Advice for Those Looking for Technical Writing Jobs

One of the reasons for becoming a technical writer is because you like writing and, of course, you are good at it. Unfortunately, many people come into this field, not because they are interested in technology or in writing, but because:

  • They hear it pays reasonable well.
  • They have heard about the demand for this special breed of people.
  • They are ready to take up any job. When they don’t get their dream job, they are ready to take up anything, they just want to settle in for any job for the time being.
  • They probably want to work for a year or two before going for higher studies.
  • Some ladies want to take up a job after a break and think this to be a good option.

These are not the reasons to become a technical writer. First and foremost try to identify if this is the right profession for you. Money is important, but in this field, interest in the job and writing abilities are extremely crucial. This can make or break your career. Darwin’s Theory of the survival of the fittest applies to this scenario  as well.

Among all the others, only the good writers, with genuine interest in the field will survive and progress further. The others will get stagnated, bored, and will be disillusioned by their choice! Having said this, I would also like to add that not many of the existing writers have come into this profession out of choice.

I personally know some writers who wanted to make a career in software development or testing. They did not get an appropriate opportunity and hence, they joined as technical writers, have discovered what it is, and have decided that they are content and happy with their profession. But this is a very rare situation and depends on the personal attitude and the basic interest (like reading and writing) of the person. So before you make a rushed decision, sit back and think.

A good technical writer plays a significant and important role in the organization just as a good developer does. Just as an engineer is hired to design graphics, create/develop the product, perform quality assurance, etc., you are hired to create documentation. So you have a specific duty to perform. Whether you agree or not, technical writing is a rewarding career. 

My sincere advice can be summarized as:

  • Technical writing will NOT satisfy your creative carving. Technical writing very often requires you to write to in a restricted manner. You also have to follow styles and formats. It will not satisfy your creative appetite.
  • Do not be lured by the money. There are only a handful of writers who see this as a dream job! The rest see it as an optional job that pays well, when they are not able to get their dreams jobs. But do not opt for technical writing just for this reason because when reality sinks in, you will become disillusioned.
  • Do not focus only on documentation tools. Many wanna-be writers believe that knowing desktop publishing tools will get them a job. Instead, focus on:
    • Language, writing, and presentation of information.
    • Subject and technologies (electronics, if you want to document electronics consumer items or finance, if you want to document banking software).
  • Read, read, and read. Try to read about various aspects of technical writing and understand the profile well. Apart from this, also take up reading as a hobby to improve your language. Learn to read for pleasure.
  • Practice. Practice to write in a restricted manner, using the generic rules and guidelines. Refer to books and the style guides. The more you practice, the more perfect you become.
  • Come out of the comfort of the cocoon. If you are basically a loner, try to become communicative and expressive with your thoughts and ideas. Strange as it may sound, this will help you a lot in your career as technical communication is about communicating. You just can’t avoid it!

Here is a paragraph of the well known poem “The Road Not Taken”, by Robert Frost.

I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

More than a decade ago, I chose the lesser known career options of that time and it has definitely made all the difference—I am sure many you will agree with me!

When Do People Use Documentation?

Remember the time you have got a new household electronics item (a microwave, an OTG, food processor, an electric cooker) or other gadgets like camera, ipod, smart phone, etc.  You usually spend some time with the product and its user manual trying to figure out how “it” works. Then you go back to it when you need to figure out how a certain feature functions or works.

The same applies to software manuals as well. Hence, we can say that manuals are usually used as reference material to understand a concept or product or to overcome the problem faced while using the product.

The users do not read the documentation before using the product. Nor do they read it in sequence, from start till the end. They use documentation as they use the product, especially when they:

  • Want to satisfy their knowledge.
  • Run into a problem when using the product.
  • Want to over come the problem and try for a work around.
  • Require information regarding a function/command to proceed with a given task.
  • Want to understand the theory behind the working of a certain functionality.
  •  Want to complete the task they are performing.

The sers outside the organization use documentation for making decisions. Those in the organization use the documents to track and maintain their own operation.

A Manuals Lament

– by Bob Moran 

I am a lonely manual. I sit upon the shelf.
I cannot help the user who will not help himself.

Sometimes I hear him dialing the help desk on the line,
and I want to cry out, Wait, the answers on page nine!

I try and try to tell them how friendly I can be,
but my voice is all but muffled by the plastic over me.

There are others up here with me clothed in this cellophane.
Our authors toiled long hours I wish it weren’t in vain.

Deep within our pages lies knowledge yet untapped.
You know that we could help you, if we weren’t so tightly wrapped.

