Is tech writing a good job? That was the question the newsletter article began with last week. I talked about what a technical writer does and for whom. This week, I want to finish up with “What do you need to know to be a technical writer?” and “How do you get into the business?”
Before I get to that, though, I want to toss out an idea I ran across. One of the things in last week’s article was the problem with the title technical writer that had to be distinguished from creative writer and copy writer. There was a contestant on one of the Jeopardy shows this week who gave her job title as contract writer. I like that. When you look at the wide variety of types of writing we technical writers do, and want to separate us out from other writers who also write to make a living, I think contract writer is a good term. It doesn’t try to explain what we write. It explains why we write. Sure, for a while, we’ll have to explain what a contract writer is, but eventually, people will know, and we’ll have our own job title.
To Be a Good technical writer
Anyway, back to the subject. There are still two questions:
- What do technical writers need to know?
- How do you get into the business?
As a broad statement, to be a good technical writer, you need to know a lot of stuff. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to know a lot about the stuff – just a lot of stuff. You need to have a broad understanding of a lot of things. Fortunately, the longer you’re a technical writer, the more stuff you know. It comes with the territory. True, if you’re writing computer programming, you’d better know a lot about the subject before you start. It’s not something that’s easy to just pick up. On the other hand, if you’re writing a user guide for a piece of software, you don’t need to know how to use the software before you start. In fact, there are times when not knowing a lot about a subject can make you a better technical writer. It’s called controlled ignorance. Your source of information, the subject matter expert (SME), knows the subject – perhaps too well. Recognizing what was most difficult for you to understand the material makes it easier to decide how to handle it for the non-experts you’re writing to.
An experienced technical writer can move from pharmaceuticals to automotive to aerospace to computers by applying the skills and techniques that make a good technical writer. The subjects may change, but the skills don’t. Technical writers, particularly freelancers, are expected to write documents for any clients, products, or purposes that come along. The product you turn out is often the result of hours of research based on reading, observations, or interviews on subjects you may have been totally unfamiliar with when you started.
Being able to write good poetry or western novels or television news copy doesn’t mean you’ll be a good technical writer. Technical writing is a specialized field that calls for specialized skills. And that takes training.
Being able to write well is the beginning of being a technical writer – a vital beginning. If you can write a clear, meaningful paragraph using good grammar, good sentence structure, and logical organization of ideas, you have all the basics of being a tech writer – the skills you build on. Then, in addition to these basics, you need to be skilled at producing text that makes it possible for a target audience to understand or use information on a given subject. That’s where the training comes in. With the ability to use language clearly and correctly, you can develop the technical writer’s skills through experience by writing deeply about one field or widely about many fields.
Getting Into the Field
Up until just a few years ago, most technical writers came from some other job. They were engineers or trainers or salespeople who sort of “got into” the business. There were very few places that offered training in tech writing. The subject might be part of a larger training area, but there weren’t ‘technical writing schools’ as there are now. Now, you can learn tech writing by attending classes or by working with professionals who mentor you through the training individually, one-on-one, the way ProTech Training does.
Along with the increased opportunities to train are more and more opportunities to be a full-time professional in the field – both as an employee and as a free-lancer. And with this development comes the importance of another skill: Marketing yourself. Just listing where you got your training or what jobs you’ve had isn’t enough. It’s a widening market, but it’s also a highly competitive market. You need to be able to convince prospective employers or clients that they should even take the time to talk to you.
Over the past year, the TWTK has presented a number of valuable articles by Bryan S. Adar on the subject of marketing yourself. Last week’s article was about making your resumé more effective. Bryan follows up on the same subject in this newsletter. Skill in marketing yourself is so important that a third of the ProTech training course is devoted to the subject.
You can become an expert technical writer with good training, but you can’t become a successful technical writer unless you get the opportunity to apply your skills. Tech writing skills and effective marketing are the twin engines that must work together to make your career as a technical writer take off.