by Jodee Redmond
I’ve been posting lots of jobs for technical writers lately and I must admit that I didn’t really know a lot about what the job entails. One of our readers, Ugur Akinci, has been kind enough to agree to let me interview him about this very topic. Dr. Akinci is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Brown University, where he earned a Master’s Degree and Ph.D. in Sociology.
He worked as a reporter for a daily newspaper from 1994-1998. He has 20 years of experience as a writer, the last 10 as a technical writer working for Fortune 500 corporations like ADP, Honeywell, Fannie Mae, and as a copywriter for his private clients. Dr. Akinci recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about the field of technical writing.
1. How did your background as a journalist help you to make the switch to doing technical writing?
Journalism teaches you mental concentration and time-discipline. When you’re working as a reporter for a daily newspaper you need to concentrate on your topic like a laser beam, write up the story and then deliver it within the same day even if it’s not “perfect.” That kind of discipline, day-in day-out, develops one’s information processing capacity in a hurry. After a few years of that kind of daily churning you turn into a lean and mean data-absorbing and reporting machine. It eliminates your “writer’s block” for good.
A second skill that journalism teaches well is how to listen to people, how to interview Subject Matter Experts and then write it in a way that the average reader would understand.
Both these skills came in very handy when I switched to technical writing ten years ago.
2. What kinds of materials do your clients ask you to write?
I write software, hardware, networking, and security access user guides, system administrator guides, quick installation guides, “spec sheets”, help files, and other hi-tech documentation demanded on a regular basis by the software/hardware industry.
3. What kinds of companies or organizations hire technical writers?
Let me rephrase the question this way: which industries do NOT hire technical writers? Very few. Within the last ten years I’ve seen the following industries hire tech writers on a regular basis:
Computers and hi-tech sector, banks and finance, government at all levels, transportation, telecommunication, sports, all kinds of manufacturing, insurance, hospitals and medical care, sales organizations (both wholesale and retail), non-profits, political and advocacy organizations, travel and tourism, entertainment, gambling, etc.
Tech writing is easily the highest-demand writing niche that I know of today and it pays very well too.
In terms of job availability try this test: go to Craigslist on any day. And search for “Technical Writing”. Then do a similar search for other writing specialties like “journalist”, “novelist”, “poet”, “screenplay writer” etc. And compare the results. Only “copywriter” comes close, on certain days.
4. Is technical writing similar to content writing? In what way?
The answer is yes and no.
It is similar to content writing in the sense that you need to create prose that is easily understood, logically consistent and conveys useful information.
Where it separates from regular content writing is in its procedural nature. It takes a while to learn how to break complex information down to its individual components and then put them all together again in a series of logical steps. The proof of good tech writing is in whether the reader can follow your instructions and achieve the intended result. That’s when you know whether your writing was good or not.
Take this test: try to write a “technical user guide” to making an omelet from scratch. After finishing it, try to make an omelet only by following your own instructions and nothing else. You might be pleasantly surprised at the steps you have omitted because they felt like “obvious” to you. For example you might notice that you have forgotten to tell the reader to turn on the burner, or to dispose the broken egg shells to the trash bin. If you can achieve that kind of attention to “obvious” details and express them in clear and simple English, then you might probably make the transition from general content writing to technical writing rather easily.
5. Do you have any tips or advice you would like to share for our readers who are interested in expanding their services to include technical writing to their clients?
My top advice would be to develop a personal portfolio to break into tech writing. Nothing speaks louder for your skills than a finished work or two at hand.
One thing I recommend to my readers and students is to write a user’s manual for a freely available software like OpenOffice. It does not need to be complete or perfect. Just for example write a manual on how to 1) design a template and then 2) write a book based on that template by using OpenOffice, or any other software for that matter.
One or two manuals like that (each perhaps 30 to 50 pages in length, including screen shots) should be sufficient to give a good idea to the recruiter or prospective client about your tech writing (and information design) skills.
One other piece of advice is to learn some of the specialized tools widely used in tech writing. A relevant software skill is always an advantage. FrameMaker, for example, is one such writing tool and is asked by most top-level tech writing recruiters that I know of. You can break into tech writing with MS Office and Word as well but that’s to me usually an indication of a low-paying tech writing position, which by the same token might be ideal for a junior tech writer.
Since (according to a recent research) 60% of what a typical “technical writer” does involves not writing but actually DESIGNING the document in question, graphic and information design skills is a clear advantage in this niche. If, for example, you’re good with Photoshop, InDesign, Dreamweaver or Illustrator consider yourself lucky because that will be definitely a plus in your search for a tech writing job.
Just like in real estate, location also matters in tech writing. The more industrialized and crowded an area, better will be your chances to find a tech writing job. Some of the best tech writing locations in the United States are Washington DC-Northern VA and Washington DC – Baltimore corridors, North Carolina Research Triangle Area, San Diego, Austin TX, Boston and vicinity, New York City – Northern NJ, Seattle-Portland area, Chicago, etc. Craigslist and Freelance Writing Jobs are great places to check out on tech writing jobs.
A side note — according to the latest available STC (Society for Technical Communication) Salary Survey figures, the highest paid senior tech writers in America did work in Nevada and made a little over $114,000 a year. Not bad, huh?
STC has a great Job Listing service that is available only for paid members. So you might want to consider that as well.
Best regards and good luck to you all!