Oh how I’d love to feel my binding against the desk,
my pages all uncovered, the plastic laid to rest.

The knowledge all exposed to the gaze of raptured
whose hungry search for knowledge cannot be disguised.

I’d work with them in unison to get the project done,
and then in quiet confidence wed start another one.

Oh, if only you’d expose my pages to your glance.
I’d give you so much knowledge, if you’d just give me a chance.

What is Technical Writing?

 When was the last time you curled up in bed with a really good user-manual just for the sheer joy of reading it? Never I guess. People (including me) read reference manuals to understand concepts, to solve problems, and use products productively, not for leisure reading. They are interested in information that accompanies a product and that describes concepts (science, finance, trade, medicine, etc.).

“Technical writing conveys specific information about a technical subject to a specific audience for a specific purpose.” —Michael Markel

Expanding this, we can say that technical writing is the form of writing which imparts information about a technology/product/service by written and/or visual medium to users of varying levels of knowledge (or knowledge requirement) so that they clearly understand the technology/product/service. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) defines technical communication as the process of gathering information from experts and presenting it to an audience in a clear and easily understandable form.

Technical writing can be defined in different ways:

  • Technical writing is explaining how to use a technology.

It is about writing how products work and how the users have to use them. It informs, explains, and instructs a specific set of audience so that they gain the knowledge and are able to perform their job functions more effectively. The subject matter can range from promotional material on a new technology to instructions on using a program. The writing can be about a software package, medical instruments, finance software, consumer products, or electrical household products (toaster, mixer, or cooker). 

  • Technical writing is the process of shaping information.

Whenever you communicate, you convey information. How you shape this information is the key to technical writing. The document should be designed and presented in a format and manner that best suits the needs of the readers. You should write in a structured manner so that information clearly and easily expresses the complicated information. Hence, format, layout, and language are the important components of writing as they make the documents simple and usable.

  • Technical writing deals with theories, systems, designs, and methods.

The purpose of technical writing is to allow the users make appropriate decision and to perform the relevant task. Hence, it focuses on the subject (technology) methodologies, and the reader (the user). This is probably one of the reasons why technical writing is more popular in the areas of science and technology.

  • Technical writing is similar to investigative writing.

For writing technical documentation, you need to understand the product, identify the audience, slowly uncover the mysteries associated with the product and technology, and then write accordingly.

“When I teach technical writing, I always start off the first class by defining what technical writers do. My take on it: I get to be Arthur Conan Doyle for a living. I spend half my time as Sherlock Holmes, turning over rocks, uncovering clues, from putting together a big complicated puzzle from randomly gathered bits of information. Then I spend the other half of my time as Dr.Watson, writing it down in such a manner that it enlightens my audience.” —John Garison

  • Technical writing is NOT a job just for the language experts.

Very often, people judge the profession by its name. Hence the writer part of the term technical writer can be misleading. Many people assume that the profession is directly related to journalism, literature, and writing. I still remember the queries I used to face during my early days in this eld.

People were more concerned than I was regarding my choice of careerYou are an engineer. What are you doing as a technical writer?

As the name suggests, technical writing is a combination of technology and writing. It is often difficult to decide which factor is more important of the two. There can be a debate on technical versus writing, to decide what is more important. Are language and writing skills important? Is technical competence more important? Neither!

A healthy combination of both writing talent and technical aptitude is essential to make a good and successful technical writer. The weightage of the requirement (between the two) depends on the job pro le, the organization you are working for, the product you are writing about, and the type of document you are writing. There are some instances, wherein you need to possess subject knowledge because of the subject matter you write about. So it is important to understand the value of (and not underestimate) both parts of the job title Technical Writer.

  • It is the field of writing which is audience specific.

Technical information is compiled in a format such that different types of readers can use it. Some of them may be familiar with the subject while others may have no knowledge about it. Hence, the most important element of effective technical writing is knowing your audience and meeting their needs and expectations.

Example:

    • Writing for engineers is different from writing for university students.
    • Writing for an internal newsletter is different from writing newsletters for business purpose.
    • Writing to explain (user’s guide) is absolutely different from writing to persuade to make a decision (proposals).

We can summarize these definitions and say that good technical writing has to:

  • Fulfill all the requirements of the users.
  • Confirm to the styles and format.
  • Be technically and grammatically correct.
  • Be simple, concise, and easy to understand.
  • Be free of errors and omissions.
  • Be useful and user-friendly in terms of information, language, and format.

Commonly Asked Technical Writing Related Questions

Is technical writing different from creative writing?

Technical writing is definitely different from creative writing. It is not for any reader—it is directed to a specific audience who reads to understand a product. So, the writing should be clear, concise, accurate, and easy to understand.

