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Technical Writer

The Real Poop

You've seen technical writing before, in all sorts of places. That little booklet in ten different languages that came with your new cell phone? Technical writing. That FAQ you found online when you couldn't figure out what was wrong with your Wifi router? Technical writing. That enormous booklet you keep in your glove compartment that details every part in your car and every conceivable thing that could go wrong with your vehicle? Technical writing.

Now, if you're thinking, "But it must be so boring to be the poor schmuck who has to write that stuff out," well yeah, your dismay is understandable. However, while technical writing may sometimes be dull, it's a very necessary job.

See, technical writing has been around forever, or at least since Chaucer, who gave us the first technical writing in English when he composed a piece on the workings of the astrolabe. Then, during World War 1, technical writing became an actual job as people discovered that all of those weapons they were killing each other with actually needed instruction manuals.

Today, technical writers can be found working in lots of different fields like biotechnology, computer hardware and software, engineering, and the law. The job involves taking the crazy-complex information coming out of these different industries and transforming it into documentation that tells people how to do something. You may end up writing operations guides, training manuals, online articles, or promotional brochures.

As a technical writer, there are some specific questions you'll ask yourself every time you take on a new project:

  • So, what the heck is this product or process you're supposed to be writing about?
  • What do the people who'll be using this product or process need you to tell them via the documentation you'll be writing?
  • What's the best way to get the information you'll be producing to others? Will instructions on a piece of paper work, or do you need to produce something more interactive, like an online video?
  • As you write, can you think of any ways to make the product or process better?

In order to answer these questions, you'll talk to the makers of the product or process you're writing about and conduct research via the Internet, the library, or even onsite at the place where the product is manufactured. Then, you'll take all of the information you've gathered, write up the documentation, and illustrate it with photographs, charts, or diagrams. You'll get feedback on what you've written, and revise as needed.

Okay, so maybe you're still thinking, "OMG, booooooooooooooring," but, hey, you haven't heard about the money yet.

The median salary for technical writers falls at around $65k. Experienced technical writers working for large computer companies, however, can make far more than this: think $90k to $105k. Additionally, the technical writing industry is expected to grow rapidly over the next several years, as companies go online with more and more scientific and technical ideas and products that require documentation; as companies that haven't used technical writers before start hiring in order to acquire the documentation they need; and as documentation continues to move from paper to online platforms.

There are other benefits to technical writing. If your particular job doesn't require you to be in an office, you can work from wherever you want, whenever you want—all you really need is a computer and the Internet. Also, if you become a guru in your particular area of technical writing, you'll probably be able to find an opportunity to graduate from drawing diagrams and typing out text to giving out expert opinions on industry data and market strategy.

This doesn't mean that everything is hunky-dory in the land of technical writing. There are lots of experienced freelance technical writers out there and, as with so many jobs these days, competition for contract work is fierce. In-office technical writing work also tends to cluster in very specific places, like Seattle, Washington (because it's home to Microsoft), Silicon Valley (because it's a global tech hub), and Texas (because that state's major cities are home to manufacturing, computer, medical, and oil and gas corporations), so a move may be in your future.

Furthermore, technical writing can be really, really hard. You must have the knowledge and experience to understand what you're looking at and translate it into something meaningful and useful. You may have to work long hours, at night, or during weekends in order to talk to people who live far away from you, because they have the expertise and information you need to draw on in order to write.

Also, have you ever had your writing routinely criticized on seemingly irrelevant, nit-picky points? This happens to technical writers all the time, and it's totally an exercise in ARGH!!!

If you've stuck around this long, you probably want to know what hoops you need to jump through in order to become a technical writer. Here they are:

  • Knowledge of a technical field. Majoring in chemical engineering: good. Majoring in English: not so good.
  • Excellent writing abilities
  • Leet computer skills
  • A familiarity with technical writing, which is not at all the same as the kind of writing journalists, authors, and other professional communicators do

You will need to be patient and detail-oriented if you want to become a technical writer, because you're going to be sifting through a lot of different puzzle pieces in order to formulate a coherent whole. You'll have to be able to stay engaged in projects, some of them tedious, for however long it takes to produce documentation that satisfies your employer's standards. You'll also need to have a thick skin and be able to take criticism of your work.