Technical Communication with a Purpose

So You Wanna Be a Tech Writer

So You Wanna Be a Tech Writer

We frequently get inquiries from people who would like to be technical writers. If you like to write and you like learning new technologies, it can be a good career. But many folks assume that, if they can put a good sentence together and they can program a computer, they are ready to be a technical writer. Not quite. Here are some of the other skills needed to be a good technical writer, besides putting together a good sentence:

  • Writing a comprehensible and clear paragraph
  • Planning and writing a conceptually integrated section
  • Planning and writing a chapter
  • Planning and writing a book
  • Planning and writing a document set
  • Writing document specifications
  • Understanding the role of documents in a complete product
  • Understanding the role of a particular document in the product business cycle
  • Learning several writing tools, including Frame, Wiki, Word, and others
  • Learning how to interview subject matter experts
  • Coming up to speed on new technologies quickly enough that you don’t annoy subject matter experts
  • Finding information on new technologies on the web so you don’t have to ask subject matter experts too many questions
  • Managing time to a deadline
  • Writing status reports
  • Negotiating reviews
  • Managing client expectations

And these skills are just the beginning. Getting to be a really good tech writer usually takes five to ten years. We don’t say this to discourage you, but to let you know that the path isn’t the two or three months that some folks seem to think that it is.

If this doesn’t discourage you, then here are the steps that we usually suggest folks take:

  • Start taking technical writing and technical communication courses at the extension department of a state university. UC Berkeley has a good series and so does UC Santa Cruz. These courses have the dual function of teaching you about technical communication and they serve a certification function for you. They give you something to put on your resume that can convince a client that you know something.
  • Learn a programming language at least well enough to do simple things with it. Right now, the two programming languages we would suggest are Java and JavaScript. The current growth in software is in smartphone software and other mobile platforms. These platforms depend on web services APIs, and web services usually assume Java or JavaScript as the lingua franca.
  • Learn a little bit about web services. Do you know what RESTful applications are? Do you know what JSON is? SOAP? OAuth? If you don’t, look them up in Wikipedia. If you go for a job interview in the next three or four years, the engineers will expect you to know what these are and why they are important. You don’t need to know much about these, but you do need to know what they are.
  • Start doing some technical writing. Open-source software is usually abysmally documented. For smallish JavaScript packages, the programmer is careful and intense about their software, but does the bare minimum (or less) for the documentation. Pick an open-source JavaScript or Java add-on package and bring its documentation up to snuff. Make the docs good. Now you can put “Chief Technical Writer, BonzoBedtime Open Source Project, pro bono” on your resume. Now you can use those documents as writing samples.
  • Try to get an experienced technical writer or editor to edit your documents. Every writer needs an editor. The New Yorker has the best non-fiction writers on the planet and they have editors. Get used to being edited. Don’t take edits as slights, but as lessons that make you better. Take the edits, put them in the document. Give it a look. See if you agree that they improve the document. If you can’t take edits and learn from them, you shouldn’t be a tech writer.

Note that none of these steps require that you have a job as a technical writer. But if you have completed a set of technical writing courses, have writing samples, understand a programming language or two, know what a RESTful application architecture is, and you are easy to get along with and to edit, we think you have a pretty good chance.


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