Writers like Shoba De, Chetan Bhagat, Jeffery archer, and Robin Cook write to satisfy their creative urge. Technical writers have to follow rules and guidelines regarding what to write and what not to write.

Technical writing is format driven. Companies and technical journals often have their own way of organizing and laying out the content of technical documents. The writers have to follow the organization specific format and style. In short, we can say that the characteristics that set technical writing apart from other types of writing include audience, language, purpose, format, writing style, and the use of visuals.

Is it necessary for the technical writers to have technical background?

NO! It is not necessary unless the subject you are going to write about is highly technical in nature and requires a long learning curve even to understand the basic concepts. In such cases, it is advantageous for you to have technical background, but not in the same sense as the engineers, the programmers, the developers, or the support staff.

Apart from taking care of the format, language, and style, technical writers should also understand the technology, theory, and applications of the projects they are assigned to document. To do that, writers either need some technical expertise or have the ability to understand the information/technology.

The idea is to be able to understand the function, feature, and/or product well enough to write about them, but at the same time be able to view them from the standpoint of an ignorant user who doesn’t know the product well. A good technical writer should be able to ask the questions that a user might have and write the manual accordingly.

Programmers, developers, engineers and/or project managers are often too close to the subject and the product they develop that they don’t think the obvious! Hence being able to look at a function, a feature, a product from the standpoint of an user can also be an asset.

Is good writing skill the only qualification needed for a technical writer?

No! Good writing skill is a definite prerequisite. But again, there are many types of writers. Some are verbose and some others may use flowery and creative language. Such writers are definitely not well-suited for technical writing. But, if they learn to write in a restricted manner, they make excellent technical writers.

As a technical writer, you must be a clear thinker, well-organized, follow styles and formats, and adapt to restrictive writing. You should also be a quick learner, good researcher, and extremely good at multitasking. The list of skills is endless.

Is there a need to have formal training in English?

No! I am not aware how the knowledge of the works of Shakespeare, Keats, and/or Frost can help you with technical writing. Jokes apart, it is important that you have sound knowledge of the language. Formal training in English is definitely not a prerequisite, but it is an advantage in some cases. In India, unlike other areas (web development, web designing, programming, graphics designing, animation, quality assurance), technical writing does not have a widely recognized certification.

The educational qualification required, is also inconsistent and wholly depends on the requirement of the job and the organization. Hence, it is important for the technical writers to have a right balance of the language skills and understanding of the technical concepts.

Which is more important—writing skills or subject/domain knowledge?

What is more important—your right leg or your left leg? Both are equally important. You may be little more comfortable using one over the other. The same stand is applicable to writing skills and subject/domain knowledge.

The written skills gets you the job, where as you can learn the subject on the job. But unless and until you know the subject you have to write about, you can’t do a good job. Apart from the other skills (grammar, writing, critical thinking, etc.) domain knowledge is also important for succeeding as a technical writer.

Good audience analysis includes knowing about your users and their requirements. It includes learning about the domain you work in, be it engineering, finance, medicine, law, gardening, database maintenance, or rocket science.

Can technical writers do the job of an editor?

Writers with eye for detail and good editing and organizational skills can double up as editors. In large and well established documentation groups, editing is de nitely an editors job. Not all technical writers can do justice to the job of an editor. The ability of being an editor depends wholly on the editorial skills of the writers, not on the years of experience they command.

Will previous experience in another field be taken into account when changing jobs to technical writing?

A commonly asked question is I have n years experience in xyz field. Why do I have to join as a trainee or as a junior writer? Simple!

It is because you will be learning the basics of the job just as the others. The same amount of time and effort will have to be dedicated to you for training (the concepts, writing styles, procedures, tools, etc.). This is even more evident if the work experience you have is in no way related to technical writing.

Any previous experience will be valid in terms of the soft skills (team spirit, communication, leadership qualities, attitude towards work, etc.) which will help you to get faster promotions if you are a good technical writer. Use the non-related work experience for climbing up the professional ladder, not to be close to the top of the ladder when you enter the profession.

In a senior position, you are expected to make important decisions about the project, which can make or break a project. Relevant experience helps in making the right decision at critical stages of the project. Making wrong decisions, when you consciously think that you are right may cause a critical situation!

If you strongly feel that the prior experience is of extreme importance to you, you should probably continue in the same field. If you have decided to change careers and move on from your present field to become a technical writer, then let go of the ghost of the “previous experience” and think of yourself as a technical writer. This will help you move forward with a clarity of thought.

Is age a barrier?

