So, you want to be a technical writer, but you’re not quite sure where to start?
Technical Writing (more properly known as technical communication) is the process of making complex information easier to understand by using various forms of media such as online help systems, user manuals, training guides, and other means.
There are both permanent and contract technical communications positions available. They tend to be attractive to writers because the projects are large (often taking months to complete) and they pay well.
Since I’ve worked in this field for over twenty years, I am often asked for advice on how to get started from those who wish to get started in technical writing.
3 Steps to Get Started as a Technical Communicator
Twenty years ago when I started as a technical communicator having a degree, a proven aptitude for writing, and a desire to work as a technical communicator was enough to get started in the field. In today’s more competitive environment, I would advise those who are interested to obtain more specific qualifications.
To anyone wanting to work in technical communications today I would recommend the following three steps:
- Pursue a technical communications degree
- Join the Society for Technical Communication
- Take seminars and other continuing education courses
I’ll address each of these steps separately.
Getting a Technical Communications Degree
Back when I started as a technical writer very few colleges offered a degree program in technical communications. In addition, the economy was booming. Companies who needed technical communicators had a tough time finding folks with the necessary communication skills to convey complex technical information to lay people. They were more than willing to hire good communicators and train them inhouse.
Alas, times have changed. Many colleges and universities now offer a technical communications degree. There are also quite a few graduate programs in technical communications. If you’re applying for a technical communications job today, these are the folks that you’ll be competing with for a job. If you have no technical communications experience, odds are that you won’t be selected for the position. Remember, many colleges and universities also have job placement programs in place for their alumni.
Joining the Society for Technical Communication
For most of my technical communication career, I have been a member of the Society for Technical Communication. There are many benefits to joining the professional society. Some of these benefits include:
- Networking with fellow technical communicators and potential employers
- Continuing education seminars and conferences
- Access to the STC Job bank, which contains frequently updated job listings
- Career advice
- Discounted access to salary database
- Ability to specialize in a particular technical communications field through the special interest groups (SIGs)
- Discounts on insurance programs
- Discounted pricing on certificate courses
Yes, the membership can be a bit pricey (although there are discounts for student members), but as one potential employer once told me, “your STC membership shows me that you’re serious about the field.”
Taking Seminars and Continuing Education Courses
As a technical communicator, you will find yourself constantly updating and revising your skills. There are a number of seminars and courses to help you do this. Some seminars are available directly through the STC, while others may be offered through your local college or through a professional training organization.
In general, technical communicators need to stay current in three areas:
- Technical communication trends
- Usage of tools
- Writing and communication skills
Technical writers may also be asked to step into other aspects of the project such as usability, testing, or project management.
What About Other Writing Experience?
Can you move directly into technical writing if you have other writing experience, such as marketing communications or journalism?
The answer to that question used to be “yes,” but more and more often I’m convinced that today’s answer is “not without additional training.” The marketplace (for all jobs) is much more competitive than it used to be. For current writers who wish to move into technical writing I’d recommend following one or more of the steps above.
Of course, if you already have technical communications experience you can lean somewhat on your work background, portfolio, and references. However, I would strongly suggest that you consider joining the STC and/or taking continuing education courses.
There is quite a bit about technical communications online. Here are some additional posts that you may find useful:
- Technical Writing–What’s It Like? at the Freelance Writing Jobs Network
- Technical Writing–Seven Challenges at the Freelance Writing Jobs Network
- A Day in the Life of a Home Based Technical Writer at i heart technical writing.com
What Would You Add?
Did this post answer your questions about technical communications? Are you a technical communicator who would provide different advice?
Leave your answers in the comments.