How to become a technical writer

I’m a Digital Nomad who doesn’t make a living out of a travel blog. I’m a Technical Writer and Instructional Designer.

An Instructional Designer works with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to identify what students need to learn. They then develop objectives and ensure content matches those objectives; revise and rewrite content to shape it for learning needs; structure content and activities for student learning; create media to support learning; and develop assessments.
NOTE:  Instructional design can be for a primary, secondary, tertiary, or corporate audience. Learning doesn’t stop at graduation.

A Technical Writer is a professional writer who produces technical documentation that helps people understand and use a product or service. This documentation includes online help, manuals (system, end-user, training), white papers, design specifications, project plans, test plans, business correspondence, etc.

This post is about Tech Writing. ID I’ll write when I have the time.

What is technical writing?

Technical writing is turning this:
The furry, four-legged, two-eared, long-tailed feline sat on the piece of protective material placed on the floor to protect the floor from any objects placed on it.

into this:
The cat sat on the mat.

And you may have to do that without knowing what a ‘cat’ or ‘mat’ is.

What skills do you need to be a technical writer?

EXCEPTIONAL LANGUAGE SKILLS

It should go without saying you need this skill set, but sadly, I’ve seen numerous resumes and applications for tech writing roles from people that are full of spelling and grammar mistakes.

To complement excellent spelling and grammar, you also need finely honed editing skills. A lot of tech writing is taking an original of 200 words, and re-stating it in 50 words, without losing the meaning, context, or any important information. Here are two examples:

ORIGINAL

EDITED

ORIGINAL

EDITED

TECHNOBABBLE CONVERSION SKILLS

An outstanding ability to convert ‘technobabble’ into plain language. Your core job will consist of explaining complicated things in easy-to-understand ways.  You can be faced with source material like, this:

Or this!

It’s your job to turn that into something that makes sense.

VULCAN LOGIC

A lot of source material jumbles tasks up, present them in a confusing manner, use bad grammar – or all three. You must think like a Vulcan – logically. And keep it simple. Like this:

ORIGINAL

VULCANISED

INTERVIEWING SKILLS

A ‘Subject Matter Expert’ is the person you work with who knows what a ‘cat’ and ‘mat’ is (from the example above). It’s your job to get the knowledge out of their head, and convey it to others in an understandable form, so communication (and especially interviewing skills) are essential. Tech writers often come from a journalism background.

I know nothing about power plants, yet wrote dozens of curriculum workbooks for a Polytechnic in Saudi Arabia, on topics such as Cooling Systems, Hydraulics, and Thermal Dynamics.

My SME was the lead engineer at WEL Networks (Energy & Electricity Provider in New Zealand). My job was to get the knowledge out of his head and onto paper, in a logical learning order, and simplified down to student level.

Documents will likely go backwards and forwards between you and your SME many times. You might send back “The cat sat on the mat” to the SME, who might say, “cat is not the most accurate term for feline in this circumstance – it should be tiger“.

TRUST IN OTHERS

While for some tech writing contracts you’ll understand the subject matter (e.g. you used to work in hospitality, and have been asked to write Customer Services Manual), at other times you won’t.

For the Polytechnic in Saudi Arabia, some of the material I wrote was entry level – so I could understand it. Other courses I wrote were 4th year level – the students had had three years of study before getting to that paper. There was no way I could understand, in a week, what I was writing, so I had to work closely with my SME.

Little is new in tech writing – and source material is often, err, from the internet, or text books. Your job is to change it enough so the business you are working for won’t get sued for breaching copyright.

With the 4th year material, it was the equivalent of changing ‘The cat sat on the mat’ to ‘On the rug a feline is sitting’, using synonyms and tenses, but having no idea what a cat, mat, rug, or feline is. You rewrite it, pass it to you SME, and if they say it’s good and makes sense, you have to trust that it is.

ORGANISATIONAL SKILLS

I’m concurrently working with 58 documents on one contract, and 72 on another. For the SESP contract, I was not only keeping track of the document I worked on, but also those of my team of 10. Different modules, different stages of development, different deadlines. This gives you an idea of what tracking all that work looks like.

And this is what edit one of an original document looked like.

SELF-STARTER SKILLS

You must have the ability to start work with no instructions. Often businesses call in a techie or ID when they know something in their business needs fixing, but have no idea what to do – so they can’t tell you; you’ll need to work it out yourself.

EXCEPTIONAL MICROSOFT OFFICE SKILLS

Do you know how to use Microsoft Word? *scoff* – “Of course I do!”

  • Can you set a 100-page document with 10 sections, where each section has a different header, and starts its page numbering from 1?
  • Do you know how mirrored margins work?
  • Can you set a field code to insert the current date, every time the document is opened?
  • Can you use styles to set three levels of bullets with different indents depending on whether they’re being used in body copy, a 1-2 column table, a 3-column table, or a 4+ column table?
  • Do you know how to start a new drawing canvas?

Most businesses use Word for their documentation. It’s no use suggesting they use InDesign or Photoshop to make their documents look great – they won’t want to pay for it, and many people in their office may not know how to use it. You must be able to use Word to make a document look as great as if it had been set in InDesign. Which brings us to …

GRAPHIC DESIGN SKILLS

Humans. Are. Graphic. (Most of them.) You’ll score far more points with a flow chart or diagram than with a detailed set of steps, and the better looking your information is, the more people will engage with it.

RESEARCH SKILLS

If you’re the sort of person who posts queries on Facebook such as, “How do you close your LinkedIn account?”, “Should I use WordPress.org. or WordPress.com?”, or “How far is it from LA to NY?”, then perhaps tech writing is not for you. You need an enquiring mind, and you need to know about this little thing called Google.

