When a nineteenth century British author wrote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he was referring to the tremendous power of words used skillfully by writers and authors. Writers use their language skills to produce content for an audience. They compose books, movie screenplays, magazine articles, and web content. Writers need creativity to come up with ideas, critical thinking skills to convey their concepts clearly, and persuasively, when needed, and adaptability to understand their audience’s perspectives. The work of different types of writers varies significantly: creative writers like novelists, songwriters, poets, and playwrights are generally self-employed, and may labor for months or years before getting published, while technical writers and copywriters often work 9-to-5 jobs with a clear career path. Copywriters work on ad campaigns, and technical writers prepare instruction manuals and how-to guides. Using specialized skills, often learned on the job, they simplify complex ideas for the public, or write highly-technical material for a specific professional audience. Writers and authors often work in offices, but may work from any location with Internet access. Most writers have a bachelor’s degree in communications, journalism, or English, and lots of writing practice. Aspiring writers who want to enter the field often gain experience from internships, blogging about their personal interests, writing for school publications, small businesses or non-profits, or local news organizations.
- Technical writing assignments may include user guides, online content, and documents such as white papers and specifications.
- Technical writers work in a variety of industries, including computer, medical, and technical services.
- Technical writing jobs are projected to grow 8 percent from 2018 to 2028. A growing number of jobs will be contract rather than full time.
- Areas of job growth include documentation for scientific and technical products and web-based product support.
- As of May 2018, the median annual wage for technical writers was $71,850.
- Most technical writing positions require a college degree, varying years of experience/expertise, and a portfolio of writing samples.
- Technical writers create both print and online documentation. With increasing amounts of content delivered online (through websites and social media), technical writers should be familiar with software used to combine text, graphics, sound, and video.
- For consumer-based writing assignments, document types can include how-to instructions, troubleshooting guides, and “Frequently Asked Questions” pages.
- For more technical assignments in fields related to science, engineering, medicine, etc., writers may produce white papers, specifications, and grant proposals. Writers must be able to understand, discuss, and communicate complex information. They must also communicate the information to an audience with varying levels of expertise.
- Technical writers typically work in an office environment. Accommodations can vary from private/shared offices and cubicles to open environments, i.e., employees have no assigned seat and work in large rooms with members of various departments. As companies reduce office space, there may be remote, work-from-home options for some positions. Most shifts are standard 8-hour workdays, but the increase in offshore staffing may require early or late shifts to accommodate different time zones.
- Technical writers may work with a variety of Subject Matter Experts (or SMEs), including hardware and software engineers, customer and technical support staff, and legal professionals. Writers may be required to perform research and participate in product-design discussions and usability testing.
- Technical writers must be able to define and design documentation deliverables that meet company standards and are consistent with deliverables across the organization. Writers must also schedule work to meet release deadlines.
- Technical writers may also be required to edit documents by other writers or material produced by colleagues in other departments within the organization.
Education and Experience
Most technical writing positions require a bachelor’s degree in English or another communications-related subject. For highly technical assignments (e.g., a user guide for new medical device or assembly instructions for an aircraft), the employer may require a degree and/or experience in the specific field.
Most job listings for a technical writer include a list of preferred or required software skills. While each job involves some on-the-job-training specific to the company methods and practices, that training does not usually cover software tools used to produce documentation.
Potential employers will often ask for writing samples during or before the interview. Be sure to only include samples that are not considered proprietary or covered by a Non-Disclosure Agreement with a previous employer.
Technical writers may be required to complete an assessment as part of the interview process. The assessment is intended to verify the candidate’s level of writing skill and software knowledge.
Technical writers can check employment sites such as Indeed.com and Dice.com to see which software skills are in high demand by employers. There are many training sites (e.g., Lynda.com, Udemy.com, etc.) where technical writers can acquire/refresh software skills in order to stay marketable in this career field.
The growth for careers in technical writing is projected to increase 8 percent from 2018 to 2028.
As the reliance on technology and web-based products continues to grow, technical writers with a wide range of experience and technical skills should continue to do well in this career. However, the global labor force combined with an increasing number of freelance technical writers will make the field more competitive.
Contract jobs will increase as employers look to cut costs and hire staff only as needed to complete specific projects. A study in 2018 found that 1 in 5 jobs was held by a contract worker, and within 10 years that number could rise to 1 in 2 jobs or 50%.
Contractors are generally placed in companies by staffing agencies. Some agencies offer benefits to employees with longer term contracts (i.e., 6 months to a year or more). In most cases, contract positions do not include paid time off for holidays, vacation, illness, etc. Occasionally, contract positions become permanent positions. Job listings may include phrases such as “contract to permanent” or “contract to hire.”
As you explore Technical Writing as a career, you can also visit the websites of organizations involved in Technical Communication field for more information:
American Medical Writer’s Association (AMWA) offers educational and career resources for medical communication professionals.
American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) is a society for information professionals involved in theories, techniques, and technologies for information access.
American Society for Training Development (ASTD) is the association of workplace learning and performance professionals.
American Society of Indexers (ASI) is a professional organization devoted to the advancement of indexing, abstracting, and database building.
Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Documentation (ACM SIGDOC) is for senior communication professionals from many technical and scientific disciplines who create documentation in the computing community and those who use computers to create documentation.
Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) is dedicated to the use of educational technology and its application to the learning process.
Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) produced the journal Technical Communication Quarterly.
Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) is dedicated to the discovery and exchange of knowledge concerning the characteristics of human beings that are applicable to the design of systems and devices of all kinds.
IEEE Professional Communication Society (IEEE PCS) is a special interest group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The group promotes the arts and sciences of technical communication among professional communicators and practicing engineers.
International Association of Audiovisual Communicators (IAAC) is for professionals in the audiovisual industry who produce technical, scientific, and educational presentations.
International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a knowledge network for professionals engaged in strategic business communication management.
International Digital Enterprise Alliance (IDEA) is for publishers and information professionals working for open and cooperative information technology.
National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC) is a network of federal, state and local government employees who disseminate information within and outside government.
National Association of Science Writers (NASW) was formally incorporated in 1955 with a charter to “foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science through all media normally devoted to informing the public.”
Socitety for Technical Communication (STC) is a professional membership organization for technical communicators, including practitioners, academics, and students; advances the arts and sciences of technical communication.
Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) supports those who promote and advance the development of usable products, reaching out to people who act as advocates for usability and the user experience.