If you have ever attempted to perform a technical task of any nature, even one as simple as assembling a piece of furniture or using any sort of device or machine, the chances are good that you have encountered a technical writer’s work.
Well-written user manuals, assembly instructions and other pieces of technical writing can allow a person to efficiently and effectively begin using a product to its full potential. In contrast, poorly written or nonexistent instructions can cause a lot of frustration and headaches and sabotage the product’s usefulness. Particularly bad technical writing could even result in the user giving up on and returning the item, losing the business for the manufacturer and retailer. In the worst-case scenarios, poor technical writing could even cause a user or someone in their vicinity to get hurt.
Writing technical instructions and information clearly and concisely is an important skill. That’s why technical writers are in high demand, seeing faster than average rates of job growth in 2021 and bringing home median salaries above that average for the media and communications occupational category. If you want to work as a technical writer, a college education is in your future.
What You Would Do With a Technical Writing Education
Technical writers, also called technical communicators, use the written word to convey technical information to a business or consumer audience. They commonly write a wide variety of materials, including:
- Assembly instructions
- Fact sheets
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) documents
- How-to guides
- Instruction manuals
- Journal articles
- Operating manuals
- Policy and design documents
- Product packaging
- User guides
- Warning labels
Although the job title is technical “writer,” these professionals don’t only use the written word to communicate. They also have a hand in creating or choosing videos, diagrams, drawings, charts and other images to help convey information. In fact, part of a technical writer’s job is to determine which means of communication will work best for delivering a given message.
What Skills Should You Learn While Earning a Degree in Technical Writing?
Most technical writers have a college degree, but the degree itself isn’t the most important thing. Success in working in the field of technical writing has less to do with your college major or degree level and more to do with the professional skills you have. Some of the most important skills for technical writers include writing skills, technical knowledge, imagination, critical thinking skills, attention to detail and teamwork, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Solid writing skills are essential for technical writers. They must be able to clearly and concisely express technical information in a way that makes it accessible to people, like customers, who might not have a technical background.
What constitutes good writing for technical purposes is somewhat different from literary writing. Your language doesn’t need to be lyrical and your voice doesn’t have to grab a readers’ attention as it might if you were writing a novel, a memoir, a poem or a song. However, technical writers need to draft materials with an emphasis on clarity and conciseness, according to O*NET. Technical writers should strive to make the syntax, grammar, punctuation and word choice free from errors and unobtrusive, and they should be willing to edit and revise their writing to make the final document the best it can be. Choosing appropriate and descriptive terminology is particularly important in technical writing, in which language should be literal and decisive and vague, confusing terms could lead to improper and potentially unsafe assembly or use of the product.
Technical Skills and Knowledge
If you struggle making sense of complex technical information or giving step-by-step instructions, technical writer may not be the right career choice for you, no matter how much you enjoy the actual writing part of the work. Technical writers are often expected to have a working knowledge of the technical fields that pertain to their industry or projects, including science, medicine, computer science, law and engineering.
That’s not to say that you need to be a scientist, physician, lawyer or engineer, but it does mean that you need some sort of a background or fundamental knowledge in these areas of study. Students who pursue a technical writing major will often take a sequence of courses in a general area of technical study to develop the level of familiarity they will need to work in that field.
You probably don’t think drafting the technical language used for assembly instructions and product usage directions is a particularly creative endeavor, but there’s definitely room for technical writers to use their imaginations. Good writing of any kind begins with understanding your audience, which means that technical writers need to imagine the personas for which they are writing. By using their imagination to metaphorically put themselves in the user’s shoes, a technical writer can start to assess what information the user is likely to already know and what information users need to be told.
Technical writers address a varied audience in the many types of documents they create. Many of these written materials, of course, are for end-users. Unless otherwise specified based on the nature of the product, these instructions will be intended for the average consumer. The technical writer can’t assume any level of technical knowledge or skill on the part of the reader when creating the assembly instructions for a basic shelving unit as they might for a more specialized product, such as a professional-grade photography lighting equipment kit being sold to users who are already familiar with photography lighting systems.
The instructions and materials created through technical writing aren’t only applicable to users’ personal lives. Technical writers also develop the instructions and manuals for machines and processes used in a professional capacity. For example, the manuals that accompany professional-grade power tools and heavy machinery may be used by contractors and carpenters in the building or remodeling of a home or commercial property. When writing instructions and manuals for medical imaging equipment used in hospitals, the technical writer might be writing for an audience of radiology technicians.
Using your imagination to identify your audience and its needs is a crucial part of being a successful technical writer.
