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A Guide to Careers in Technical Writing

A Guide to Careers in Technical Writing

To some people, any job with the word "writer" in the title looks like it must be a blast -- the next best thing to working on episodes of "Mad Men." If spotting the job title technical writer in your job search whets your appetite to learn more, here's a guide to the profession.

Is Technical Writing for You?

"If your goal is to write a novel, this is not the job," says Saul Carliner, a former president of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), an organization for technical writers and editors with 14,000 members in the field. "Although the finished product is something you wrote, there's a lot of collaboration. You're interviewing people. You're coordinating. Twenty to 30 percent of your time is writing."

Contrary to what many assume, working as a technical writer involves much more than sitting alone at your PC. The job requires plenty of contact with technical professionals, from programmers and project managers to machine operators and medical technicians. Solitary? Not quite. Collaborative? Most definitely.

If you're considering a job as a technical writer, one way to learn if it's for you is to spend several hours reading and reviewing computer manuals and online help systems, like those for your operating system and assorted applications. Ask yourself a simple question, Carliner suggests: "Is writing this what I want to do for a living?" Also, remember that companies use most technical documentation for internal purposes -- no one in the outside world will ever see it.

But the field has broadened to include a variety of job roles and responsibilities, as the name of its leading professional organization, the Society for Technical Communication, suggests. Technical communicators write and edit technical manuals, but their work may also include producing online tutorials, Web-based training and other materials for industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing.

And the pay? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median technical writer salary was $64,610 in 2011.

What Background Do You Need?

As a group, technical communicators come from varied backgrounds. The five most common academic backgrounds are English, technical communication, science or engineering, computer science and journalism, according to an STC membership study. Anyone with a technical background will have an easier time breaking into the industry, as it shows a facility with technical topics and the ability to work with industry professionals. Consider taking courses in the following topics to build a foundation:

  • Technical Writing: Typically offered at colleges and community colleges as a way to gain an overview of the field and develop writing samples.
  • Web Design: A way to gain an understanding of design and presentation issues.
  • Programming: To help you gain a better understanding of how software is created.

Do You Need to Know Specific Programs?

You should know Microsoft Word, if you don't already, and you'll be better off if you're familiar with FrameMaker or RoboHelp, two programs often used for writing technical documentation. Knowledge of Web production tools also is an asset.

Can You Move into Other IT Jobs?

Technical communicators often move into jobs as programmers, systems analysts, information architects and project leaders. Others shift into sales or management roles. It's a great way to get into an organization, and then move into a different job, says Carliner.

Whatever your goal, the more technical know-how you acquire, the better. Throughout the information technology world, people who have superior communication skills and can hold their own with die-hard techies command a premium.

How Do You Get Experience?

Budding technical communicators should seek out internships, volunteer work and other opportunities to gain experience and build a portfolio of work in the field. You will have a tough time finding a company willing to consider you without writing samples. Consider volunteering your services as part of an open-source project to demonstrate your ability to work on a team and translate technical matters into plain English.

Technical Writing Resources

The Society for Technical Communication Web site offers a wealth of resources, as does TECHWR-L, an Internet forum for people in technical communications.

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