A LACK OF PRECIOUSNESS

Most tech writing and ID follows the SAM-1 or SAM-2 process. (Before you ask me, “What’s that?” – consider the previous skill requirement.) A key part of both these models is that by the third iteration, most of what you wrote/designed in the first and second iteration will have been completely changed, or dumped. You can’t be precious about your work.

Also, be aware, that on some contracts, “the boss” may change half-way through, and may want something different. In the case of one contract, after six months of work, “the boss” changed, and we spent another three months changing everything.

Way A of doing things was changed to Way B of doing things for no other reason than that was the culture of the country I was doing work for.

This constant changing is something that many people can’t deal with – not just tech writers, but SMEs as well. On one foreign project, many SMEs got fed up and quit. I was fortunate – my SME had worked in that country. His first three months he spent installing an air conditioning system in a big power production plant.

Just before he finished, “the boss” changed. Boss A had used brand A; so Boss B wanted it changed to brand B, even though he knew brand A was better. It’s the way they do things over there. My SME just smiled, and took the money. Another three months’ work!

A LACK OF OWNERSHIP

Kudos is great – but there’s usually no place for it in tech writing or ID. Usually the end result of your role is to introduce change into the workplace – a new system, a new structure, a new way of doing things.

Humans. Oppose. Change.

Even when your way of doing things is more efficient, they’ll dig their toes in – unless they claim ownership. Part of your role will be to hold meetings with the various stakeholders. Often, you know how to fix their problem – but don’t tell them. They won’t thank you.

Use questions, and give them just enough information, until you can guide them to come up with your idea by themselves. No, you won’t get the kudos (no preciousness, remember?) – but when they think your idea is something they came up with, they’ll embrace the change when it’s made.

A PORTFOLIO

You need to be able to prove your tech writing skills to get a job. If you don’t have any prior experience, you’re kind of lucky here – because of the nature of the work, most of it is protected by IP (Intellectual Property) and confidentiality agreements. So, you actually can’t show them examples from other companies.

It also works in your favour that there aren’t (at least here in New Zealand) many specific tertiary qualifications in Technical Writing, and there aren’t any degree level complete courses (that I know of).

It’s interesting to note that the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) has offered the Graduate Diploma of Information Design since 2003. In July 2015, they withdrew the course.

While it had a 95% success rate, they couldn’t make it work for themselves financially CPIT’s Bruce Russell says, “It may be that the specific mix of skills that needs to be taught will vary … and it may be that we will need to teach those skills in a different way.”

A number of private organisations run short courses in tech writing – but they’re not cheap.

Udemy offers a whole bunch of tech writing courses. I have no idea what any of them are like – but starting at $15, it’s worth checking some of them out as a starting point

The thing with tech writing is – every job is very different, and the skill set, and knowledge you need, are very different. It’s of far more benefit to potential employers to employ someone who can think on their feet and work things out for themselves, rather than to hire someone with a piece of paper that says they know how to do things this way or that way.

Even if you have no formal tech writing experience, you can put together a portfolio of examples of what you can do.

  • Find a few badly written articles from the local newspaper, and rewrite them.
  • Find a bad User Guide, and rewrite it (tech ones translated from an Asian language using Google translate are excellent).
  • Find a written process of how to do something, and turn it into an infographic, or flow chart.

Here are some great sites to give you more ideas on how to break into tech writing;

PATIENCE

A lot of people contact me to ask for advice on becoming a technical writer. “I’d love to do it as a side-job.”

This always suggests they think two things. (1) It’s an easy skill to learn. (2) It’s an easy field to break into. Neither are true. It took me several years, a  lot of study, and a lot of patience to carve out a career as a technical writer. But stick at it, and you’ll find yourself on a rewarding career path – that frees you up to travel the world, if you so desire.

FINDING WORK

After several years, I’m with an agency in Auckland who keep me working as much (or as little) as I like. But it was a long journey to get to this point – hence my above point – it’s not a job you can suddenly decide to do as a sideline.

I stumbled into this career. The other bridesmaid from my sister’s wedding was the Business Development Manager at the business branch of a New Zealand technical institute. They needed a proof-reader immediately. I was sick of working in pubs.

I started proof-reading – and quickly pointed out how bad the original material was, and how well I could rewrite it. They loved it. As a result of that, I worked 18 months on another project for them. Then almost a year with no work. Then three months in Auckland. Then nothing again for a few months (which was over summer, so quite good).

It took me several years to build up an impressive enough portfolio that now if I don’t work, it’s my choice.

With no experience, you’ll find it difficult to get onto the books of an agency; without an agency, you won’t get the big contracts (Auckland Council, Fletcher Building, Zespri, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – that sort of place).

Start small. Start with volunteer work if that’s all you can get. Gradually build up your skills set, and your portfolio, until eventually you land the big contracts, and then big dollars.

Look for Tech Writing jobs on Seek or Indeed – not all jobs advertised are recruited through agencies. And even if you don’t get the jobs to start with, the job ads themselves give you a great idea of what skill sets the employers are looking for.

GOOD LUCK! And have fun.

P.S. You’ll find my business at Right Good.

3 thoughts on “How to become a technical writer

  1. This was a great read, thanks so much for this

    • You’re welcome, Janiel. Like I said, it took me a few years to establish myself, and I had long periods where I was out of work – but in hindsight, the CVs I was sending out were awful. Once I spent six months researching how to write a great CV, I scored an interview off every one I sent out.

  2. […] design, business writing, editing, proofreading, etc. and she’s written a great blog post on How to Become a Technical Writer. She’s a good friend and source of info, so also recommend keeping an eye on her blog for an […]

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