How do I Become a Technical Writer?

M.J. Brower

There are several ways to become a technical writer. Many people come into technical writing from a technical field such as engineering or computer science. Others have a traditional writing background, with a degree in English or communication. Most employers expect a technical writer to have a degree, usually in technical communication or a specific scientific or technological field, but this is not necessarily always required. A freelance writer, in particular, might be evaluated more on experience than education.

Technical writers are often hired by manufacturing companies to write assembly instructions and operation manuals.
Technical writers are often hired by manufacturing companies to write assembly instructions and operation manuals.

Someone who wants to become a technical writer should at least consider getting a relevant degree or certification. An English degree might be enough to get a foot in the door, but classes in technical communication or significant experience in a technical field can help significantly. A degree in journalism or technical communication would also be a good foundation. An excellent background for a technical writer would be a combination of a degree or experience in a technical field and classes in writing or communication.

Newspapers list local job openings for jobs in technical communication.
Newspapers list local job openings for jobs in technical communication.

Certification through a college, university, or professional organization can be desirable as well. There are a number of certification programs available through local or regional institutions and online. Not all of these are legitimate, so anyone who wants to become a technical writer by earning a certification should check out the certification program thoroughly before enrolling.

In addition to technical knowledge and writing skill, a technical writer must usually have experience using certain software. There are many software packages used in technical writing, from word-processing software to help-authoring tools (HATs). Many technical writing positions also call for knowledge of graphics software, desktop publishing (DTP) applications, or markup languages such as XML or LaTeX. It would benefit a person who is working to become a technical writer to learn to use at least a few of these tools.

The best way to become a technical writer is to apply for a job in technical writing. Technical writing jobs are advertised nearly anywhere that other writing jobs are posted, especially on online job boards targeting writers and freelancers. Newspapers typically list local job openings for jobs in technical communication.

Editorial and research assistants often move up to technical writing jobs, so beginners might want to keep an eye out for opportunities in those positions. Professional organizations, such as the Society for Technical Communication (STC) — an international organization for technical communicators — maintain extensive job boards for their members. Some of these jobs are only advertised within the organization, so membership is definitely a plus for job hunters.

A technical writer may enlist the help of a subject matter expert to ensure accuracy of manuals.
A technical writer may enlist the help of a subject matter expert to ensure accuracy of manuals.

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Discussion Comments

kasen

I would think that a good background in, or at least familiarity with, computer science would be key. So many tech writer jobs I've seen are related to writing documentation and best practices for computer software, so this seems like an important thing to know about. I've been asked in the past to edit my colleague's work, but I'm not a tech writers - it's hard to edit this kind of documentation without that specific training.

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