It is and it is not! When hiring experienced writers, age is definitely not considered. When hiring someone without previous technical writing experience, age sometimes becomes a selection criteria. One of the reason is because, after other experience, the expectations of the candidate is much more than a fresher who is relatively younger and inexperienced.

Most of the times, organizations are ready to take in people with no related experience in junior positions offering salary relative to their relevant experience and skills. Those seeking a job may not be able to accept the fact that after having years of work experience, they are considered to be on the same level as the trainees.

In such a situation, ask yourself if you possess the skills required for this job? Do you have the relevant experience? Why should the organization pay you for the skills and the experience you don’t possess? This will give you an answer why you are recruited at an entry level.

You need to be flexible and mature in terms of understanding and accepting your limitations. If you are comfortable working with youngsters, in a junior position, for a lesser salary (probably), and if you are confident of using the skills of your prior working experience(s) to your advantage, age doesn’t really matter.

On a personal perspective, age limit is more of a mental state than physical. If you are eager to learn and grow in the team starting from the basics, age is not a constraint. For that matter, age is not a barrier in any field if you have the right attitude and if you are mentally and physically fit for the job/work.

How is Technical Writing Different?

There are several factors that set technical writing apart from other types of writing.

TW

Technical writing is characterized by a combination of all these elements. No single characteristic distinguishes technical writing from other kinds of writing. Remember, the saying, beauty lays in the eyes of the beholder. So, it is not surprising that technical writers find beauty in the bland manuals. They can appreciate a well written, usable, useful, and well organized manual, because that’s the beauty of technical writing!

Purpose

Technical writing is directed to a specific set of audience who reads to understand a product, or a concept, or to perform a task. The document should inform, instruct, and educate them. It should contain facts, theories, information, and details that the users look for.

Technical writing is factual, not fictional.

Audience

The users read a document with a purpose to learn, understand, perform certain tasks  and to make certain decisions. They are users of the writing. Hence, you should know about your audience and try to meet their expectations. You have to write what they want and what they they need to know, not what you want or what you may want them to know. Audience is the most important element of effective technical writing.

Technical writing is usually for a specific set of audience.

Language

It takes different level of writing talent to write different kinds of documents. The document should help the readers accomplish the task without them noticing that they were helped along by excellent documentation. Use of language is an important factor that distinguishes it from the other forms of writing.

  • Technical writing involves language that is specific to a particular concept, science, technology, or product. It is informative in nature.

Technical writing is informative, not entertaining.

  • Technical writing is characterized by the information that is accurate, informative, and useful. The language used by literary writers is avoided. You have to choose words carefully and construct sentences that emphasize utility over beauty.

Technical writing emphasizes on utility over beauty.

 Writing Style

Creative writers have their own style and mode of writing and hence, we can often identify the writer by the style of their writing. In comparison to the other forms of writing, technical writing is bland because you have to follow certain do’s and don’ts in terms of writing styles and guidelines when creating technical documents. Technical writing is consistent, organized, logical, systematic, and format specific. The identity of the technical writer is lost to standard stylistic issues, format, and rules.

    • The aim of the writing is to inform and to help the users perform tasks, not to confuse them. Hence, the writing should be clear, accurate, easy to understand, and concise.

Technical writing is concise and to-the-point.

    • It is less creative. You should make consistent use of terminologies, numbers, hyphens, units of measure, punctuation, equations, grammar, symbols, capitalization, and abbreviations. The information and format can be creative when writing marketing material.

Technical writing is logical and consistent.

    • Technical writing is an art because it conveys information to the reader in a way that enables the reader to easily understand the technical information. It is science because it deals with methods, systems, design, theory, and results.

Technical writing is a combination of art and science.

Format

The companies with well-established teams have their own customized style guides, which describes the guidelines and the style issues. They often have a preferred way of writing, organizing, and laying out the content of the technical documents. The writers have to follow the format and stylistic guidelines decided by the organization.

Technical writing is format driven.

Organization

In technical documents, the information has to be organized sequentially and systematically. There has to be a logical sequence to the sections and procedures to reflect the usage and patterns.

Technical writing is systematic, organized, and sequential.

Visual Aids

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The users appreciate a tabular representation of the data or a flow chart instead of wading through lengthy paragraphs. Hence, make use of appropriate visuals aids in the document instead of painting a picture of words. Visual aids help in the following ways:

    • Capturing the attention and interest of the readers
    • Explanation—technical information can often be described better using different types of visual aids (illustrations, snapshots, tables, flow-charts, photographs, graphs) than it can be in words
    • Clarification—to show more about something explained in words so that the users understand the concept faster and clearer, without any confusion.
    • Better understanding—it provides an alternative for those who learn better visually than verbally.

