Technical writing is one of the most fascinating forms of professional writing. It requires a distinct combination of skills, which can be quite rare. You may feel you have what it takes, but you don’t know how to become a technical writer. Let me help.
To become a technical writer, you first need to have the relevant education and knowledge of the subject matter. You also need to learn to be a skilled writer that can communicate complex topics. Then, you should practice and build a good portfolio that you can use to apply for a job.
A career in technical writing can be an amazing and potentially lucrative one. And, like most great careers, you probably aren’t going to stumble into a job overnight. You will need to grind a bit if you’re serious about it.
The Road To Becoming A Technical Writer
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a good writer will naturally be an excellent technical writer. Sadly, that’s not necessarily true. While being a good writer, in general, will help, technical writers must have a knack for creating routes through complex mazes of information.
Step 1 – Decide If You Have Technical Writer’s Knack
Before getting into the formal training and education part of the journey, you should decide if you have the personality for it.
The First Component Of The Technical Writer’s Knack
I recently talked to a friend’s 10-year-old son, who eloquently convinced me that you could start a fire using snow. He laid out the step-by-step process of condensing the snow into ice, for it into a convex magnifying glass, polishing it, and then lighting a fire with it.
Admittedly, I looked rather silly with my jaw on the table. But I was genuinely fascinated by this child’s thought process. This same thought process is the foundational requirement of a technical writer.
Your job as a technical writer is to take complicated clumps of information, break them apart and map out the route from snow to fire. Yes, this is obviously a skill that can be learned.
But the difference between good and great writers is that the great are passionate about understanding and explaining complicated topics. They thrive off the need to understand and discover. And they can absorb new knowledge with relative ease.
The Second Component Of The Technical Writer’s Knack
“So, basically, they’re engineers,” you say. But it’s a bit more complicated. The technical writer’s knack is a skillset, and this critical thinking process is just one part of the set.
Having the mental capacity to understand complex issues will only help if you can communicate your findings. And therein lies the paradox; you need to be an engineer that can communicate.
I say this in jest. I’m not an engineer and often need help putting my thoughts into words. But this is a critically important skill for technical writers. You need to be able to accurately guide a reader through your thought process and bring them to the same level of understanding as you have.
Perhaps you have already figured it out, but this “knack” has a name. At their core, technical writers are teachers. So, if you enjoy discovering and teaching, it could be a career worth considering. However, if you don’t enjoy teaching, you will likely find it frustrating and unrewarding.
Step 2 – Get A Formal Education
As a technical writer, you will write anything from technical guides, operating procedures, textbooks, or even medical procedures. It’s vitally important that you completely understand the subject matter.
A formal education dramatically increases your chances of getting hired because it significantly increases your credibility. For example, a firefighter will have a tough time swallowing a fire safety manual written by a lawyer.
Obviously, you don’t need a degree for every topic you tackle, especially if you are writing about broader subjects. However, there are two routes of education and training to become a technical writer.
Route 1 – Get A STEM Degree First
The first route many prospective writers take is getting a relevant science, technology, engineering, or medical degree. If you can afford this route, I would highly advise it.
For example, suppose you want to write in the medical or civil engineering spheres. In that case, you will hit a dead end if you don’t have the right degree to your name.
However, even if you want to write about broader coding or programming topics, having a degree will give you a competitive advantage and fast-track your career.
Once you have your STEM degree in the bag, the next step is to take English grammar and writing courses; as many as you can. Remember, your intellect isn’t the product you’re trying to sell. Your finished article is your product. And learning to be a good writer will teach you to create sellable products.
Route 2 – Get A Communication, English, Or Writing Qualification First
The second common route that technical writers take is to start with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in communication, English, or writing. This is an excellent option if you aren’t concerned about writing in hyper-technical fields like medicine.
This route is focussed on the writing and communication component, and then you add technical knowledge and skills to it.
So, you could do a few courses in programming and coding to learn a specific language or protocol and then write about that. However, remember that this option could have a slower career path as you will need to grind a bit more to build credibility.
However, the plus side is that your advanced writing skills will make your earlier articles easier to sell, simply because the quality may be better.
Step 3 – Get To Grips With Technical Writing
With your formal education in the bag, it’s time to learn how to become a technical writer. You may have covered some of it in your communication degree, but if you want to earn a living doing it, you need to learn to do it well.
