Technical Writing–What’s It Like?

Technical writing–have you ever wondered if it could be right for you?

We’ve talked about technical writing here on Freelance Writing Jobs before. In this post, I include technical writing as one of twelve high paying writing jobs.

Even in this economy, technical writing is one area where one can still earn good money. John Hewitt, writing at PoeWar, lists the annual income of technical writers as ranging from $42,000 to $63,000. For a senior technical writer, the income range is $56,000 to $81,000.

Fortunately, technical writing is one area where I can share my personal experiences. I worked in this area for nearly a dozen years.

What Do Technical Writers Do?

Many people think that a technical writer’s main focus is on creating user manuals in the software industry. While this is still a part of what many technical writers do, technical writers actually work in many different industries.

Any time a non-technical audience needs to understand technical or detailed information, a technical writer can provide a clear explanation.

Some of the projects that I’ve personally tackled as a technical writer include:

  • Creating context-sensitive software help systems
  • Creating training materials
  • Updating a company’s intranet
  • Developing a corporate style guide
  • Editing company newsletters
  • Researching agile programming technique
  • Testing software applications
  • Revising and structuring documentation for medical equipment
  • Creating flowcharts for corporate processes

As a technical writer, I worked directly with the hardware or software development team. I also attended meetings and interviewed developers when necessary.

What Skills Do You Need to Be a Technical Writer?

Most companies prefer that a technical writer have a college degree (although not always in technical writing). In this economy, I would strongly recommend that would-be technical writers have some technical writing training.

Many colleges have technical writing programs for professionals who already have another degree. There are also distance-learning programs available that allow you to study from home. (Be sure to pick a reputable school.) Also, don’t forget that the STC offers informational programs for technical writers.

In addition to formal education, some personality traits are helpful to technical writers:

  • Ability to learn new things very quickly. Often, you will be writing about products that are in the process of being created. You may be among the first to use a new product.
  • Good people skills. Technical writers often work as part of a development team. They must be able to interact with others to get the information that they need to do their job.
  • Attention to detail. Accuracy is crucial for technical writers. Materials that the writer develops must correctly reflect the product or service that they are writing about.

A technical writer is expected to understand the tools that the company uses to create its materials. While Microsoft Word is popular, a technical writer may be required to understand more specialized tools such as Adobe RoboHelp, MadCap Flare, Adobe FrameMaker, and many others. A good understanding of HTML and other web languages is also helpful. (Over the years, I’ve had to learn well over a dozen very different, very specific tools.)

Is There a Future for Technical Writing?

As the information economy expands, there are more and more job opportunities for technical writers.

In fact, according to Web Worker Daily technical writing is number 13 on the Careercast list of the top jobs for 2010. Technical writing also made the most recent CNNMoney list of 50 top jobs.

The U.S. government also agrees that technical writing still has a bright future. In the most recent U.S. Occupational Outlook handbook it states that jobs in technical writing are expected to grow faster than average.

(It’s important to disclose that I live in Texas, a state with a huge technology community. While technical writing work can be found everywhere and some work can be done remotely, the opportunities in a state like Texas may be greater than those in other states.)

Other Tips

Technical writing has a fairly high learning curve. Not only must technical writers learn about the product they are documenting, they also must be familiar with the authoring tools that the company uses, and with the company’s own writing standards.

For this reason, when a company finds a good technical writer they usually keep them on board. Independent technical writing contractors often return to the same company to work over and over again.

Feedback Time

Does technical writing sound interesting to you? Do you have any other questions?






11 responses
  1. Brendan Thatcher Avatar

    I have been thinking of switching careers from science (OK, being a lab tech is not a career) to technical writing. I’ve tried contacting someone in the engineering field about setting up an informational interview, but no luck. I have an English minor, and like to creatively write. How do I know what school programs to take? I assume I’ll have to post-bac or at least get some sort of certificate, but what is accepted as an industry standard? How do you “break into” the technical writing field?
    .-= Brendan Thatcher´s last blog ..Why Spiderman 3 is good =-.

  2. Laura Spencer Avatar

    Hi Brendan!

    That’s an excellent question.

    First, I would suggest contacting someone in the technical communications field to gather information, rather than in the engineering field.

    Even though many technical writers work with engineers, they often report to different managers and hiring is also usually done through a different manager. Your engineering friends probably won’t really know what the tech-com manager is looking for.