When listing the steps for instruction or assembly, where do you start? Which steps go in which order to make the process as simple and streamlined as possible? What other resources – photos, diagrams, charts, sketches or videos – would a user need to be able to correctly follow your instructions? These are some of the questions about which the technical writer needs to think critically. Just as it’s often difficult for writers, in general, to catch their own mistakes because they know what they meant in their choice of words and sentence structure, it can also be challenging to identify areas of your own instructions that are unclear or confusing. Strong technical writers need to turn critical eyes on their own work. They also need to be resourceful as they identify the best ways to express information, including ways beyond the written word.
Attention to Detail
When it comes to assembly and installation instructions and product usage guides, “good enough” doesn’t cut it. Precision matters. Technical writers must pay attention not only to the details of the wording you choose but also details about included components and steps and sub-steps within the process. Good technical writers prefer specific terms over more vague ones. For example, instead of saying “a few,” they will specify whether they’re talking about three or four components. Technical writers become good at breaking down large and potentially confusing steps into smaller steps that are clearer, so readers don’t have to guess at what they mean or keep rereading the same step to make sense of it.
Collaboration and Teamwork
Technical writers typically aren’t the designers or engineers behind the creation of the product. They’re not directly involved in marketing and sales efforts. To make sure their instructions, manuals and articles fit the task at hand, technical writers often have to collaborate with many other parties, from the design and engineering personnel they interview to learn about the product to the editors, illustrators, publication designers and marketers who are all working toward the success of the product.
Technical writers also need skills in using technologies such as computer-aided design software, configuration management software, database software, desktop publishing software, project management software, graphics imaging software and development software, O*NET reported.
Major Options for a Technical Writer Education
A bachelor’s degree is the typical level of education expected for technical writers, the BLS reported. However, more than a third of the field reported having only an associate’s degree, and some technical writers reported having some college education but no formal degree, according to O*NET. Generally, having a bachelor’s degree will give you the most career options.
A wide variety of options of majors is available to undergraduate students who aspire to become technical writers. Many technical writers approach the field with a degree that emphasizes either their communication skills or a background in the technical subject about which they want to write. Others pursue specialized technical writer degrees that follow an interdisciplinary curriculum.
Degrees in English, Writing and Communications
Since your main job duty as a technical writer is writing, it makes sense that students eyeing this career path would focus on building up their writing skills. They often do this by studying a subject like English, writing or communications.
English classes tend to focus more on works of English literature than developing your own writing skills. However, the amount of reading and writing these programs entail – not to mention the critical thinking and analysis you undertake as a student of literature – can help you flesh out your writing skills.
Writing programs may be creative or professional in nature. Although majoring in creative writing won’t necessarily hold you back from becoming a technical writer, the focus on creative and literary applications of writing has less to do with technical writing work than a professional writing major would.
Communications is the broadest of these writing-focused majors. These programs are more likely to cover non-writing forms of communication, such as multimedia communication, digital media and visual communication.
Students who study English or writing may want to develop their knowledge in a technical field, as well, either through additional academic study like a minor or dual major or through work experience.
Some technical writers begin by studying and working in technical fields, like computer science, mathematics, engineering or any science field. These professionals often work as research assistants or specialists in their technical area of study, where they develop the background knowledge necessary to work as a technical writer, according to the BLS. They then cultivate the writing and communication skills necessary to attain a technical writer position and succeed in the career.
If you’re more interested in the writing side of technical writing than in the technical work, the idea of pursuing a four-year degree in a technical subject may be daunting. Consider double-majoring in English or writing and your technical area or pursuing a technical minor along with an English major.
Specialized Technical Writing Degrees
An increasing number of schools offer technical writing programs. These programs often emphasize core coursework in rhetorical theory, communication modes and methods, professional and technical communication, usability, writing for digital technologies, writing style, editing and writing arguments, proposals, business communications and other types of content. Students may take classes pertaining to legal writing, health writing, environmental writing and science writing. Some programs allow students to take a series of communication-focused courses in their technical subject of interest, too.
However candidates choose to prepare for a career in technical writing, they should build a portfolio that showcases their skills by providing examples of their work. Potential employers are likely to consider the strength of their portfolio as a crucial factor in hiring decisions. To stay competitive and improve their advancement potential, technical writers may wish to seek certification from organizations like the Society for Technical Communication or the American Medical Writers Association.
Technical writers earned a median salary of $74,650 per year as of 2020, according to the BLS. They also enjoy a positive job outlook, with the BLS expecting job opportunities to increase by a faster than average 7 percent from 2019 through 2029.
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