Technical Writing: A Viable Career (Or Sideline) Option for Writers

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Tony Fischer @ Creative Commons

First let me start by giving a heartfelt THANK YOU to the men and women who have served or currently do serve in the armed forces. While Veteran’s Day is an American holiday, I applaud and respect the dedication it takes for anyone to serve their country in such a sacrificial way. I recognize that my freedom comes at great cost, and I’m humbly and eternally grateful for your sacrifice.

One of the freedoms we cherish in America is the ability to choose our own career paths—even if our desired career is difficult or impractical or monetarily unfruitful. (How’s that for a nice way to say MAKES YOU POOR?) Writing is a tough business in a lot of ways. It’s particularly hard to make as much money as we’d like (especially in the early years), which is why so many of us have day jobs. I know most of us wish we could have a job within the writing field, since we’d like to earn money doing what we love, so when Brenda Di Bella contacted us with a potential post about technical writing, I jumped at the chance. 

Back in college, I took a summer temp position at Harcourt-Brace, where I did some technical writing. I loved the writing aspect of that job. It’s a great option for writers of all stripes, so if you’re looking for a full-time opportunity or simply a way to supplement your income, check out what Bella has to say about this career option for writers…

 

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Lisa Risager @ Creative Commons

Why Technical Writing?

Technical writing can be an excellent source of income for all writers. There are thousands of opportunities out there for individuals with writing skills, and many of them are remote projects that can be done from home. You don’t have to be a technical expert to earn extra income in this lucrative and flexible field. In fact, because most “uber-techie” types are notoriously atrocious writers, the demand for skilled communicators is very high and continues to grow as technology evolves.

While many people (like myself) have chosen tech writing as a full-time career, many projects are available on a contract basis, making them temporary commitments with a lot of flexibility. Currently, the average hourly rate for technical writers in the U.S. is $31. This rate varies based on skill level, location, industry, and other factors.

 

What is it?

Technical writers are responsible for converting complicated technical and scientific information into language that is easy to understand. They usually work in conjunction with computer programmers, engineers, medical professionals, or other specialized experts. Just about every industry imaginable has the need for technical writers at some point in time. While an exhaustive list of the types of projects available would be far too lengthy for this blog, some common projects include:

• user guides, manuals, online help, and training materials
• design and marketing specifications
• research articles and reports
• policy and procedure documents

 

What Qualifications or Skills are Necessary?

Along with grammar skills, a successful technical writer must have a knack for clarity. The ability to consider the technical savvy of your audience is essential for this type of work. For example, when writing a user guide for a new software application, it is important to include every step necessary to perform a task. Likewise, policy and procedure manuals must be worded very carefully to avoid possible issues for the employer.

Some computer proficiency is necessary for most tech writing projects. The most commonly used applications for this type of work are Microsoft Word, FrameMaker, RoboHelp, and XML. In some cases, research and training skills may be required.

The qualifications necessary to acquire tech writing projects vary, but most clients prefer candidates with some education in English (or a similar field of study) and some writing experience. It is a good idea to develop a portfolio of writing samples to show off your abilities. Some resources for strengthening your skill set and learning about trends in the field are:

• The Society for Technical Communication (STC) – be sure to check out their webinars!
• The National Association of Science Writers
• The National Writers’ Association
• The National Writers’ Union

 

Where Do I Find More Info?

Thousands of tech writing opportunities can be found every day on all the popular employment websites (Monster, CareerBuilder, Indeed, etc.). In addition to these, be sure to check out Dice.com (which specializes in tech jobs), the STC website, and the job placement department of your alma mater. I mention these resources in particular because I have had personal success with each of them. There are also a plethora of sites specifically dedicated to tech writing jobs. These might very well be viable resources for opportunities, but be cautious about any which require you to pay for their services, and don’t expect to be flooded with offers. Finally, many companies do not use employment sites to post job openings, but a quick visit to their corporate website can tell you if they are looking for someone like you.

Blog Photo

 

Brenda Di Bella is a Senior Technical Writer with 20 years’ experience. She has a bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing from Purdue University, and has successfully completed projects for dozens of Fortune 500 companies like Bank of America, Eli Lilly and Company, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and Bally Total Fitness. She is currently self-employed, offering a variety of writing and editing services. For more information about Brenda, please visit her website.

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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10 Responses to Technical Writing: A Viable Career (Or Sideline) Option for Writers

  1. mallaya says:

    Brenda amazing article thanks for guiding me actually i am a new writer in technical field. I wrote few articles in past but after reading your article i am sure i’ll write much better in future..!! please write few more articles on improvement of writing skills..!!

  2. I took a late spring temp position at Harcourt-Brace, where I did some specialized written work. I cherished the written work part of that occupation. It’s an incredible alternative for essayists of all stripes, so in case you’re searching for a full-time opportunity or basically an approach to supplement your wage, look at what Bella needs to say in regards to this profession choice for journalists…

  3. Atiana says:

    Brenda, Happy Veterans Day and to all other Americans out there. I would like to know what motivated you to become a technical writer, please advice!

    • I really like this question because it allows me to give credit to one of the best teachers I ever had. As a senior in high school, I was in Mr. Petroff’s Honors English class, and we had a unit on technical writing. For our project, he brought in a Star Wars-type weapon and sat it on his desk. Without explaining anything about it, he asked us to write instructions for it, including what it did and how to use it. The beauty of this assignment was that it drove home the fact that EACH and EVERY detail had to be included or the document would be worthless. Did it shoot bullets? Lasers? Water?

      I’ve heard of similar assignments, like one where students had to instruct each other how to make a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Some, of course, began with steps like, “Put the peanut-butter on a slice of bread.” The more effective ones began with steps like, “Open the bread bag and remove two slices of bread.” Even more effective was, “Un-twist the tie on the bread bag.” A world of difference!

      So basically, Mr. Petroff (from Fort Wayne, IN) and an affinity for grammar were the driving forces behind my career decision. Thanks for the question!

  4. Lisa Voisin says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been a tech writer for over 15 years, and it has been a great way to earn income while I write fiction. And yes, it does require a technical mindset. The one challenge I see for writers is that it can be difficult to spend all day writing for someone else and then come home and write in the evenings. How do you do it, Brenda?

    • Your question is an interesting and pertinent one. It is a definite challenge to do such different types of writing projects in a day. Tech writing is, by design, completely emotionless and focused on functionality, while creative writing requires thinking with a very different mindset. For me, the key is to allow myself some downtime between projects. I find that activities like talking to my children and playing with the dog clear my head and allow the creative juices to flow again. I also do a lot of rereading my previously written material to refresh my memory and help put myself where I need to be mentally.

      There is something to be said, however, for the seeping of a little of each writing style into the other. I find that when I am working on technical documents during the day, the stories I write at night seem more thoroughly explained and flow more easily. Conversely, having a creative writing project in the back of my mind while performing tech writing gives my documents a more user-friendly and creative feel.

      Best of luck in all your writing endeavors!

  5. I have had a few people comment on facebook where I’ve linked this post that they are either in this field or are going to school to get into this field because of the opportunities abound. And I agree, there are lots of businesses needing technical writers, so why not do something that pays the bills and ties into what we love to do? Thanks for the post, Brenda!

  6. Hey Brenda, what a wonderful post. I would like to do something like this. I will definitely check into it. Thanks Becca for posting this. Happy Veterans Day to veterans all over the world who have stood for freedom.

    • Thank you for your response. I encourage any writers to give tech writing a try! You will be surprised by the vast number of opportunities available and the flexibility and compensation they provide.

      And I am the proud daughter and granddaughter of veterans. A patriot through and through!

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