Technical writing sits in a rather unique spot in the writing industry. Unlike creative writing, technical writing requires you to work within style parameters.
These style guides may differ between companies, but learning as many as possible will be worth your time. Doing so will make you a flexible writer that can adapt to different requirements.
For some added credibility, you can become a certified technical writer through Society for Technical Communication. While this isn’t a requirement for many jobs, it does add considerable weight to your CV.
The society has various tiers of certification, from foundation to expert, so as you gain experience and skill, you can also work your way up in rank.
Another crucial aspect of mastering technical writing is consuming as much of it as possible.
There is a common understanding that all good writers are also avid readers. In other words, the more you read, the better you’ll write. This means that becoming a good writer isn’t just memorizing style guides. Instead, you should continuously read.
By constantly reading, you’ll not only improve your general grammar, but you could pick up certain tricks and trends that can add some flavor to your own style.
Step 4 – Master Your Computer & Learn Basic Code
Technical writers need to have mastery of their primary tool, which is their computer.
It is not a job where you can sit behind a keyboard, bash out some content, and send it on for someone else to beautify. No, you will need to understand how to draw up completed technical documents, including visual representations of complex data.
You may need to take an advanced course or scour the university of YouTube to pick up all the skills you need.
Once you understand your PC and the relevant software, it’ll be highly beneficial if you learn basic programming. This is because the demand for technical writers is probably the highest in the computer or tech industry. And, as a bonus, the barrier to entry is also lower in the tech industry than, say, the engineering or medical fields.
Therefore, learning programming could help you have the right skill set to get into the industry full-time. Then, once inside, you can start working to gain the knowledge and experience to move to your desired field.
While you can opt for an accredited programming course, the internet offers great content for free. I would start with this video and take it from there. A whole array of courses is available on YouTube, so you don’t need to spend extra money to learn the basics.
If you discover that you enjoy programming, then perhaps it’s something you can pursue formally.
Teach Yourself To Use Image Software
One day, when you work in a big company, you will have a team that handles the graphics, images, and charts. However, in the meantime, you need to learn to do all that by yourself.
Graphics are an essential part of technical writing. They help visualize complex data, making it easier for the reader to understand. They also make your articles more visually appealing.
Adding high-quality visual aids will make your early-day articles a lot more successful and noticeable. Then, one day when you have your own team, you will have the skill set to better manage the graphics that go into your projects.
You definitely don’t need to learn to be a graphic designer, but understanding the basics of elements like charts and even Photoshop will help you a lot in the long run.
Step 5 – Start Writing To Build Your Portfolio
By the time you reach this step, you should have a good grasp of technical writing. Or rather, the theory behind it, at least. And now it’s time to put your keyboard to work and start getting some articles done.
Start Writing Some Test Articles
You should write a test article or three if you haven’t already. Of course, your first few articles won’t be good enough to publish, but they will be an essential practice.
The fun part of doing these articles is that you are free to write about what interests you. So, pick topics you enjoy because your enjoyment will be evident in your writing. Generally, if I write about topics that I don’t find interesting, I must work harder at writing well.
If you have a friend who is already a technical writer, ask them to look at these first few articles. Their constructive criticism will serve you well.
You can also pass out your articles to family and friends to read and give you feedback. The critical part here is that someone reads your work. Otherwise, you risk writing in a silo. In that case, you will miss opportunities to improve and receive encouraging feedback.
Start A Blog
With the first few articles under your belt, it’s time to start building your professional portfolio. A good option is to create a technical blog.
Blogs have many advantages for writers. Firstly, they are generally free to set up. Secondly, you still get to choose your own content, and finally, they are a great one-stop shop that organizes and showcases your work.
However, you should be careful of writing on a wide variety of topics. For example, drawing medical and programming readers to the same product space is difficult.
If you have a wide array of interests, then perhaps start your own website to group your articles into subsets and topics. But I still recommend you start building your knowledge and writing experience within a selected field.
Employers will look for writers who can write well in one area rather than writers who can write sort-of-ok in many areas.
Help With Opensource Projects
Once you have a portfolio, the next step is to help with open-source projects. Sure, you aren’t going to get paid for your work. But these projects are a fantastic way to get your writing noticed and grow your contact network.
Many technical writers at Google were employed after delivering good work on an open-source project.
