What is a technical writer and how can you become one?

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April 6, 2021
5 minute read

Technical writing is everywhere. As our world becomes increasingly dependent on technology, we rely on technical writers to help us navigate it. Technical writers teach us how to use software, build physical products, and implement complex processes.

Technical writing is a rapidly expanding field that’s employing an increasing number of full-time and freelance writers. Whether you have a technical background or are a writer looking to break into the field, technical writing can be a lucrative career.

This article explains what technical writing is, who would be good at it, how to become a technical writer, and ways to improve your skills.

What is technical writing?

Technical writing is the practice of documenting processes. It explains how something works to a specific audience. The Society for Technical Communication defines technical communication more broadly as any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the follow characteristics:

  • “Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.”

Traditionally, technical writing was limited to user manuals. Now, it includes any writing that aims to document complex technical information in a simple, accessible way. Technical writing can be long-form, like a user manual, or short-form, like an email. It encompasses anything that requires direction, instruction, or explanation.

Technical writing can deal with both tangible and intangible subject matter. It can document physical things that can be seen and touched, like how to set up a coffee maker, or abstract things, like how to set up an agile working process for a team. Technical writing focuses on creating digestible content with an intended purpose for a specific audience.

What is the purpose of technical writing?

The goal of technical writing is to clearly and effectively explain something so that the end user can easily understand and implement the information. Good technical writing tells you exactly what you need to know when you need to know it. It allows the end user to quickly reference and digest new information. This helps companies enhance the user experience for their products and services.

What does a technical writer do?

The role of a technical writer depends on their field of expertise and whether they are an employee of the company they write for or an independent freelancer. Technical writers essentially function as the intermediary between the technical staff at a company and the end user. They usually have to interface with multiple teams in order to understand the project at a high enough level to be able to write about it.

Technical writers are expert communicators. They are translators, helping to ensure that technical information is accessible for the intended end user. It is often their job to align multiple stakeholders on a project. A lot of their time is spent on tasks other than writing, such as researching, preparing, and reviewing their work.

How is technical writing different from other types of writing?

Technical writing has a specific tone and purpose. It is different in tone and purpose to other types of writing including journalism, creative writing, academic writing, and business writing.

Technical writing is most often compared to and mistaken for business writing. This is because it deals with many of the same topics. While there are similarities between the two, business writing is a broader category. Some technical writing is business writing, but not all business writing is technical writing.

The goal of both business writing and technical writing is to be accessible. However, technical writing is focused solely on conveying information while business writing can vary in style and tone. Some business writing is persuasive, for example when trying to convince someone of your point of view. Technical writing is always objective. Technical writers don’t persuade you to add coffee makers to your company's product mix, they teach you how to use one.

What is the style and tone of technical writing?

Style refers to a writer's choice of words, sentence structure, and rhythm. Tone reflects the writer's attitude toward their subject and reader. Technical writing has a consistent style and tone regardless of its subject matter. Technical writers do not give their opinion. Their job is to objectively describe how something works. The style and tone they use reflects this.

The style of technical writing is simple, clear, and direct. Technical writers often use bullet points and numbered lists to communicate detailed instructions. How they choose to organize and structure information is incredibly important. Technical writing is direct and word choice is often agonized over in order to ensure there’s no room for misinterpretation. Every word counts.

The tone of technical writing is formal and neutral. A technical writer seeks to convey competency and subject matter expertise. They use an active voice to do this.

Types of technical writing

There are a wide range of technical documents. While the length and format of each differs, they all require similar processes to write and have the same end goal.

Here are some on the most common types of technical writing:

Instruction manuals

Instruction and user manuals tell someone how to use a product or program. Both product developers and end users rely on manuals to understand how something works so that they can use it effectively.

Example: an instruction manual for a camera, computer software program, or a piece of machinery.

Reports

Technical reports give the reader the information required to be properly informed on a topic. A report can provide instructions, analysis, or recommendations. Readers use what they learn to help them make informed decisions.

Example: a report on a company's research process that details how they conduct their research and outlines ways it could be improved.

Emails and memos

Short communications like emails and memos can be technical in nature if they are used to share information or teach someone how to do something.

Example: an email from human resources that updates employees on a new company procedure.

Product assembly guidelines

Product assembly guidelines show an end user exactly how to physically assemble something. It outlines the materials, design specifications, and steps required to accurately assemble or reassemble something.

Example: furniture assembly instructions or instructions from an architect to a building contractor.

White papers and case studies

White papers and case studies are often used to highlight a successful aspect of a company’s business. It shows a specific audience how their product or service led to a favourable outcome in a given circumstance. This is often used in business to business (B2B) writing to help the reader decide if they should buy from the company.

Example: a white paper outlining how a company’s customer relationship management software helped their clients increase customer retention and lower marketing spend over time.

Standard operating procedure

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a set of step-by-step instructions that outline routine processes in a business. Workers follow them to ensure the consistent quality of repeat tasks.

Example: a standard operating procedure is used in investment management to ensure new clients are onboarded efficiently.

