The field of technical writing currently holds the No. 13 spot on Money Magazine's list of the 50 best jobs in America. This field, according to the Society for Technical Communication, has had an increase in average salary every year for the past 21 years.
Many of us have the incorrect stereotype of technical communicators as writing geeks who are trapped behind a cubicle, working alone all day with no interaction. This portrayal really could not be further from the truth about this highly creative and growing field. Technical writers are employed at large corporations, smaller companies, and even as freelance or independent contract employees.
Technical writing is the method of describing the usage of a product or a process in a manner that can be easily understood by users of such products or processes. For example, when you buy a new camera, TV, or even microwave it comes with a user manual or guide. These guides are written by technical writers. 85% of technical writing jobs are with major IT companies.
The title “technical writer” may be a bit misleading about this profession too. Most technical writers only spend one third or less of their day actually writing. Most of the work they do involves teaming with others, project management, interviewing, and research. Some of the researching includes testing to see if end users can use the software.
Who would be a good fit for a job in this field?It is important that individuals in this field have good writing skills since that is the foundation. They must have a good command of the language and enjoy being creative in working with language. But it is also vitally important that students have good interpersonal skills so they can be able to talk to others, listen carefully, and take effective notes. It is also essential that technical writers are inquisitive and have the ability to learn quickly since everything they do involves a new learning curve. Each project that is thrown their way can involve them learning an entirely different concept. Many colleges have changed the title of this career or degree from technical writing to technical communication because this field involves so much more than simply writing.
How big of a demand is there for technical writers?
While the field of technical communication is relatively new, starting maybe 30-40 years ago, it has become a high demand field that is continuing to grow as more organizations recognize the benefit they’d experience from hiring someone in this specialty. Typically students who graduate from a technical writing program are employed in the field within three to six months after graduation. Some are employed immediately upon graduation. There was a time when if the economy faltered the technical writer was the first to be cut but that is not as true now because they have become so instrumental.
Where are Technical Writers Employed?
You may be surprised to find the variety of places technical communicators are employed. Here are just a few examples.
- Fitness manufacturing companies use technical writers in conjuction with graphic illustrators to develop their instruction manuals on how to use the equipment and to develop industry advertising for trade shows.
- Public relations firms often employee technical writers.
- Educational institutions and non-profits hire technical writers for proposal writing.
- Art museums may hire a technical writer to develop promotional brochures.
- Engineers and scientists conducting research and development may hire a technical writer to disseminate the literature that stems from the research.
- Airforce bases may hire a technical writer to produce Army manuals for B52s and other planes.
- Scrapbooking companies may need a technical writer for the instructional writing necessary for how to use their materials.
In addition to the wide variety of companies that employee technical writers, there are many people in this field who work as freelancers. In a weaker economy it is more common to find companies paying for contract workers rather than hiring full time employees. There are a lot of companies that hire on a contract basis when they get in bigger projects. If they like the work the technical writing being contracted does during the course of that project, they may elect to hire them full time.
How do I land a job in this field?
Many people come to the technical writing field after working in other fields, such as freelance writing or writing on some other capacity, or working in the IT field. While bachelor’s programs in this field may see individuals who have not yet worked in the professional setting, and technical writing is their first career of choice, there are master’s degrees that typically have practitioners who have worked for a while and decided to come back to school and specialize in this field. Oftentimes individuals in software or other IT related fields find their job has evolved to include a technical writing component. At this point they want more training in this specific field, and many times the company they work for is willing to help pay the tuition to gain these necessary skills.
If you are interested in this field, you typically need to earn at least a bachelor’s degree or at the very least earn a certificate in technical writing. There are specific technical writing degrees available that will best prepare you for this field.
Although the most common title for this job is “technical writer” or “technical communicator” there are many other position titles describing the same job. Below are a few of the more common job titles for jobs in this field.
- Technical Communications Professional
- Medical Writer
- Communications Specialist
- Policy and Procedure Writer
- Proposal Writer
- Publications Specialist
- Documentation Specialist
- Health Writer
- Information Developer
- Technical Editor
- Web Editor
- Information Designer
- Technical Illustrator
Hot Topics in the field
As with any field, technical writing also has topics that are debated amongst professionals in this field. Here are examples of a few of these topics.
- Genre studies is an interesting topic of research currently taking place in the field. For instance, why does a report in one company would look different from a report in another and how do these reports get generated.
- Multicultural communication and globalization is another topic of discussion. For example issues such as how outsourcing is affecting the field.
- Single sourcing is another current topic and changes the way individuals think about how they produce content. It forces professionals in this field to write in tiny chunks of information that can be pieced together in a variety of different ways and used in print or online. It used to be taught that a document is something produced all at once but this linear way of thinking has changed.
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