How to become a technical writer
Technical writing is a profession that has long-term growth potential. In fact, demand for technical writers is projected to grow by 8% from 2018 to 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Technical writing is a particularly good career choice for people who are excellent writers and have experience or interest in working in the IT or scientific sectors.
Technical writing can be a lucrative occupation, with Glassdoor estimates putting the average national salary at about $74,000 per year – perhaps much higher depending on your experience level, industry, and location. A generous salary, a stable career, and a flexible lifestyle are just a few of the reasons to consider starting your own technical writing business.
Tips for becoming a technical writer
Although the requirements to become a technical writer are not set in stone, they typically include the following:
Education and experience
Some people can start a successful technical writing business with just an associate’s degree, but having a bachelor’s degree in English, writing, or communications will make it much easier to land clients. Having a degree in a specific technical field – such as computer science, engineering, or medicine – is also a solid educational background for technical writers. Note that many clients in the IT sector will expect you to have experience working in fields such as web design, engineering, or computer science.
Technical writing certificates
Although they’re not required, technical writing certificates can demonstrate your professionalism and competence and make you more attractive to prospective customers. Some associations, including the Society for Technical Communication, offer certifications for technical writers. Additionally, the American Medical Writers Association offers certificates and continuing education programs if medical writing is your area of emphasis.
As a technical writer, you must be able to describe complex ideas clearly and concisely and present that information in a way that others can easily understand. You will be required to write short, easy-to-digest sentences using an active voice and avoiding complicated words or industry jargon. Technical writing should be clear and direct with a neutral tone.
The technical skills you’ll need mainly depend on the subject matter, product, or service that you are documenting. For example, you’ll need certain skills to write about hardware and other skills to write about software. In addition, if you plan to focus on a specific industry, you’ll need to understand the topic you are writing about. For instance, if you’re asked to create documentation for software developers, you may need to understand certain programming languages.
Interviewing and listening skills
To become a technical writer, you need to know how to ask questions, along with the best project stakeholders to approach – the subject matter experts – to get the necessary information to prepare the documentation. Once you’ve found the appropriate team members to work with, you need strong listening skills to capture the pertinent information and determine which follow-up questions to ask.
A technical writer must know how to visually present information and work with designers. That means you should have at least a basic understanding of graphic design and formatting. Whether you need basic or advanced design skills will depend on your clients’ needs.
Usability and testing skills
Some of your clients may want you to take an active role in the usability testing of their products. However, even if a client doesn’t ask you to be actively involved, you should still be able to confirm that a product works the way the documentation says it does.
Knowledge of industry tools
A technical writer needs to understand the specific tools necessary to produce documentation in a variety of formats. These may include ClickHelp, MadCap Flare, Confluence, and others, depending on the clients you work with. It’s also important to keep up to date on new online documentation tools.
Insuring your technical writing business
Since technical writers create user guides, instructions, and other technical documents, a client could sue you if an error in one of your instructions causes financial or reputational harm. Because lawsuits can be incredibly expensive, small business insurance for technical writers offers you important financial security and potentially shield you from legal costs that could bankrupt your business.
Technology errors and omissions (E&O) insurance provides coverage if a customer files a lawsuit against you over a missed deadline or an oversight that caused a financial loss. If a client sues you over an error in your technical writing, E&O insurance may cover your legal bills and any financial damages you may owe the client. In addition, general liability insurance will protect you against liability from third-party claims, including copyright infringement.
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Linda Rosencrance, Freelance Writer
Linda Rosencrance is a freelance writer with over 30 years of experience writing about the IT field. Her work has been featured in The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, as well as several community newspapers in the metropolitan Boston area.