This is my take on a nearly 10-year-old post, “Top 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions,” (About Technical Writing) by Tom Johnson. Most of what Tom says in his original post is valid today.
His blog, I’d Rather Be Writing, is the most visited blog by a technical writer. (My online course was featured not too long ago.)
1. What technical writing tools should I learn?
Tools! Tom begins with the always topical list of tools. He recommends learning a few programming languages, then lists about a dozen tools to learn.
ME: INFORMATION OVERWHELM!
I believe Tom’s second paragraph, where he mentions examining https://indeed.com to identify a “common trend in tools required” is spot on.
Your region and the industry you prefer to work in will dictate much of the choice of tools.
By all means, download and become familiar with technical writing tools, but let’s be realistic. You’re not learning a dozen tools to get a job in technical writing. You learn a dozen tools after years as a technical writer.
2. Should I get a technical writing degree or certificate?
Tom recommends getting a technical communications degree if you’re at that place in your life.
I cannot recommend a technical communications degree. I’ve spoken directly with a few people and I’ve heard plenty of stories anecdotally that these courses do not prepare you to work as a technical writer.
In North America, I would recommend a technical degree or a Liberal Arts degree if the school has a rigorous, demanding program (most don’t).
Tom adds that:
Few professional technical writers have degrees or certificates specifically in technical communication anyway.
Instead, focus your efforts in developing a strong portfolio with examples that demonstrate your knowledge and skills.
I agree with these two points 100%.
Since Tom’s article, online learning has taken off (along with “micro-credentials” generally). This is why Become a Technical Writer works for so many people.
3. How do I get a job in technical writing without experience?
Tom’s answer, quoted below, is spot on.
If you don’t have any experience, volunteer your technical writing skills with an open source application, such as WordPress. For example, you could rewrite or add information in the WordPress Codex. Alternatively, you could create instructions for a product you use, such as your phone or camera.
The exact product doesn’t so matter much. Interviewers will be interested to see your writing style, your ability to articulate complex concepts, your mastery of advanced tools to author the information, your sense of organization and detail, and more.
I would add that there are thousands of new software applications looking for help. They’re produced by software teams who do not write English well, so they struggle to find affordable help (most new companies are not sitting on a pile of cash).
Two locations to find these apps:
- Choose an application.
- Examine its website.
- See typos? Most likely they’re not native speakers.
- Download a trial application (most do not require your credit card).
- Note gaps in documentation (Knowledge Articles? Getting Started Guide? End User Guide?)
- Create a sample and send it on to them. Ask them if they’d like more. They may ask “how much.” Make them an offer. They need help and it’s nice to be paid for new work.
4. I’m interested in technical writing, but isn’t it boring?
Tom and I agree in the main that technical writing is not boring. But I’m less emphatic about it.
I’ve found some technical writing can be mind-blowingly, soul-suckingly, teeth-shatteringly boring.
- Creating/editing template styles
- Reformatting long documents (you didn’t create)
- Creating indexes (not so common anymore)
Whenever there’s rote work involved, I get bored. A few of my antidotes:
- Blast music into my ears or
- Chunk up the work and try to beat my estimated time for each chunk (i.e., gamify it).
Tom adds a fantastic note about how interesting the work environment can be (not so relevant in the current time of COVID):
Besides using these creative skills, you’ll be immersed in an environment full of interaction designers, engineers, quality assurance testers, project managers, analysts, corporate communications teams, and more. In short, IT departments can be energetic, cool places to work.
5. Would I be a good technical writer? I don’t have a background in technology or writing.
Tom lists the attributes of good technical writers in a bullet list.
It’s a good list (see below).
But he qualifies it with:
You will be a good tech writer if you have any of the following qualities
I think you’ll need to have more than a single quality to be a successful technical writer. I find an interest in technology and a strong desire to write to be key.
Tom’s List of Technical Writing Qualities
· You’re a good problem solver.
· You’re patient (e.g., when you run into technical problems, you don’t throw your mouse across the room).
· You’re tech savvy.
· You’re a gadget person.
· You like interviewing and talking with people.
· You like writing and language.
· You like figuring out how things work.
