Career Toolbox: Technical writing
Technical writers create user guides and other documentation for technical products or services. For example, when an employee needs to learn how to use a company's software to better serve clients, or consumers need help navigating their email or cloud storage accounts, the instruction manuals and other documentation that technical writers create become essential. If guiding people through complex processes and writing clear, concise, informative prose are things that interest you, technical writing might be a career field worth exploring.
However, being competitive in this field likely requires experience or skills in particular areas. Below is a step-by-step action plan for building the skills, knowledge and experience you may need to effectively market yourself as a technical writer to potential employers.
Step 1: Explore what technical writing involves
As the name suggests, technical writers often work for companies that provide some kind of technological product or service, be it software, hardware, cloud computing services or email. The content they write is generally referred to as technical documentation, which can be roughly divided into the following major categories:
- Customer support content, such as product manuals and online user guides, helps customers effectively use a company's technical products. Technical writers create the content you refer to when you need help navigating a new Facebook feature or installing a particular piece of software on your computer. Technical writers can also write instructions for operating hardware, such as everyday appliances.
- Professional and employee guides enable workers within a company to understand the technical concepts and procedures they need to do their jobs. For example, mechanics might refer to technical documentation to learn how to fix appliances, or a client services employee might read through documentation to help a customer troubleshoot a technical issue.
With this knowledge of what technical writers do, you might be able to foresee the types of skills you would need to qualify for a technical writer role — which naturally leads us to the next step.
Step 2: Build the relevant skills
Here's where intensive research on your part is essential. Start by looking up at least 10 to 15 job postings in the fields of technical writing that interest you. Make a list of the required skills, knowledge and experience that are common to most of these job postings, and make it a personal goal to learn these skills over the next few months.
Some of the common knowledge and skills that are important in technical writing might include:
- Strong writing and communication skills: All technical writers must have strong communication skills — specifically, the ability to convey complex concepts clearly and concisely. Some employers prefer candidates who have a degree in communications, English or journalism, in addition to experience or education in relevant technical fields. If you have a different academic background, think about how it might have taught you writing or communication skills that you can pitch to potential employers.
- Industry knowledge and interest: Another important element is a strong interest in technology. If you're applying for a technical writer role at a cloud computing company, for example, it would likely help to have used cloud-based technology regularly and, at the very least, know its significance in society and the business world.
In simplified terms, a good formula for a worthy technical writer application is:
Strong Writing + Technical Skills and Experience + Interest in the Industry
In your cover letter, resume and interview, you should work to combine the three elements above to create a story about why you are qualified — that is, how your solid writing skills connect with your expertise in relevant tech fields to potentially make you an excellent candidate.
Step 3: Check out these resources and start building your toolbox
The following resources can help you begin to build a foundation in the principles of good technical writing:
- Online Resources: With a little digging, you can likely find a wealth of reputable Web resources that can help give you a sense of what technical writing involves. For example, some colleges and universities post free technical writing guidelines on their websites, and other companies have published free technical writing guides on the Web. As mentioned before, technical writing roles can vary widely from company to company, but researching what is out there can give you a sense of what you'll need to learn and how your current skills might fit into the different roles.
- Books: There are several technical writing guidebooks that out on the market now. Choose a few that are relevant to your desired field, and which have good customer ratings, and start reading!
- Courses: Many colleges, universities, community colleges and technical schools offer formal courses in technical writing. Some of these courses culminate in a certificate of completion that you can include on your resume to signify your knowledge of the field.
- Contract Work: Yes, contract work can count as a resource. If you find a company that is willing to give you a chance to write some technical documentation on a freelance basis, jump on that opportunity! Doing so will give you firsthand experience with what technical writing involves and can allow you to gain contacts in the tech industry. Put your best foot forward as a contractor, and take stock of the skills and knowledge you gain on the job, so that you can call them out on your resume and in future interviews.
- Associations and Professional Organizations: Reputable technology associations can provide educational resources and useful connections to the industry. For example, the Society for Technical Communication provides information on seminars, online courses and webinars for individuals interested in learning more about technical writing. Similarly, the Institution of Engineering and Technology has numerous educational resources for people interested in pursuing technical professions, and in 2012 it published "A Guide to Technical Report Writing."
The technical writing industry can be a tricky field to enter due to its numerous and complex requirements. However, with a concrete plan and determination, you can slowly and steadily build your technical writing toolbox of skills, and ultimately show employers that you could be an excellent addition to their team.
"Summary Report for: Technical Writers," onetonline.org, O*Net Online,
"Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition: Technical Writers," bls.gov, 8 January 2014, Bureau of Labor Statistics,
"Society for Technical Communication," stc.org,
"Defining Technical Communication," stc.org, Society for Technical Communication,
"A Guide to Technical Report Writing," unlv.edu, The Institution of Engineering and Technology,
"The Institution of Engineering and Technology," theiet.org,
"Google Careers: Technical Writing," google.com, Google,
"Enserca Engineering Open Positions: Technical Writer," ensercaeng.catsone.com, 11 April 2014, Enserca Engineering,
"UCSC Silicon Valley Extension: Technical Writing Course Schedule," ucsc-extension.edu, University of California, Santa Cruz,