What a stellar interview, Jodee.
Thanks for sharing your expertise, Dr. Akinci!
Good article. I write on technology and a lot of people think that means I’m a technical writer. They’re two separate items.
Thank you Stacy & Phil. Appreciate your kind words.
Actually we technical writers are slowly but surely turning into “technical communicators” since we do a lot more than just “writing.” There is a grassroots movement right now (as spearheaded by STC) to replace the traditional U.S. Labor Department description of a “technical writer” with that of a “technical communicator.” The tech writing community believes that such a reclassification would ensure a higher profile for the tech writers/communicators, accompanied by higher wages. Interesting days ahead.
Opal @ Addicted to Writing says
What a great interview!
I did a lot of technical writing in the corporate world. It wasn’t what I was originally hired for, but I truly enjoyed the experience, I learned a lot, and have been able to land a few freelance positions because of that.
I also agree there are very few places that don’t require a technical writer.
I live in Maryland and have found a lot of freelance opportunities in this area alone.
Phil – I actually do technical writing ‘and’ I write about technology as well …
Calee Lee says
Thanks! I thought about making the move to technical writing a couple of years ago but couldn’t afford the pay cut to an entry level position. I liked your advice to create some tech samples–it can’t hurt my copy portfolio. Since I freelance, it’s good to know I could add a technical client but not have to work at one location full time.
Opal and Scribette, I’m glad you liked the interview.
Calee Lee, please keep this in mind: you can certainly do technical writing as a freelancer but you cannot do it through telecommuting.
A great majority of tech writing positions ask the writer to be present on premises during work hours since it requires extensive interaction with the engineers, analysts, management, or SMEs (Subject Matter Experts).
A number of tech writing positions also involve confidential and proprietary source documents. The companies do not want to email them to your home office or allow you take them home with you.
So in that sense most technical writing positions are very much LOCAL OFFICE JOBS in nature.
Good luck to you all!
Ugur – I agree that most businesses do want you on site. However, there are some ‘gigs’ that are available through telecommuting.
I’ve never really done technical writing, that’s certainly an excellent skill to have.
This is a great interview! I’ve been toying with the idea of applying for a technical writing job or two, just to see if I could get my feet wet, so now I can go in with my eyes open. Thanks!
Aaron J. Walker says
Yes, great article.
I was interested in trying technical writing as well and still may.
Thank you for including the tools of the trade. Framemaker is a bit pricey (okay, really pricey) so I think I’ll dabble at the lower end of the scale for now.
Scribette, you are correct in that if you look hard enough you might find some telecommuting “gigs” but in my personal experience most of the well-paying assignments are still in-office positions.
Andrea, thanks for the compliment. Glad to be of help.
Aaron, you do not need to buy FrameMaker at all to get started. Download the OpenOffice suite (or NeoOffice if you have a Mac). It’s just as good as MS Office and it’s also free. You can not only create a great user’s or system admin guide with it but can also export it as MS Word and no one will know the difference. It also comes with a spreadsheet program (like Excel) and a slide-presentation program (like PowerPoint) as well. Just give it a try.
P.S. I provide weekly tech writing tips to those who register with my free tech writing list.
Ugur – Yes, you are correct in that most of the technical writing jobs are onsite. 🙂 I do manage to ‘snag’ some well paying telecommuting tech writing jobs from time to time …
Hi there Ugur,
Can I ask how to get a first technical writing gig? I’ve only seen job openings for seasoned technical writers. Thanks!
Joanne, thanks for asking. The beginnings are always hard because usually it’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation: they won’t hire you because you don’t have experience and you can’t have experience because they won’t hire you. Trust me, I’ve been there.
How I got in was first by building up a strong portfolio of previously published articles (both magazine and newspaper). So when I got to my first job interview there was no question that I could write, period.
That left me with the need to prove the second element of the equation — whether I could write “technical” documents. And for that I did what I recommend all my readers to do: I created my own samples by preparing two different user manuals. There is nothing that prevents you from sitting down and writing an installation manual for that new TV set you just bought or an HR policy manual for your kid’s kindergarten. The opportunities are almost infinite. So you show those samples and hopefully one of your prospective employers will like what she sees.
Another tip: try to apply for those jobs which mention MS Word or MS Office as the main writing platform. In my experience, such “shops” tend to have an easier documentation load and might be more open to first-time tech writers.
In software industry, you can also try this sideways move: you can enter as a tester and then slowly make the transition to full-time technical writing.
Another lateral move: find a job at an HR department and then gradually volunteer to write their policy and guideline manuals and help files.
One other solution is to spread around your resume to as many technical recruiters as possible. The whole idea of becoming a technical writer was actually suggested to me in the first place by a recruiter. I was looking for a job as a reporter and my life suddenly changed with the question “have you ever thought of becoming a technical writer?” You never know the kind of openings recruiters have at any given moment.
I’d also post my resume to high-traffic hi-tech job sites like Monster and Dice.
It’s a matter of perseverance and being at the right place at the right time. But there are plenty of tech writing jobs around and I’m sure if you hang in there and keep plugging it on a daily basis you’ll break through. Let me know how it goes and I’d be happy to comment on your progress. My e-mail is open 24×7 to all FWJ readers: writer111-at-gmail-dot-com
Good luck and God bless you all!
Ugur – good advice and that is very nice of you as well!