How to Be a Technical Writer
This guide is intended as a resource for individuals who:
- Want to know what a technical writer does
- Are interested in entering the field of technical writing
- Want to know what’s involved in becoming technical
- Want to explore the world of contract technical writing
Technical Writing Explained
In a Nutshell
Technical writers explain how to “do” something, generally something technical, in such a way that the explanation unfolds in a logical pattern and makes sense to the intended audience. Technical writers may produce documents for use in-house (company employees) or for specific clients (like the military) or for anyone who purchases the product (the general public).
Technical writers need to be ready to produce just about anything that another person would read, scan, bookmark, or post on the wall, including books, flyers, brochures, online help, flowcharts, training booklets, diagrams, tech manuals, user guides, or Web pages.
What Technical Writers Produce
Although many technical writers document computer software, the technical writing field includes anyone who writes about any technical subject. For example, companies hire technical writers to write or edit:
- Software user manuals and online help
- Computer hardware installation and upgrade guides
- Operator’s manuals for TVs, VCRs, cell phones, iPODS – anything technical
- Instructions for voting electronically
- Website and Internet guides
- Test results, including medical, chemical, and environmental tests
- Training manuals and teacher guides
The next time you purchase something that comes with user directions, know that most likely a technical writer had something to do with creating those directions, even if the document contains mostly pictures and arrows.
Any industry that produces goods and market services needs the services of a technical writer. If you are interested in writing for a living, you can combine that interest with your penchant interest in most any field, including the computer industry, telecommunications, finance, science, bio-tech, medicine, transportation, manufacturing, aerospace or the armed forces.
Although the method for producing documentation is essentially the same no matter what the field, many technical writers do not just “write” all the time – they may be called upon to create a Web site, to work with multimedia, or to create storyboards for classroom training materials. This variety makes technical writing a dynamic field.
The Job Market
In 2006, economists released a study proclaiming “technical writing” to be one of the best fields in the country, for employment opportunities and pay. In fact, it was ranked 13th in the nation! Each year STC conducts a Technical Communicator Salary Survey. In 2005, nearly 2300 technical communicators responded to the survey. The mean income for those respondents was $67,520, which includes beginners and senior level.
Who Hires Technical Writers?
At one time, technical writers seemed to mostly work with the government or the computer industry, but that is no longer the case. Some companies need a technical writer with the ‘standard’ documentation skills, the ability to write or edit a user manual or document manufacturing processes. However, some companies need a writer who has experience working in their specific field.
What Do Employers Want?
Job board postings are quite educational. Technical writing job announcements show what software skills employers are looking for, what level of expertise they want in their specific field, and what they are willing to pay. To get an idea of the various types of technical writing positions currently available, check out these job boards:
My favorite is dice.com -- currently, 22 thousand of the DICE job listings call
for some skill in "technical writing."
Technical Writing on Contract
Employee or Contractor?
This subject comes up often among technical writers, whether they prefer to work for a company as an employee, with benefits and some guarantee of continued employment, or whether they like working as an independent contractor on a per-project basis, with no company benefits and a finite time with the company.
Those who choose to work as a contractor enjoy the independence that contracting offers. As a contractor, the technical writer may work for the same company for years, or they may work for only two or three months. When the contract is fulfilled, the writer is free to negotiate new contracts with other companies or with the same company, or to take some time off.
Contracting can be confusing to someone who has never done it and who doesn’t know anyone who has. The technical writer who works on contract is hired by a company on a per-project basis, usually at an hourly rate, but sometimes on a flat fee for the project. A contract or letter of agreement describing these terms is agreed upon by both the writer and the company.
Pros & Cons of Working on Contract
Contract technical writing works well for some people because:
- Contracting pays quite well. Hourly rates for contractors range from $30 to $60 (they can go higher in New York and San Francisco). This is higher than typical employee rates.
- Each completed contract goes on the writer’s resume.
- Contracting is eminently flexible, as the contractor is only bound to work the length of the contract. When a contract is over, the contractor is free to take off as much time as needed.
- Contracting allows the contractor a good chance of landing a telecommuting job, where the writer gets to work from home. This has many benefits, providing the children aren’t home also.
Contracting isn't for everyone. Here are some other points to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to become a contractor:
- To succeed at contracting you need to be good at public relations and comfortable
with selling yourself. The flexibility afforded by contracting can become a
burden to the writer who is not able to chase down job leads to get another
- Contractors must provide their own benefits; they do not get paid vacations
or sick days, and they are responsible for their health insurance. This is one
reason contractors command higher hourly rates than employees.
- Contractors have business-related expenses that employees do not have. Contractors
are expected to maintain their own hardware and software, and writing library, so
that they can stay current. This is another reason contractors are paid more per
hour than employees.
Technical writing contractors may work on a W-2 basis with the contracting company
or they may work on a 1099.
