How to start a career in Technical Writing

Technical writing has proven to be a very lucrative field in the last ten years with many contractors earning well over 100k per year. As discipline continues to gain recognition, there are increasing opportunities for motivated individuals to make the switch to this field and reap the rewards. In the article, I will provide some background on what is technical writing and how you can start a career in this field.
What do Technical Writers actually write?
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Most Technical Writers work in the IT industry. The create user guide, instruction manuals, reference material, maintenance guides, technical articles, knowledge base material, proposals, training materials, reports, brochures, online documentation, help systems, Web pages, multimedia presentations, work instructions, and materials that feeds into the sales and marketing cycle, for example, white papers and case studies.
So, the scope of what tech writers write can be quite extensive. As you can see, it is not just user guide but all types of written material that must be expressed by someone with the relevant technical knowledge.
What type of tasks does a Technical Writer perform?
The range of writing tasks may include some of the following:

  • Analyzing the needs of the target audience
  • Interviewing subject matter experts to understand the product
  • Index and cross-reference documents user manuals
  • Creating illustrations, charts, and tables to be used in publications
  • Editing, standardizing, or revising material prepared by other individuals, for example, programmers.
  • Gathering and preparing the layout of material for publication.
  • Preparing draft publications for reviews with project staff and/or customers.
  • Create and edit online documentation and web content.
  • Format technical documents to align with industry standards
  • Work with engineers to evaluate and summarize test processes
  • Edit technical documents for accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Organize hardcopy documents into formats
  • Create formats, tables, templates, etc.

Average Salary of Technical Writing Jobs
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Indeed.com highlights that “Technical Writer salaries for job postings nationwide are 5% higher than average salaries for all job postings nationwide.”

  • Business Analyst $74,000
  • Documentation Specialist $59,000
  • Junior Technical Writer $46,000
  • Programmer Writer $76,000
  • Request For Proposal Writer $59,000
  • Senior Technical Writer $77,000
  • Technical Writer $61,000
  • Technical Writer Contract $68,000
  • Technical Writer Editor $60,000

Which industries use Technical Writers?
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The most successful Technical Writers tend to specialize in a specific industry, such as:

  • Agriculture
  • Technology
  • Finance
  • Government
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Telecommunications

Within these industries, many Technical Writers will further specialize in specific areas, for example, those in IT might specialize in online documentation, PDF development, content management, or user manuals, whereas those working in the military tend to write standard operating procedures, work instructions and processes.
Are there other names for Technical Writer?
Yes, while Technical Writer is the most commonly used job title, you’ll also hear people refer to this role as:

  • Communications Specialist
  • Documentation Manager
  • Information Designer
  • Information Developer
  • Medical Writer
  • Policy Writer
  • Procedure Writer
  • Proposal Writer
  • Publications Manager
  • Science Writer
  • Technical Editor
  • Technical Author
  • User Interface Engineer
  • Web Editor