    Another resource I would point you to would be the Society for Technical Communication (STC). You may be able to contact and meet someone from your local chapter, depending on where you live.

    While most technical writers are degreed, not all of them have technical writing degrees. In this economy, though, it’s probably a good idea. Most colleges also offer outplacement assistance for their graduates.

    There many professional technical writing degree programs available at colleges and some online. Check your local area for the best programs near you. Also, remember that the STC student memberships are less expensive than the full membership.

    I hope that I answered your questions.

    Best wishes! 🙂
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..My Very First Professional Writing Gig Ever (Looking Back) =-.

  3. Craig Avatar

    I work as a technical writer for a small software company. If someone would like to know what it is like, email me and I will try to lay it out for you.

    1. David Avatar

      Hi Craig,

      I’m writing to find out from you what is your experience with technical writing. I graduated from NYU in 2007 with a degree in Communications, and have taken many different writing courses but none on “technical writing” per-say. However, I have a blog and enjoy writing, and I also enjoy learning about new systems and how they work, so I thought that TW might be a good fit for me. In this economy, however, I have no idea where to begin. It’s even harder for me because I have a day job that does not allow for me to take classes or job-hunt effectively. Hope you can provide some insight. Thank you.

  4. Laura Spencer Avatar

    Thanks Craig!

    That’s really generous. 🙂
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..My Very First Professional Writing Gig Ever (Looking Back) =-.

  5. Ron C. Avatar

    Do you think there is enough opportunities for Indian writers as well? I already work as a web content writer for the last 2 years. Do you think technical writing is better than web content writing?

  6. Kathy W. Avatar
    Kathy W.

    I don’t have a college degree (in anything), but I am very interested in pursuing a career in technical writing. Are any of the online certificate courses well-regarded as an alternative to a college degree? Can you suggest how I might go about finding a reputable school?

  7. Laura Spencer Avatar

    Hi Ron and and Kathy!

    Ron–Technical writing is definitely better than content writing, but it is also much more time-consuming. Many content writers strive to create content as quickly as possible in order to earn as much money as they can. As a technical writer, you would typically be considered as part of the development team (at least in the U.S.). I’m not familiar with what opportunities there are in India, though.

    Kathy–I don’t know of a specific program that I can recommend to you. A community college near where I am located offers a certificate in technical writing, so you may start looking at the community colleges. I do highly recommend the Society for Technical Communication. I know that they are in the process of certifying technical writers.

  8. Craig Avatar

    That’s a pretty comprehensive summary; nice work, Laura! For those considering entering the field, I’d suggest studying content management. Because some of the more mundane technical writing tasks are candidates for outsourcing, a lot of tech writers are moving toward becoming cross-department content managers for their organizations. The skills are well matched, and learning content management gives writers a leg up on the competition. Of course there are still plenty of us writing manuals and doing just fine. It’s a great field!

  9. Caleb Sanchez Avatar
    Caleb Sanchez

    Thank you for the very informative article, Laura. I have a somewhat odd question.

    When I entered college, I knew that I wanted to major in English since I always got high praise for my writing skills from teachers and professors. I thought I wanted to be a college professor some day, but I changed my mind after discovering that teaching wasn’t for me, and certainly not a secure profession given the economic collapse in my state of California.

    Anyway, I decided that my only good option as an English major was to pursue a career in tech writing, so I changed my emphasis from Education to Technical Comm. But oftentimes when people ask me what I want to do for a career, they almost always give me a puzzled look and ask me why on earth I would want to write manuals for a living.

    My question for you is, when you were a technical writer, did you enjoy your job? If so, why? What joy is there in writing manuals? It seems like a rather boring career.


    1. Laura Spencer Avatar

      Hi Caleb!

      It’s not an odd question at all.

      I believe that we each choose how to respond to our life circumstances. While many people would have found creating technical manuals to be boring, I was able to look for and find many points of satisfaction in the job. I enjoyed learning new systems and writing about them. I enjoyed working with my colleagues (most of them;) anyway ). I enjoyed learning new tools.

      So, ultimately I would say “yes,” I did enjoy technical writing. In fact, I still do some of it.

      In the end I chose to leave the corporate world (although some clients are still corporate) for the more flexible schedule of a freelance because that suited my needs and the needs of my family.

      I hope this answers your question. 🙂

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