you never know.
If money is a prime concern, then you need to be in a major market. I am actually not in a major market right now (I’d call it a mid-sized market). This meant I had to work harder to find good pay when I decided to switch jobs. California in general and the San Francisco Bay area specifically are the largest tech writing markets. Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, and North Carolina are also good markets. In those places, contract technical writers commonly make from $30-100 an hour. Salaried employment ranges from $60,000-$120,000 a year. It’s a pretty wide variation, but if you have experience, then expect to be at least in the middle of those amounts.
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 eventually, but permanence in this industry is an illusion. I am currently working as a full-time employee.
If you do contract, you will find that you are generally treated differently from regular employees. This will vary from company to company, but you may or may not find yourself with less respect and acceptance, especially as a technical writer. Contract workers are disposable to most companies. Also, you will be expected to do your own training. Companies almost never finance training for contractors.
On the upside, you generally attend fewer meetings and mostly avoid 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 a less personal interest in the outcome. Even if I feel the project is flawed, I do what they ask because they are the 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 than there are permanent jobs?
The hard fact is that most companies do not value technical writing as highly as programmers or designers. 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 and design side of products than on usability and documentation because these are viewed as secondary issues. 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 because they lacked programmers and designers.
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 (In 1997) 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 many 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 end-user documentation, especially online help, and tutorials. This is the technical writing I enjoy most because for me it involves solving problems and figuring out puzzles. To write documentation for end-users, 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. 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 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 busy work, depending on the service and the company.
Proposals, often written in response to an RFP (Request For Proposal) 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.
API documentation is another popular area, especially for those with a background in coding. Tom Johnson’s course in this will be very helpful if that’s the direction you’d like to take.
These are just a few examples of the types of work technical writers perform.