Other types of technical writing include press releases, product briefs, policy manuals, quick reference guides, website copy, brochures, and more. These documents can be focused on a business to business (B2B) audience or a direct to consumer audience (D2C).

Industries that hire technical writers

As technology becomes increasingly inseparable from our lives, most industries have a need for technical writers. Here are some of the most common fields that currently hire full-time and freelance technical writers:

  • Energy
  • Engineering
  • Biotech
  • Construction
  • Consulting
  • Information technology and software
  • Financial services and insurance
  • Government
  • Health care
  • Nonprofit
  • Manufacturing
  • Design
  • Academia
  • Transportation

If you have a background in any technical field, chances are that field also has a demand for technical writers.

Demand for technical writing

The demand for technical writers continues to grow as our work and lives become increasingly reliant on technology. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, “employment of technical writers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.” The increased need for web-based product support is also expected to increase demand for technical writers.

Since technical writing is highly skilled and often requires subject matter expertise in technical fields, it can be a lucrative writing niche. The medium annual wage for technical writers was $72,850 in May 2019. The rate freelance technical writers are able to charge for their services is reflective of this.

Who should consider a career in technical writing?

People with a background in any technical field such as engineering, computer science, finance, energy, security, information technology, and construction can become strong technical writers. Writers who are detail-oriented and quick learners are also finding success by transitioning into a technical writing niche.

Regardless of your professional background, it’s vital that you’re a life-long learner who enjoys becoming a subject matter expert on whatever it is you’re writing about. If you’re someone that’s keen to understand everything there is to know about something, you might enjoy this field.

Technical writers derive satisfaction from knowing they are helping people when they need it. Whether that’s helping someone build furniture for a new home or teaching someone how to implement agile processes at work, they enjoy knowing that they helped make someone’s life easier.

If you’re someone who wants to share their opinion and tell stories through writing, technical writing is not for you. And if you’re bored just reading and thinking about technical writing, chances are you won’t enjoy a career made out of it.

Skills technical writers need

Technical writers make difficult tasks easy. In order to do this, a good technical writer is observant, curious, and thorough. They have a specific skill set that allows them to process and convey complex information.

These are the core skills you’ll need to be a good technical writer:

Technical knowledge and a willingness to learn

Technical writing requires you to either have or obtain domain knowledge in your chosen field. You need to understand what you’re writing about. Most technical writers come from a technical background and then learn how to write. Being a writer who wants to transition into technical content is certainly doable, but will likely come with a steeper learning curve. As a technical writer, you must be willing to constantly learn new things about your field.

Technical writers have the willingness and ability to dive deep into one particular subject, gathering and organizing information into usable processes. They are not overwhelmed by large volumes of information.

User research and testing

Strong research skills are vital for technical writers. In order to complete a project, you’ll be required to efficiently gather and distill information from a variety of sources. Many technical writers have to conduct user research and testing. This might involve reading case studies, conducting interviews, and scouring databases. You’ll need to use critical thinking and analysis skills to do this effectively.

Audience understanding and empathy

In order to write for a specific audience you must understand them. You need to know their level of expertise, their expectations, and their needs. Being able to empathize with your audience ensures that you’re writing content that meets them where they are and helps them achieve a desired outcome. What’s natural or common knowledge to you may not be to your reader. This is especially true if you come from a technical background. Being able to imagine yourself as a beginner and write with that kind of person in mind will help you tremendously.

Every field will also have it’s own abbreviations, acronyms, and phrases. You must be familiar with these in order to communicate effectively. If you don’t have a technical background in the field you’re writing about, consulting with field experts will help you.

Ability to remain objective and detail oriented

Technical writing is straightforward, clear, and objective. Your job is to simplify complex topics, not give your opinion. Your ability to analyze and present information objectively is crucial. In order to do this well, technical writers are detail oriented. They are concise and don’t use jargon. They must strike a balance between giving enough information to explain something well but not too much as to overwhelm the reader.

Planning and organization

A lot of prep work must be done before you begin writing. You’ll have to establish a clear scope of work, conduct any preliminary research, and create a project outline. Strong planning and organizational skills will help make this process as efficient as possible.

If you’re a freelancer, having a brief that establishes document type, goal, scope, and audience will help ensure that you and your client have aligned expectations. Your client may or may not have a clear understanding of all these elements on their own. Part of your job is conducting guided conversations to help them uncover and narrow their focus. Have a repeatable process in place for both your research and writing processes.

Editing

Clear writing comes from strategic editing. In order to communicate with the precision technical writing requires, you need to have strong editing skills. You must be able to review your writing thoroughly and thoughtfully. In addition to catching any grammar and spelling errors, you need to ensure your copy works for your intended audience.

How to become a technical writer

You don’t need to have gone to school for writing to become a technical writer. Many technical writers come from a technical background that they have experience and training in, such as engineering. Others are writers who have made the transition into a technical niche. Whatever your background, there are many ways to break into technical writing.

Here are things to keep in mind and experiment with as you’re getting started:

Find your niche

Finding a niche will help you focus. You’ll be able to develop your skills faster and find better jobs. Start by choosing an industry you’d like to work in. If your background is in a technical field then that becomes your obvious niche. If you’re a writer, you might feel drawn to or have connections in a specific industry.