Breaking into Technical Writing
Now that we have outlined what a technical writer does, the type of salary you can expect to earn, let’s look at how you can break into this field. Breaking into technical writing can be difficult at first as you won’t have the necessary skills to get placed with a large IT firm.
After all, if you don’t have the skills, they can’t offer you a job. So, how do you get your first job?
How can I get started?
This depends on where you are starting from. The approach you’ll need to take will vary on your level of education, employment status, location, and skill-sets. In this article, I will focus mostly on those with no writing qualifications, qualifications in different fields, and to a lesser extent those who have qualifications in writing but want to specialize in technical writing.
If you are completely new to tech writing, consider the following steps.
Get Certified
Become certified as an Adobe Expert. Choose one of the leading technical writing tools, such as Adobe FrameMaker or Adobe RoboHelp. For example, you might focus on Adobe FrameMaker and get certification in this field. This makes you an ACE – Adobe Certified Expert.
Learn some Technical Writing tools
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Knowing how to use the industry standard Technical Writing toolsets, will give you greater opportunities to land your first job. It’s naïve to expect a company to invest in your education and to train you in these tools.
In the current economic climate, you really have to make an effort to be proactive and learn as much as possible in order to make inroads in this field. Also, as the industry changes, you will need to up-skill in new technologies or risk getting left behind.
So, while there is a broad range of tools used within the industry, the following lists the most popular toolsets:
Microsoft Word – Industry standard for word processing; preferable for manuals under 100 pages
Adobe FrameMaker – Industry standard for longer manuals. Supports manuals that run up to several thousand pages. Part of the Adobe Communication Suite
Adobe PageMaker – desk-top publishing tool. Has fallen by the wayside recently but still used for maintaining legacy documents
Adobe Illustrator – vector graphics creation software for print and web. Frequently used in conjunction with Photoshop
Adobe Photoshop – Industry standard for image editing. Part of the Adobe Communication Suite
Adobe RoboHelp – Industry standard for creating online help. Part of the Adobe Communication Suite
Doc-to-Help – Alternative to RoboHelp
Microsoft Publisher – desk-top publishing tool used for newsletters and lightweight publishing tasks
Adobe FrameMaker is definitely one of the industry standards in technical writing. It will stand to you if you can learn it. However, education is expensive, so make sure you have the budget and level of commitment if you’re going to invest in this tool.
Learning Adobe FrameMaker will also open up opportunities in contracting. Many of my colleagues have landed very lucrative contracts which required Adobe FrameMaker skills only. Indeed, many technical writers specialize in using these tools, especially those whose English language skills may not be their strength but who can capitalize on the expertise with the respective toolsets. Madcap Flare is also increasing in popularity.
Certification also gives you a degree of credibility. It does not guarantee you work but is an indirect endorsement from the company you’ve become certified with. Make sure to add your certification logo on your business cards, website, and promotional material.
Learn to Network
Join organizations, such as the local Chamber Of Commerce or other groups that offer networking opportunities.
Many of these are free to join and provide an excellent environment for networking and establishing yourself in the local business community. People won’t beat a path to your front door offering technical writing work – at first you have to go out and market yourself.
If you have the budget, consider putting an ad in the local paper offering writing consultancy skills. Include technical writing as one of your areas of expertise. Highlight your certification.
If you do become certified in Adobe, for example, go to their trade shows, conferences, demonstrations and any other function where you can meet others in the industry.
Always bring a business card. Attend as many meetings as possible and introduce yourself as, “Hi, I’ve setup a new company providing professional writing services. Here’s my business card. Drop us a line if you ever need any material written up.”
Make an aim to collect 10 business cards at every conference. And make an aim to give out 20 cards in return. They’re meant to be used, not gathering dust at home.
Give Presentations
Another way to raise your profile is to give a presentation. Most event organizers are crying out for volunteers to give presentations. Presentations help establish your credibility. They position you as an expert in your field.
Select a topic that you think will be popular, easy to prepare, and possibly lead to business opportunities in the future. Develop a 10 minute presentation. Rehearse as much as possible and do a few trial runs with friends.
Examples of popular topics are market trends, new software releases, emerging technologies, and success stories. The last one is worth considering.
People love to hear case studies. If you can demonstrate how a specific technology or discipline increased revenues or helped cut costs, you’re phone will be ringing all week. Back up your claims with as many stats, figures and research material as possible.
If you’re planning to make a presentation on a specific product, then contact the vendor in advance and ask for promotional material. The bigger companies are usually great at this and have budgets to send these things out.
Share these after the presentation and make sure to put a big sticker on the cover page with your name, address, telephone number and website address.
Go around and give out the brochures. Don’t wait for people to come to you. Just give it to them and say, “I hope you enjoyed the presentation.”
It’s a quick and easy way to promote yourself and makes you look bigger than you are. All it costs is the phone call and the price of the stickers.
Tip: always highlight the benefits you bring to a business situation. Avoid talking about the technology or products too much. They know or assume that you can use the technologies and are a competent writer. What they really want to know is will you help them save money (i.e. using you is cheaper than getting the Oracle DBA to do it) or help them make money (i.e. your writing skills will help the sales and marketing team)?
Join the Society of Technical Communications
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The STC is an international organization for technical writers. It has more than 20,000 members and 153 chapters worldwide. STC is the world’s largest professional association serving the technical communication profession.
“STC is an individual membership organization dedicated to advancing the arts and sciences of technical communication. It is the largest organization of its type in the world.
Its 14,000 members include technical writers and editors, content developers, documentation specialists, technical illustrators, instructional designers, academics, information architects, usability and human factors professionals, visual designers, Web designers and developers, and translators – anyone whose work makes technical information available to those who need it.”
Give it a try over at www.stc.org
Launch a Website and prepare a Portfolio
These days there is no excuse for not having a website. Choose a domain name that will fit on your business card. Use your own name or that of your business as the domain name. Avoid obscure or clever domains names. Try not to be too smart. You’re not looking for work in advertising. You’re a Technical Writer. Keep it short and memorable. Publish lots of useful articles about Technical Writing and the benefits it will bring to your customer’s business.
Here are some things to put on the website:

  1. Articles that demonstrate your knowledge of technical writing tools
  2. Tips, tricks, and workarounds. Show people how you can help solve their problems
  3. Offer advice on to write better technical documentation
  4. Free downloads that potential customers can take with them and share with their colleagues. Remember they will use this material to evaluate your skills, so make sure the content is top notch. It’s better to have three really sharp well-written downloads than oceans of poor quality material.
  5. Encourage people to contact you. Make sure your contact details are easy to find.
  6. Include your email address, physical address (if possible), and other methods of contact such as Twitter and Skype.

