If you like language, are good at writing and are tech-savvy, then technical writing might be a perfect fit for you. With a growing number of job opportunities, it is easy to find work within all kind of industries.
This article will show you what you need to do to become a technical writer. I will tell you what skills you need to develop and how to find work.
What is technical writing?
The Society of Technical Communication (STC) defines technical writing as any form of communication in which the writer communicates about technical or specialized topics, communicates by using technology (such as web pages, help files, or social media sites) and/or provides instructions about how to do something (for example in an online help file or user manual).
All kinds of texts that aim to explain detailed information are part of technical writing. As a technical writer, it is your responsibility to write and present technical information in such a way that is useful to the reader.
This writing style covers any text that aims to explain detailed information. A technical writer communicates in a way that presents technical information so that the reader can use that information for an intended purpose.
Although you can study technical writing, you don’t need a degree to be a technical writer. WIth some knowledge, experience and a portfolio, it will be easy to win gigs or impress employers.
According to a study conducted by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a growing demand for technical writers due to an increase in software use and technical products.
This article will further focus on writing user assistance.such as manuals and online help.
What skills do you need as a technical writer?
Understand the importance of user experience
Often overlooked, the user experience of technical documents is just as important as it is for the mobile version of an e-commerce store.
Because the technical experts often write technical documents, they tend to write appealing content for peers in which they show their in-depth knowledge of the topic. This is not the kind of content that the actual user wants to read.
Always be aware of who the user of the document is. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What questions do they want to be answered?
- Is the document accessible through the medium(s) that they prefer to use?
- How would they navigate through the information?
- Could visuals clarify the texts?
The same information accessible through several mediums
A clear structure of your document makes the information for the user easy to find. A user is looking for information on how to do something or on how to solve a problem. Most likely he will try to find the answer to his question through the menu or the table of contents.
That’s why it should be directly clear from the title of the topic if the user will find the answer to his question here. By choosing meaningful headings, you will help you user finding the right information. The title Making Pancakes is much more user-oriented than Using the MagicCook5000.
Besides this, it is essential only to provide the answer to one user question an not more This principle is called topic-based authoring.
Write clear instructions
The purpose of user instructions is to help the user complete a specific task. Therefore, it is important to allow the reader to start immediately on a meaningful task. When writing you instructions, provide the user with an immediate opportunity to act.
This can be done by writing clear instructions, use active verbs and only one required action in a sentence, for example: Push the ON button.
Further, do not use several ways to say the same thing or to indicate the same thing. It is your responsibility to tell the reader all he needs to know to perform a task with the least possible opportunity for him to misunderstand. This means that you need to be totally consistent and use clear and plain language, so all readers will interpret the instruction in the same manner.
The use of jargon should be avoided in technical communication, or it should be clearly clarified when used. The general rule of thumb is to focus on creating user assistance that is easy to read.
Visuals, such as tables, figures, drawings and screenshot, are a good way to support, replace or augment texts or concepts that are difficult to explain using only words. Sometimes visuals can even replace text.
Depending on the type of visual you want to create, there are many great tools that can help to create your visuals, such as Snagit, Adobe Photoshop, Solidworks Composer, Google Sketchup, Lucidchart or Microsoft Visio.
Example of how an illustration supports the text
User manuals contain several information types, such as safety warnings, instructions, and contextual text. By formatting the different types consistently, you help the user identifying the information type. For example, warnings could always have the structure as shown below, where they start with the signal word panel (DANGER, WARNING, CAUTION or NOTICE), preceded by the nature of a hazardous situation, the consequences of not avoiding a hazardous situation and the method(s) for avoiding it.
Rotating parts. Risk of serious injuries. Keep hands clear. Lockout/Tagout before servicing.
Besides that, make sure to choose a font that is readable and large enough for the intended user. Also, use a font that is suitable for the intended medium. For on-screen publications typically other fonts are used than for print documentation.
Understanding the process
Although every document is different. the following workflow tries to show the general process you can adopt to achieve the best results for your clients:
- Define initial requirements
- Understand who the user is
- Map and plan the document
- Interviewing the subject matter experts (SMEs)
- Write the content
- Add visuals
- Format the content
- Review carefully
- Do a technical review
How to learn all skills
So now you have a general overview of what skills are important and how the process looks like, you might be wondering how you can start driving into it. There are several ways to master the skills and get some experience.
First of all, you can learn technical writing by studying it at a university. Worldwide, there are dozens of good educational possibilities to learn the profession.
But although you can study technical writing, you don’t need a degree to be a technical writer. You can also start learning on the internet. There are many good blogs out there where you can find a lot of useful information. For example, Wikiversity has a free wiki-based course on technical writing.
You could also consider following an online course on Udemy or Coursera.
Once you have mastered your new skills, it is time to get into action. Don’t wait until you have your first technical writing assignment. You can start practising by creating instructions for some of the products or programs you use.
Also, don’t stop learning. The technical writing profession is in constant evolvement and there are much areas that are not discussed here where you can broaden your horizon.
Another way to keep on learning is by joining a professional organisation focussing on technical communication such as tekom or the STC.
One part of the table of contents of a drone. A user manual describes every aspect of the product’s life cycle
How to find work
Are you ready to get some gigs? The easiest way to find clients or a job is by promoting yourself. A professional online presence is key. You can find technical writing jobs on a number of online platforms, such as LinkedIn and Upwork.
Also, your existing professional network might be a good source of technical writing opportunities. Or maybe there are in-house possibilities in the company you are currently working in. Discuss your interest with your manager and start offering your writing skills during meetings.