One of the holy-grail Open-Source projects is the Google Season of Docs. You have to apply to be part of this program, and having previous open-source contributions helps your chances.
If you make it into that program, you will likely get paid for your work and stand an even bigger chance of landing a permanent position.
Step 6 – Polish Your CV And Start Applying For Jobs
With your qualifications and portfolio in hand, you are ready to start applying for jobs. Sure, you could’ve started applying before this point, but ideally, when your CV lands on a table, you want it to land with a weighted “bang.”
Refresh Your CV Design And Layout
I recently went through the process of applying for a new job. I hadn’t used my CV for a few years, so I decided to do a quick check on modern trends. I was pleasantly surprised at just how clean CV designs have become.
Remember, visually displaying information is a big part of what a technical writer does, and a CV is simply that: a visual display of information. So, if you want the job, make an effort with your CV.
Clean Up Your Online Presence
A relevant tip for applying for any job is that you should carefully scrub through your online presence. Of course, we all have skeletons, but ideally, they should be locked up in a closet, not hanging from the town billboard.
Suppose you’re applying for a technical writing job at a prestigious law firm, but your Facebook page is basically a compilation of you engaged in activities of questionable legality.
I personally know people who have lost out on jobs or even been fired, thanks to their online activities.
Apply For Relevant Work
While you may be tempted to spam your CV like confetti, you should focus on jobs relevant to your field. Applying for some irrelevant position can end badly in a few ways.
Firstly, suppose you get the job, end up hating it, and, in the process, damage your career. Secondly, someone could pick up that you are simply taking a chance to apply for a random job. Later, when a relevant position opens at the same company, you may already be at a disadvantage when you apply.
Step 7 – Build Professional Connections
I cannot overemphasize how important it is for you to build your professional network. If you get this step right, there is a chance that you may not even need to apply for work.
At a foundational level, building your network starts with collaborations on open-source projects. But, to add to this, you can join various technical writers’ associations, where advice and job listings are shared.
Furthermore, try to attend various events in your selected field. Sure, it can be a little awkward at first, engaging with random strangers at these events. Still, you will need good interpersonal relationship skills to be a technical writer. So, consider it practice.
Not only will attending events help you meet the right people, but it will also expose you to modern trends and innovations in your field of writing. This will give you an advantage of staying in the proverbial vanguard.
You could also meet people at these events who are eager for open-source work. Please take it. Those early days of working for free will pay dividends if you do your work well.
Final Step – Always Write Like You’re Applying For A Job
Once you are settled into your new job as a technical writer at Google, the temptation to relax will come swiftly. Don’t give in.
If you are happy with your current job, then sure, relax. You’ve made it. But if you have ambitions and the desire to grow your career, then you had better continue delivering work worthy of a job application reference.
Consistency is one of the most sought-after qualities in technical writers. No company wants a writer who gets it right every so often. Instead, they want writers who can consistently deliver outstanding quality.
Write in a way that says, “if Elon Musk buys this company tomorrow, I’m the writer he keeps. Not the writer he fires.”
Bonus Tip For Technical Writing: Don’t Be Boring
Being a good technical writer can be a difficult skill to master, especially in the beginning. Surprisingly, it may become harder as you go along because you may find yourself bored with the content.
Unfortunately, there is a real risk of this boredom shining through your work. I realize that asking a technical writer to not be boring immediately presents itself as a paradox. But that shouldn’t be the case.
There are times when I have read textbooks, complex articles, or even complex religious writings with a smile on my face. These times occur when the author clearly has a passion for the topic. And that passion has seasoned the words on the pages.
I’m not saying you should strive to be a flowery writer and use purposefully perplexing punctuation to forcefully fabricate alliteration (see what I did there?). However, excessive seasoning can quickly detract from the content of technical writing.
But, for the love of the reader, don’t be boring. Like all writing, technical writing is an engagement with the reader. So if you want the reader to listen to you, you should try not to resemble a block of ice.
Even technical writing has a significant element of creativity, and creativity can be a little temperamental. But if you hope to build a successful career, you must practice building creativity consistency.
Allow bits and pieces of personality to encroach upon your writing. But in a way that doesn’t drown it or detract from the information you are presenting.
To become a technical writer, you first need to get a good education in your area of interest. After getting that education, you should focus on honing and practicing your skills as a technical writer while building a portfolio of articles. Once you have a good portfolio, you can start applying for job opportunities.