A Technical Writer writes technical documentation. That’s pretty easy to guess from the name, but is that all that a Technical Writer does? In this day and age far from it. Technical Writers must have multiple skills with the ability to multi-task and perform other functions in related fields such as business analysis and project management. Skills and talents that today’s Technical Writers need in order to be competitive and valuable including web development, coding and software development, graphic design and technical illustration, training and learning management system publishing, and in some cases having marketing publication skills can help as well.
What a Technical Writer Does Day-to-Day
Technical writers do a lot more than just write documents. Today’s technical writers must have an array of skills to perform at their job, including skills that fall into the creative and management realms. Here’s a list of skills technical writers must possess to be competitive in today’s marketplace:
Writes technical documentation
Performs discovery to find hidden information
Organizes and manages documentation in repositories
Edits and proofreads existing documentation
Training documentation / Instructional Design
Technical illustrations (when they have graphic design skills)
Performs content management
Knowledge base management
Document repository management
Related Career Skill Sets
The following skills can be very helpful for a Technical Writer to understand how to implement to enhance their performance:
Software Development (APIs, coding)
Why Hire A Technical Writer
There’s more to writing than just stringing along sentences. There’s particular writing styles that must be adhered to and knowing the rules is something that technical writers specialize in. But beyond riding, technical writers also need to publish their documentation in a format that allows for easy consumption.
Using formal style guides such as the APA
Understanding grammar and punctuation
Establishing proprietary style
Creating proprietary templates for your documentation
Beyond writing, Technical Writers are skilled at extracting knowledge through a process called Discovery. This process involves the investigation of current documentation within the organization, as well as the hunt for documentation not readily documented. This includes tribal knowledge that is not readily documented nor easy to gather from current employees. Some methods used for the Discovery process include:
Gap analysis exercises
Reviewing current repositories
Service desk ticket analysis
Knowledge base feedback
Documentation can easily become out of control when multiple people are using a document repository. Technical writers specialize in the ability to organize documentation by managing filename structures, the appropriate versioning, and applying the appropriate hierarchy to the organization of your documentation.
Besides organizing your documentation, a well-trained technical writer will also be skilled at managing the documentation. This includes control over who edits the documentation, as well as establishes a timeline to review articles in the future to verify they are current and accurate. Technical writers will identify obsolete processes and remove them to streamline the repository of information.
While business analysis is its own career field, it is directly related to technical writing and it is actually common for technical writers to transition into business analyst roles later in their career.
Depending on your organization’s needs, a technical writer may be required to analyze your current process flows, which may require them to perform research pull statistics and KPIs in different information that your organization is currently tracking you come up with suitable solutions to solve problems before they arise through the documentation.
Types of Documentation Technical Writers Create
Technical writers write a plethora of items. Here is a list that is not exhaustive but is a good overview of the types of documentation the average technical writer should be able to produce for your organization
Self-service support documentation
Knowledge base articles
White papers & executive documents
Policies and procedures
Static HTML support sites
Types of Businesses that Employ Technical Writers
As the career field of technical writing continues to grow, more and more businesses and organizations are using their talents and skills to get control of their documentation. Here are just a few types of organizations that are typically known to hire technical writers as part of their team.
Software Developers & Publishers
Software developers require robust documentation for their applications. Documentation is required for multiple audiences including the software engineering team, for customer service representatives, and for customer-facing and self-help portals.
Software development best practices for documentation includes very specific requirements. While developers can write documentation, Technical writers go beyond the writing and ensure that the documentation adheres to writing standards, has graphical content to enhance the processes, establishes processes to maintain updates to the documentation. Technical writers have business analysis to extract processes, and project management skills to organize and work with SMEs and stakeholders. Developers need to spend their time writing code and not performing all these extra duties that a Technical Writer is better at handling.
Key element in software documentation includes:
A README file
A brief description of the project
A short example/tutorial
Information Technology departments have long utilized Technical Writers to document user guides, engineering manuals, knowledge base and troubleshooting portals, and any other technical documentation. Multiple audiences are generally written for including management, engineering and operations, customer support, and employee training.
Consumer Products & Electronics Manufacturers
Manufacturers of consumer products use technical writers, often who have technical illustration skills. When you purchase an electronic product from your favorite retailer, the instruction manual that comes with it was written by a technical writer.
Technical writers who work in consumer electronics often sit down with the product to learn how to use it, documenting the processes to operate it as they go. They will work with the engineers and designers to get a deeper understanding, however being somewhat inexperienced lends to their ability to write for the customer who has never used the product before. This ensures less need for the customer to contact the manufacturer with questions on how to use the product, as well as less chance for the customer to break the device due to misunderstanding of it’s usage.
Laboratories, Pharmaceutical producers, help organizations and other scientific businesses and organizations use technical writers to help with their documentation. This could be anything from support documentation to procedure and process, it may also include executive statements and documents such as white papers. Typically a technical writer who would work in a scientific establishment will likely already have a background in the scientific field they are writing.