Within your industry niche, you may decide to specialize in specific types of documents such as user manuals, white papers, etc. At the beginning, it’s probably best to take on a range of jobs to see what you enjoy most. Clarity will come with experience.

Build your portfolio

If you don’t have a writing background and are struggling to find entry level opportunities through your existing contacts, building a portfolio of writing samples can help you enter the industry. You can use this portfolio to show potential employers or clients what you’re capable of. This helps you build trust faster.

A portfolio can also be a great way to apply for internships or entry-level positions. Many new technical writers begin that way before working their way up or going out on their own as an independent freelancer.

If you’re not sure how to build your portfolio, take a course or join an association to help you.

Know your worth

Whether you’re looking for a full-time job or going freelance, you need to research and understand industry rates. Websites like Payscale are a great starting point to find technical writing salaries.

Knowing full-time salaries will give you a sense of freelance rates. Your hourly freelance rate will always be higher than your full-time, salaried pay. Depending on your experience, the rule of thumb is to double or triple your full-time hourly wage to get to your hourly freelance rate. This extra buffer is used to cover your taxes, operating expenses, and other business costs that would otherwise be covered by an employer.

Network and look for jobs

Never underestimate the power of networking within your existing industry and contacts. Let people know that you’re looking for this type of work. You never know who will have leads or refer you.

Joining associations and other writing or technical communities is a great way to find job opportunities. Being part of an association can also help you with professional development and running your business.

Finally, make use of online job boards such as Upwork to look for work. LinkedIn is also a great way to search for jobs and connect with employees at companies you’d like to work with. You can even reach out to companies individually to see if they need help and pitch your services. Always keep their interests in mind when you do this. Focus on how you can help them, rather than how they can help you.

Keep your invoicing and bookkeeping organized

If you’re a freelancer, you’ll be responsible for invoicing your clients and managing your own books. It’s vital to stay on top of this and to have a simple process in place. A polished invoice with your name and company information on it will make you look professional, reflect your worth, and help you get paid quickly.

Keeping track of the money coming in and out of your business will help you build financial stability sooner. You’ll be able to see exactly what’s going on in your business and make the decisions required to run a profitable one. Accurate and organized records also save you money come tax time.

Wave offers free invoicing and accounting software to help you get started. When you save time and money, you’re able to keep more of your focus where it belongs—on your business.

How to improve your technical writing skills

Whether you’re new to writing altogether or simply new to technical writing, you’ll need to continuously improve your craft in order to get better work. Focusing on these key areas will help you become a more skilled writer.

Read

Reading teaches you how to write. Reading other technical writing in similar or related fields will help you improve your skills. Examine other writers' writing styles to see how they organize and convey information. Find prominent writers in your field and see what you can learn from the common patterns you find across their writing.

Take courses

There are all sorts of courses and classes you can take to improve your technical writing. Check your local college or university to find continuing education classes. Many schools offer these courses online and as a result it’s easier than ever to access education. There are also courses on Udemy, sometimes run by other freelancers, and the Society for Technical Communication runs a range of webinars and courses.

Create systems and processes

A solid workflow will save you time and make you a more efficient writer. Having a repeatable process ensures that you know exactly what to do and when to do it. This will help you stick to timelines, which is especially important when you’re working with a team. Break big projects into small chunks. You’ll be able to save more energy for the actual researching and writing, rather than having to start from scratch with each project.

If you’re a freelancer, having processes around client onboarding and communication will also help you stand out from the crowd.

Improve your people skills

Technical writing is not a solitary task. You’ll likely have to work with multiple project stakeholders, such as technical staff, and you may have to conduct user research. Being able to clearly communicate with others helps you get better information and do better work.

Companies want to hire people who are good to work with. By improving your interpersonal skills, you’re also improving your job prospects.

Ask for and implement feedback

Getting feedback on both your writing and your writing process is important. Seek out a mentor in your field. Having a mentor can be an invaluable way to accelerate your professional growth. Look for someone who is ahead of you career-wise and whose work you admire. Ensure there’s mutual respect and that they’re able to give specific, constructive feedback.

Join an association or peer group

Connecting with other technical writers will help you develop your profession faster. You’ll be able to learn about the industry from established insiders and perhaps even get leads on jobs. There are all sorts of online communities and technical writing organizations that you can join. In addition, many freelancers find it valuable to create or join a peer group. This allows you to ask each other questions, share what you're learning, and hold each other accountable.

Practice

As with anything, the only way to get better is with practice. As a new technical writer it’s going to take time to find your groove. Be patient with yourself and diligent with your work. Carve out time in your schedule for professional development. Be consistent. Keep challenging yourself and developing adject skills like communication and research. The more your skills develop, the more in demand you will be as a writer.

Final thoughts

If you’re curious, detail-oriented, and enjoy a challenge, you might love a career in technical writing. Technical writers help all of us lead more efficient lives by teaching us how to use the products and services we rely on. It can be incredibly rewarding work professionally and financially.

Keep these tips in mind as you embark on your journey of becoming a technical writer. With some time and patience, you’re sure to find success.

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