· You like layout, design, and visuals.
6. I don’t have money to buy the tools, but all technical writer jobs seem to require knowledge of these tools.
Tom lists (free) open source software, academic licensing, and trial versions.
Techsmith’s Snagit has a 30 day trial they extend to 60-days upon request. Many software companies will extend a trial.
Thirty days is more than enough time to become familiar with a tool if you budget your time wisely (don’t download a dozen at once).
7. Could I get a job as a remote tech writer working from home?
Tom’s answer: as a newbie, typically not.
My answer in the time of COVID: YES!
This is one of the best times to win a contract for 3 or 6 months at a company 500 miles or even 10,000 miles away!
8. What exactly do technical writers do?
Tom’s answer, pasted below, is a very good list.
One conspicuous miss: Policy and Procedure (“P&P”) documentation (not product related). I’ve created Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity documents that are all about P&P.
Tom’s List of Technical Writing Tasks:
· Explore products and analyze requirements data enough to become an expert about the product.
· Interview and meet with subject matter experts in regular meetings and one-on-one situations to ask questions and learn more about products.
· Create instructions on how to use software applications and hardware products.
· Create illustrations, diagrams, and other visuals that explain technical concepts.
· Record video tutorials that show how to use technical products.
· Relay user feedback to product teams on how to improve the products, whether that feedback comes through usability testing, training, or other user immersion.
· Create elearning courses and simulations for users to learn products.
· Create technology how-to articles for marketing efforts to increase awareness and adoption of technology products.
9. I have an assignment to interview a technical writer. Can I send you my list of questions?
Tom responds that he doesn’t have time for this. He suggests going on Twitter using hashtag #techcomm and asking a technical writer.
I would add the Technical Writing forum on Reddit as well as Write the Docs Slack Channel (Slack link is near the top of the page).
10. How can I get a job as a technical writer?
Tom’s first sentence rings true (that the jobs are much easier to find).
Getting your first job as a technical writer is usually the hardest job to get, but the jobs once you’re established in the field become much easier.
I’ve pasted Tom’s list of 7 steps below in their entirety. I find them helpful, except for #1 (addressed above in #1).
I would add:
- Talk to some technical writers.
- Better, talk to some technical writers in your region.
- Best: talk to some technical writers in the area you want to work in (e.g., software or pharmaceuticals or manufacturing).
Lurk on the technical writing forums (see above for Reddit/Write the Docs). Message them directly. Open with a compliment (I’ve enjoyed your posts”) and be courteous. Ninety-nine percent will respond positively.
Tom’s Seven Steps to get a job as a technical writer:
1. Build up your knowledge of tools and languages. For example, learn CSS, HTML, and XML. Also learn a help authoring tool, a graphics tool, a video recording tool, and a page layout tool.
2. Create a portfolio of sample technical writing deliverables. For example, create an online help, a how-to guide, a quick start guide, and a video tutorial.
3. If necessary, move to a city that has a lot of IT opportunities. Some popular cities are Seattle, San Jose, Austin, Boston, New York City, Denver, San Antonio, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and many more. If you search on indeed.com for technical writer jobs, you’ll see a breakdown of available jobs by city. Also, if you look at previous cities the STC Summit has been held in, it usually indicates a high number of technical writers in the area. Basically any tech hub will have a lot of tech writing opportunities.
4. Identify your strengths and build additional specializations. These specializations might include usability, video tutorials, information architecture, marketing, e-learning, content strategy, project management, or another hybrid skill.
5. Start a blog to record insights and experiences about the field of tech comm. A blog will provide evidence of your knowledge, show your enthusiasm for the field, and let employers get a feel for your writing style, intelligence, and engagement.
6. Research the companies you want to work for, and identify a good fit for your skills. After you research the companies, create a custom cover letter that presents a case for why you would make such a good fit for the company. Although custom cover letters take time to create, they can be a powerful example of your writing skills. Taking the time to write a custom cover letter will certainly get the attention of a prospective employer.
7. Apply for the jobs. There are a lot of job sites (Monster, Dice, Yahoo, and more). I like Indeed.com because it consolidates job listings from multiple sites.