Technical writers are highly employable in areas such as Aerospace, military, transportation and other organizations and businesses that engineer mechanical items as well as structural. Technical writers in this field 10 to make the highest salaries and they tend to come from previous backgrounds in military service which lens to them having technical expertise and practical experience with the things that they are writing about.
How to Hire a Technical Writer
The best way to hire a technical writer on your staff will depend on what your business goals are, where you are at in your current documentation, and where you see your business going in the future.
For a business that already has an employee who is a strong writer, it is possible to transition that employee into the role of technical writer. To transition someone who has not had the formal experience you will want to find somebody who is open to training and learning everything they need to succeed as a technical writer. This is how many technical writers get their start. In fact this is how I got my start when I was working at Unisys oh, they decided to start having this new role right documentation to support our customers. I got wind that somebody had gotten hired into the role and so I approached the manager and asked them to hire me next after I showed them proof that I had the abilities to do the research and to write the documentation.
For a business that does want to transition a current employee into technical writing, this blog is a perfect place for you to learn more about all of the skill sets and software and things you need to know to build out a good technical writing Department in your organization. You can download a copy of this page by signing up to my mailing list. And from there I will keep you updated with contemporary topics so that you and your technical writers can stay abreast of the latest news.
When your organization does not have somebody you can promote into the technical writer role, you may consider hiring somebody directly from the outside on to your payroll. Doing this can take some time as you try to find the right candidate. There are specific things you need to take into consideration when hiring a technical writer. Things you need to consider include how much experience they have, what all your organization is going to need, and you will also want to ask to see their portfolio, and you may also want to give them writing tests in other ways to measure their skills.
Temporary or Temp-to-Perm Contractor
When you just want to test the waters and see if a technical writer will be a good addition to your business organization, using a recruitment firm that specializes in finding Quality Technical writers may be the right choice for you. The benefit being that you can bring on the technical writer for a specific amount of time to try them out and see if they can indeed help you. This way you are not locked in to an employee that you would otherwise have to lay off or terminate if they did not end up working out.
Hiring a consultant can be a great choice for your organization as well. Consultants can help whether you have a technical writer on board or not.
Perhaps you do have a technical writer but they need to expand their skill sets and maybe attend some training or have some other type of feedback to help them improve their job. A consultant can help coach and guide your current technical writing team 2 be able to meet your business’s needs.
How to become a Technical Writer
Most technical writers will have a bachelor’s degree in Communications, English,
As education can be commensurate with experience, someone with professional writing experience may be able to transition into a technical writer role without having a formal education if they have a portfolio and a resume that backs up their ability to perform well in this role. The amount of time you should have on your resume will be dependent on the organization that you are interested in working for.
Resources for Training
With technical writing being such an explosive career field, there are several resources out there to help you get the training and skills you need to be successful in this career field. I’ll be updating this article with a link to a blog post about some resources you can use to help you get started.
Where to Look for Jobs
For an experienced technical writer, using all your standard job boards will help you find jobs. Also contacting recruiters can help you get placed in roles that can be only temporary, and in some cases that will transition from temporary to a permanent position.
For someone who does not have any formal technical writing experience it may be a little more challenging for you to land a role with a brand new employer as a technical writer. You may have a better chance taking a lesser role, such as a customer service agent, and then working your way up into a technical writing role. Do not let this deter you however because if you can put together a good portfolio and can show the employer that you do have the skills to Be an Effective technical writer, there is always a chance especially with a startup or newer company that they may hire you even without previous experience. A suggestion to get started would be to build a website and create documentation that you can use as samples that you can share when you apply for jobs.
Advancing in Your current Workplace
One of the best ways to become a technical writer is to transition into one at your current workplace. That’s exactly how I became a technical writer! I started out as a helpdesk agent at Unisys, transitioned into a team lead, and then once they started hiring technical writers I got the second roll they ever hired for by approaching the manager and showing her documentation I had already done and how I was able to obtain all the information through research and reaching out to stakeholders and SMEs.
Required Skill Sets
Grammar and writing skills
Organization and project management skills
Business analysis skills
Software knowledge (like ms office, adobe, technical authoring softwares, etc)
Bonus Skill Sets
Of course the know you more you know the more valuable you are in the workplace. Here’s a few skills that are not necessarily required for most technical writing roles, however if you have these they will allow you to be more in demand and maybe even ask for a higher paycheck!
Building a Portfolio
Whether you want to get started as a technical writer or you already are a seasoned Pro, is always a good idea to build a online portfolio so you can showcase your work.
Building an online portfolio is very easy especially with Solutions like WordPress. You can host a free website using several different solutions such as Wicks, you could also build a static HTML site using GitHub and Jekyll or Hugo.