Tone

The tone of the writing is objective and to the point.

    • The procedures are written in an instructive tone
    • Active voice is preferred over passive voice.
    • Sentences are action oriented (Click this…, Press that…, Do this to do that… etc.)

Dependency

Creating a documentation is not a stand alone function—it depends on many factors:

    • The information you receive from the SMEs

You have to depend on the SMEs for getting the document reviewed for technical accuracy. Most of the time, they may not respond to your request for timely review. If the documents are not reviewed on time, the entire documentation schedule gets delayed, due to which the product release also gets delayed.

    • Development of the product

If any functionality of the product is changed, you will have to make the corresponding change to the document. If the product (or a functionality) is not stable, and is in a dynamic state of constant change, you may not be in a position to write that part of the document.

    • The deadline followed by the engineers.
    • The tools and procedures used for documentation

In any case, the writer will be held responsible for the delay for not completing the document on time and will be seen as incapable and inefficient. This problem usually arises when the work of the documentation team is underestimated.

Mistakes by Non-Writers: Not Communicating What is Required

Communication skills is not about just about grammar or writing skills. As a technical writer, your thoughts should be presented in such a way that the person you are communicating to, easily understands what you want them to understand. The most common problems that usually arise in the documents written by non-trained writers (including subject matter experts or language experts) are described here:

Thinking Like the Creators of the Product

Most of the time, the SMEs/engineers are the creators of the products/software.

  • They usually think that people want to know how technology works. Since they themselves have the in-built curiosity or urge to learn the internal operations of the products, they believe that users may want similar information.
  • The engineers know the application too well and are likely to provide technology centric information. This happens because it is probably impossible for them to step back and look at the product from the users point of view.

The users are interested in the task centric information and they usually want to know how to do a particular task or why something should not be done. They may not care about the complexities of the code/product/software.

Making Assumptions

The SME know the product inside out (after all they created it). They are very comfortable with the jargon, assumptions, work arounds, shortcuts, and trouble shooting methods. Hence they make logical assumptions that are not understood by non-experts.

They miss the obvious, forgetting that the users do not perceive the obvious. Writers are not experts and hence they are likely to make the same mistakes and assumptions as the users. They also ask the same dumb questions that the novice users may sometimes ask. Hence, the writers can translate those information into troubleshooting tips, warnings, notes, etc. These dumb questions turn out to be useful information in the document.

Having Specialized Knowledge and Focus

In some cases, the SMEs concentrate on a certain function/feature of the product or software. They do not know much about the other functions or features. If the SMEs are to create the documentation, each would create the documentation for the functionality they are working on (i.e. the part of the product they are familiar with). The result would be a patchy document put together by different individuals.

A technical writer has an overall idea and some knowledge about the entire product and can interweave the information to create accurate and usable user documentation.

Expressing Wrong Information

The most important job of the document is to convey the required information to the users. Unfortunately the subject matter experts express the wrong things and may not document the required information. Not knowing what to document and how to document that makes them poor communicators, not poor language skills.

Who Needs a Technical Writer?

The answer to this question is very simple—everybody who needs to prepare documentation of any kind. Now arises another set of questions:

  • Why need a technical writer? The engineer who had worked on making the product, can write about the procedures better, after all this person knows the technical aspects of the product.
  • Why involve someone, who is not a subject expert to do the job?
  • Why go through the loop of understanding the subject, the product, writing about it, and getting it reviewed by the engineer?

The reason is simple! You may have the most innovative product in the market, but if your customer fails to understand it, they will not use it. Technical writers compile information and write them in a language and format that can be easily understood even by the readers who are unfamiliar with that technology. Among others, technical writing is expected to help the users of the product to do the following:

  • Understand it with ease, without any or very little external help.
  • Understand all the features of a given product, by referring to the document.
  • Use the product effectively and productively to finish a given task on time.
  • Reduce support costs for the organization.

Documents should convey information so that the reader can understand and act upon it. Accurate and easy to use product manuals not only make customers happy, they reduce complaints, questions, and support requirements. This is why the role of a technical writer is considered to be valuable. A technical writer adds a great deal of value to the business by writing for the audience. This helps in saving money in the long run.

Example: If the you are trying to use a food processor and you are not able to understand the instructions given in the manual while trying to refer about the type of blade to be used for a particular process, you will feel that the product is not worth the price you paid for it. After a few attempts, you may feel cheated and put the equipment aside. Chances are that you may not want to use it again.

Inaccurate and confusing documentation turns the customer off completely.