Take advantage of the free publishing tools out there. I use TechScribe to publish, GoDaddy for hosting and aWeber for newsletters.
Once you get your site up, ask a trusted friend to review it. Not your best friend, spouse, or buddy from college. Your friends will only tell you what you want to hear!
Get someone who will really critique the site and tell you what’s wrong with it. Ask them to track down any grammar mistakes or writing errors that you may have overlooked.
This really is important. Your credibility will be undermined if you publish articles about writing and overlook the basics. Would you hire a writer that couldn’t spell-check?
Develop a technical writing blog
Use this to showcase your writing skills and develop some recognition in this field.
If you live outside the US, create a national or local technical writing blog and draw attention to yourself this way.
When recruiters or IT firms look for local technical writers, they will be likely to find your site and contact you regarding their project. A lot of the work I get comes through this site or other product review sites.
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Learn to make Cold Calls
Cold calls! No! I can’t do it.
Yes, you can. They’re only human and won’t bite.
1. Start with small companies that don’t have dedicated in-house tech writers.
2. Don’t contact the HR Manager. Their job is to screen you out. They won’t be interested.
3. Contact the IT Manager or the Training Manager. These people may actually need your skills. Drop them an email and ask if you can send over a brochure. No hard selling. Gently does it
4. Offer your services on a contract basis
5. If asked, give them estimates of your daily rates – but keep it general.
6. Avoid getting locked into low rates before you have met the client.
Tip: This is a numbers game. The more you call, the more interviews you’ll get. It’s not rocket science. Just persevere. Remember the words of Churchill: “Never, Never, Never give up.”
Here’s how I make cold calls and it works
When I started out I hated this. I’d do anything to avoid it. In the end I cut a deal with myself. I would call between 10-11 every morning for 1 hour and 1 hour only. Somehow this worked. I’d make the calls and get it over with. In time it got easier and making cold calls became more enjoyable. Yes, imagine that. Cold calls that you enjoy!
Don’t be shy about calling. Expect to get turned down 9 out of 10 times at first. It’s nothing personal. And don’t be hard on yourself. Starting up is the hardest part. Once you land your first contract, the next will be much easier.
Before you make your first cold call
Before you make the call, look at their site, download their brochures and see what type of documents they might need. For example, software development companies may need user guides, release notes, and installation manuals. Web companies will need online text, technical support material and help pages. After a while you’ll get a feel for what these companies want and you can tailor your cold calls accordingly.
Start with contracting
Once you get to meet these companies, suggest working for them on a small project. Many companies are open to this. You can both get to know each other.
There is minimal risk, low capital layouts and hopefully they’ll get their documents written up in the process.
Highlight the advantages that this arrangement will offer:
1. You can work from your office and won’t take up valuable office space.
2. They won’t need to buy new computers, software, licenses.
3. .HR won’t need to go through the usual employee background checks.
4. Developers can stay focused on the current projects and make sure it gets completed on time.
5. Your rates are probably less than the developers currently writing the documents
True Story: A 2 week contract with a well-know IT powerhouse turned into 3 months, then 6 months and then into 2 years. Every six months we would revise the daily rates and agree on an incremental pay increase.
Contact small IT companies, non-profits, and local firms
Another way to break into Technical Writing is to setup partnerships with local companies. Look for areas where you both stand to gain from a mutual exchange of skill-sets.
A good example would be a small web development firm that doesn’t have an in house technical writer and could use your skills on a project basis. This gives them an advantage in that they can tell potential clients that they have a tech writer and bring you to meetings or refer to you when submitting proposals. In this way you can start to establish yourself and make contacts. And there is no cost to your partner.
Another line to explore is working with non-profits and charities. While these may not be able to pay you, there are many benefits to providing free consulting services to these groups.
1. You will learn on the job about how to be a Technical Writer. They can’t sack you.
2. You can add real projects and references to your portfolio
3. .Get endorsements that can be used on your sales collateral, promotional material and other sales channels
4. Establish goodwill and raise your profile in the local community
5. Learn how to deal with clients, gather requirements, review documents, and publish material
6. Learn how to estimate the time and effort involved in developing technical documentation
In other words, you can make the transition from knowing what Technical Writing is in theory to actually doing the job in a real live situation. This is gold dust for someone trying to break into this field.
Well, that’s all for now.
These steps are meant as a framework to help you get started in technical writing. There are others ways to do so and I’ll cover these in the weeks to come.
If you have any questions about this area, please drop me a line. It’s ivan at ivanwalsh dot com.
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0 thoughts on “How to start a career in Technical Writing”

    1. I agree.

      If you don’t like learning about technology, and teaching people how it works, then your life will be miserable.

      I still get a kick out of finishing a new book and seeing it printed out, ready to go.

      There is something magical in the process of writing that, if you don’t get it, then it’s impossible to explain.

      I make a living doing what I love. Not so bad.

      Ivan

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