- W-2 -- the company withholds taxes and issues a W-2 at the end of the year
- 1099 -- the company withholds no taxes, leaving the whole matter of tax payment
and filing for the contractor
Independent contractors who work on a 1099 basis may deduct their related expenses,
including Internet provider service, ads, Web sites, software applications,
computers, peripherals, office supplies, travel for interviews and presentations,
etc. The contractor can be a ‘sole
translates to filing a Schedule C or they can form their own corporation (like
Technical Writers – What are They Like?
What type of person makes a good technical writer?
- Like to learn about how things work
- Like to explain things to others
- Feel comfortable writing about technical subjects
- Can logically organize what they write
- Have good attention to detail
- Enjoy working with the English language and choosing words that work best
- Can remain focused on a subject for a good amount of time
- Are comfortable interviewing Subject Matter Experts
They Can Follow Style Guides
Large companies like IBM, Apple and Sun Microsystems have adopted their own style
guides, and these are often adopted by other companies as well. Some companies adopt
a popular guide like the "Chicago Manual of Style," which most technical writers
add to their library as soon as they can. Style guides set rules for punctuation
and word choice, and they set standards for handling hyperlinks and tables, etc.
Individual companies also set their own standards for fonts, headings, indexes, etc.
Technical communicators need to learn and follow the rules adopted by their employer
Good technical writers understand the importance of structure and style. They
are able to work with the client’s writing and/or publishing style guide.
They Can Use Software Tools
These days, technical writers are
expected to know more than grammar; they are expected to know how to work with
various software tools. Some companies
need their writers to use only one or two applications, while others want their
writers who are experienced with numerous programs. Technical writers need to know
word processing and publishing applications, of course, but often they also need
to know graphics, HTML, multimedia, XML, and even CAD and 3-D modeling applications.
Software experience, both required and desired, is generally listed in the job
It's been my experience, that I need to be ready andwilling to learn new software
applications as the job demands. As the position expands and I am called to use
a new application, I purchase the software and learn it at home on my own time.
This not only makes me more valuable to my current employer or client, but adds
to my skill base.
Different roads can lead to a technical writing career. Although some technical
writers attend school specifically to learn about technical communication, most
of them did not. Some technical writers have a technical background, and because
they also know how to write, they end up in a position that incorporates their
technical knowledge and savvy with their writing strength. This happens often.
Basically, technical writers facilitate information transfer. If someone already
has a good grasp of a specific technology, including the vocabulary related to
that technology, then they just may be good at writing about the technology.
Rework Your Resume
Rewrite your resume so that it emphasizes every bit of writing experience you have ever had, even writing a column for a student newsletter.
Build a Portfolio
Companies looking to hire a technical writer want someone who can give them some
writing samples. Beginning technical writers can start building a portfolio
- Articles for nonprofit newsletters
- Documentation for a shareware application
- Instructions for one of your hobbies
Attend STC development meetings to network with technical writers and learn about
the subjects that interest them and affect their work. Consider attending an annual
STC conference, which is an excellent place to meet potential employers and a good
way to meet more technical writers. STC is the largest organization in the world
dedicated to promoting and disseminating information about all aspects of technical
communication. Local chapters hold periodic development meetings that are open
to everyone. For information, check out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
STC membership provides many benefits, and adding membership to your resume can
help you get that interview, even if you have little technical writing experience.
For many tech writers, joining STC is money well spent.
Work with Recruiters
Technical recruiters have access to lots of companies looking to hire technical writers.
In fact, some companies only hire technical staff through recruiters. As mentioned
above, look at the job boards that post openings for technical communicators. On some job boards, most all
openings are posted by recruiters.
Study Technical Writing
Study technical writing to become a better technical writer. Below is a list of resources you can use to get more information about the business of contract technical writing.
Most thorough technical writing books cost from $30 to $90 each. You can find many
of them by searching on Amazon.com for “technical writing.” These are some of
the books I own:
"Making Money in Technical Writing: Turn Your Writing Skills into
$100,000 a Year," by Peter Kent, published in 1998 by ARCO, a division of Macmillan
"The Elements of Technical Writing" by Gary Blake and Robert W. Bly, published
in 1993 by Macmillan General Reference.
"Franklin Covey Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication," published
in 2000 by Franklin Covey Company.
"The Elements of Style," 4th Edition, by William Strunk Jr., E. B. White
and Roger Angell, published in 1999 by Pearson Education Company.
"The Chicago Manual of Style," 15th Edition, published in 2003 by the University
of Chicago Press.
"The ACS Style Guide: A Manual for Authors and Editors," published in 1997 by
the American Chemical Society.
Intercom magazine, published by the Society for Technical Communication
Technical Communication Journal, published by the Society for Technical
by Ann Gordon, Assistant Manager
Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG
Published as a Chapter in an online book, 2005
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