How to become a successful technical writer

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March 11, 2021
5 minute read

Becoming a successful freelance writer takes strategy and persistence, but becoming a successful technical writer requires a little extra knowledge and experience.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of available work opportunities for talented technical writers. If you’re interested in breaking into the field, we’re sharing everything you need to do to get started.

What is technical writing?

Technical writing is any type of writing that explains technical concepts and processes in a clear, simple way. Contrary to popular belief, technical writing isn’t just in user manuals. You can also find it in white papers, medical summaries, blog posts, case studies, online help sections, standard operating procedure documents, legal disclaimers, pitch decks, brochures, and professional reports.

Most technical writing falls into one of three categories: consumer technical writing, technical marketing writing, or traditional technical writing.

Consumer technical writing—which is geared toward the end user of a product or tool—is designed to help a consumer use, fix, or make sense of something complex. If you buy a pair of bookcases from Ikea, for example, you’ll see technical writing in the assembly instructions that come with your purchase. If you search Google because your email account isn’t loading new messages, you might find a blog post that uses technical writing to explain how to fix the problem.

Technical marketing writing is used to sell or promote a technical product or tool to another business. You typically see technical marketing writing in case studies, annual reports, white papers, and pitch decks.

Traditional technical writing, which is written for experts in a particular field, provides more information on a complex subject. You can find this type of technical writing in medical papers, legal documents, research compilations, and employee handbooks and guides.

What skills do you need as a technical writer?

Every writer needs to be able to organize their ideas in a clear, compelling way, but technical writers have to be especially adept at outlining complicated concepts. They also need skills that go beyond the act of writing.

Here’s what every technical writer needs to succeed:

  • Analytical thinking skills: As a technical writer, you need the capacity to think critically about how a process or tool works.
  • A strong command of language: You should be comfortable translating industry-specific jargon into simple terms.
  • Specialized knowledge: You need to have a deep understanding of a technical subject or field, whether it’s coding, pharmaceuticals, or another topic.
  • Excellent attention to detail: You should be able to find and fix holes in logic.
  • Clear, concise writing skills: Being a technical writer means you have to make dense, confusing concepts digestible.
  • Adaptability: You should be able to cater your writing style and tone to the audience you’re speaking to.
  • Good communication: You need to be comfortable interfacing and chatting with other technical experts, such as engineers, researchers, and scientists.
  • Curiosity: You should have a genuine desire to learn and further your understanding of technical topics.

How to become a successful technical writer in 7 steps

Accomplished technical writers spend years building up their knowledge and expertise in a single area, not to mention working on their writing craft. If you’re starting from scratch, you can still become a successful technical writer, but you should be prepared to dedicate significant time and energy to learning and honing your skills.

Ready to go? Here’s a roadmap for breaking into technical writing:

Step 1: Identify your areas of expertise

The first step to becoming a technical writer is figuring out what you can write about with authority. To start, consider your education and work experience. Maybe you have a degree in computer science or environmental law, for example. Maybe you’re a software salesperson or you spent seven years working at an auto shop as a mechanic.

It’s also a good idea to reflect on your technical interests and passions. Are you an expert at a certain video game or a wizard at home renovation projects?

Once you identify your skills and areas of technical expertise, conduct some research to see whether or not your knowledge is in demand. Search for companies in the niches you pinpointed, then scour their websites and product offerings. Online help sections, technical articles, and case studies are all signs a company might use technical writers.

Next, visit a few different employment search sites to look for technical writing jobs in your niche, like “video game technical writer” or “construction technical writer.” If you see a decent amount of job posts that correlate with your expertise, you’re on the right track.

Step 2: Advance your skills

Building upon your base of knowledge can take you to the next level as a technical writer. Consider what new skills or education you need in order to further your technical expertise or writing abilities. What will make you more proficient and adaptable?

Depending on your experience and goals, you could take a class, attend a seminar, or get some additional work experience. For example, if you have a medical degree but no experience with professional writing, you may want to enroll in a technical writing course. If you’re a front-end web developer, you might be interested in obtaining a certification in back-end web development to expand your skill set.

Here are a handful of technical writing courses to consider:

Step 3: Build your portfolio

Specialized knowledge isn’t the only asset you need as a technical writer—you also need a portfolio of technical writing samples that demonstrate your expertise.

Start by gathering any writing samples you already have, like a legal document or white paper from your previous job. If you don’t have any technical writing pieces, don’t stress. You can create some by doing spec work for a company you admire or giving yourself a sample project, like writing a research summary on the effects of vitamins in athletes or generating user instructions for rebooting a particular video game system. Just make sure your samples are original and related to your technical niche.

Once you have five to 10 strong samples of writing, compile them in an online portfolio. Sites like Contently and Writerfolio let you create free, professional portfolios where you can upload both PDFs and URLs. If you want to become a full-time freelance technical writer, you may want to invest in a website that lists your credentials and writing services in addition to hosting your body of work.

Step 4: Expand your network

Connecting with other technical writers and professionals in your field is a good way to learn about technical writing jobs and get referrals. Try the following tactics to expand your network:

Step 5: Get technical writing work

The strategy you use to get technical writing work depends on whether you want a full-time or freelance technical writing job. If you want a full-time technical writing position at one company, try using employment search sites like Indeed.com, LinkedIn, and Glassdoor. You can also search the career pages of companies you’re interested in to see if they’re hiring technical writers.

If you want to do freelance technical writing, you may have to use a handful of different strategies to get work:

  • Search for freelance technical writing jobs on FlexJobs, We Work Remotely, and Technical Writer HQ.
  • Search for technical writing gigs on job boards like ProBlogger, Contena, and BloggingPro.com.
  • Ask your online writing groups for referrals.
  • Browse technical writing hashtags on Twitter, like #technicalwriting, #freelancewritinggigs, and #technicalwriters. You can also search “[your niche] + technical writer.”
  • Try signing up for a staffing agency that specializes in placing technical writers. You can try: ProEdit, Clear/Point, Aerotek, High-Tech Professionals, and JPG & Associates.
  • Send cold emails to potential clients inquiring about technical writing work. Do some research on companies in your niche, then compile a list of prospects. From there, send a friendly, professional email to each company’s HR manager or technical recruiter introducing yourself and explaining your expertise. Make sure you include a list of your credentials and a link to your technical writing portfolio.

Step 6: Perfect your craft

Working on your technical writing skills can help you gain confidence, secure more work, and catch the attention of high-profile clients. In addition to regularly practicing your writing, make time to read other technical writing pieces—both in and out of your niche—and take note of what works and what doesn’t. It’s also helpful to read books on technical writing or enroll in an online course to sharpen your skills.

Here are some general tips to improve your technical writing:

  • Use precise language.
  • Write in active voice.
  • Use a logical format.
  • Keep your sentence structure simple.
  • Write to your audience’s level of knowledge.
  • Include enough detail to be helpful, but not so much that your readers will be confused.
  • Edit for clarity.

Step 7: Stay up to date on your industry knowledge

Staying current on the latest technology and research in your field helps you write more informative, astute pieces and better accommodate your audience’s changing needs.

To keep up with industry news and developments, it’s important to read the outlets and newspapers that report on your niche. You can also follow thought leaders in your industry, read blogs in your niche, and schedule calls with subject matter experts to learn more about particular topics or trends.

Getting started as a technical writer

Technical writing is a broad field that spans countless different industries—from tech and finance to medicine and law. If you’re interested in becoming a technical writer, work on educating yourself in a technical field, improving your writing skills, and expanding your network.

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