A Three-Step Plan to Becoming a Technical Writer

By Tanja Rosteck

The demand for qualified technical writers is constantly growing. For every software application or technology product that’s developed, there’s an instant need for accompanying documentation. In a global market increasingly dependent on high-tech products and services, it’s virtually guaranteed that technical writing opportunities will never run dry.

Technical writing may be your ideal field if: you love working with technology, but simply don’t have the desire — or skill — to become an engineer or programmer; if you enjoy training people; if you want a stepping stone to a career in high-tech; or if you enjoy writing and are simply looking for a different way to use your craft.

If you’ve decided to give technical writing a try, but don’t know where or how to start, keep reading! This three-step plan outlines the basic qualifications you’ll need, how to learn the necessary skills, and how to make a successful foray into the field.

STEP 1: GETTING THE BASICS

Believe it or not, to be successful in technical writing, you don’t need to already have a high level of technical know-how or a master’s degree in English. However, you should have the following:

>> Basic technical skills.
Any experience in technical support, web design, networking, teaching, or even in helping your Mom set up her computer will be an asset. If you don’t have a basic understanding of how computers and software work, take a class – almost every community college or education center in North America offers “Intro to Computers”-type courses.

>> Basic writing and grammar skills.
If you’re already a writer, you probably won’t have to worry about this one! However, understand that technical writing generally uses active rather than passive voice; the terminology used must be consistent throughout an entire document or document set; and the objective is to make procedures as simple as possible. These guidelines may be difficult for some creative writers to get used to.

>> An interest in technology.
It’s not uncommon for a technical writer to spend hours poring over a half-completed software program, trying to find hidden commands or features that need documenting. You may also have to work extensively with engineers and programmers, who will rely on you for feedback and suggestions on the product’s interface. So if you’re less than enthused by the prospect of “getting your hands dirty” with technology, and working with very technical people, you probably won’t enjoy this field.

STEP 2: EDUCATE THYSELF

If you have the basic qualifications for technical writing and are still interested in what the field has to offer, it’s time to learn the basics of technical writing and the standard tools used.

>> Explore some technical writing samples.
The first step is to see first-hand what you’ll be doing in your new career! Many software companies publish their product documentation on-line. And almost every software program has an embedded Help file — simply click on the ‘Help’ menu. Understanding the type of writing you’ll be expected to produce is a great way to prepare.

>> Learn the industry-standard authoring tools.
As an entry-level writer, you’ll be expected to at least have experience with Microsoft Word. You’ll need to understand advanced Word features such as styles, templates, and dealing with extremely large documents.

Besides Word, the ‘big two’ applications used in the industry are Adobe FrameMaker and eHelp’s RoboHELP. If you have experience with these programs, your chances of landing a good first job increase dramatically. Basic tutorials for these programs are available on-line and at bookstores.

>> Take a class in technical writing.
Sometimes there’s simply no substitute for learning from a seasoned professional. There are books, on-line courses, and college or university-level courses on technical writing that will help you learn the basics of producing documentation, how to write project plans, how to interview subject matter experts (SME’s) and so on.

Not only are classes a great way to learn the basics, but certification looks great on a CV/resume, and you’ll have an instant support network to help you during your job search!

STEP 3: STEPPIN’ OUT

If you’ve followed all the previous steps and are committed to making technical writing your new career, here’s how to land that all-important first job.

>> Write a CV/resume that showcases your relevant experience.
These days, you can’t get any recruiter to talk to you without a CV/resume. The CV/resume’s main purpose is to get you an interview, so keep it short, simple, and relevant to your writing and technical skills. Include any writing, editing or technical training courses or certifications. And the importance of editing and proofreading it thoroughly can’t be emphasized enough! A CV/resume with typos or grammatical errors speaks volumes about your skills as a professional communicator.

>> Put together a portfolio of writing samples.
Prospective employers want to see two main things from your portfolio: that you know how to write clearly, and that you have the ability to understand complex subjects and can break them down concisely. The best writing samples to include in your portfolio are how-to articles or FAQ’s, articles about technology or science, training materials, and any assignments you wrote for your technical writing class.

You could even write fictitious documents or help files – why not develop these while you’re learning FrameMaker or RoboHELP? Whatever you decide to use, try to provide at least 5 or 6 samples in total, along with a table of contents and a simple, professional-looking layout.

>> Start job-hunting!
You can work with a technical service agency or headhunter, or try finding a job directly. If you took a technical writing class, your learning center may have internships, co-op placements, or job placement services to help you get established in the field.

Job boards such as Monster.com post new technical writing opportunities almost every day. Professional associations such as the Society for Technical Communications also have online job boards you can use in your search.

And don’t forget networking — tell everyone you know about your new career! You’d be surprised who might have a good lead for your first technical writing opportunity.

Good luck!

Copyright © 2001 Tanja Rosteck

Tanja Rosteck is the president of Words4Nerds, providing technical writing and information design services to high-tech small businesses. Her own foray in technical writing began after several years in technical support management, IT training, and general tech-geek work.