How to Build a Career in Technical Writing

A lot of times people ask what I do for a living and my short answer to them is that I am a technical writing specialist. I am not sure if they truly understand that as well, so I take an extra minute of their time to talk about my profession.

Even though technical writing is a much sought after profession in several technology organizations, sadly there isn't much information available on the Internet about how to build a career around it. This blog post attempts to bridge that gap.

Think Beyond Writing - Focus on Domain

A technical communicator's job in today's context is more than just writing. In fact, many organizations assume that you can write well and are looking to hire someone with a strong interest in technology and domain.

The more depth you tend to acquire in a particular domain over a period of time, the more premium you can demand in the longer run. In fact as technology continues to evolve, employers are looking to hire techcomm experts in specialized domains such as semiconductors, IT, travel, etc.

Having spent 17 years in this industry, including a 7-year stint in South Korea, I can tell you that employers appreciate if you know about the underlying domain in which they operate. Experience in domain comes in handy and saves a lot of valuable time for the employer who doesn't want to spend too much time in handholding. I remember how my experience of working for a leading semiconductor business unit at Samsung proved useful when I started a new job at Agilent (a company that dealt in Electronic Design Automation). I was able to apply all my learning on the job and was better equipped to handle meetings with developers and design staff.

GUI Based Documentation Is Dying

Trends show that the demand for GUI based documentation is on a decline, and there is a solid reason for that. Most modern-day applications are designed to be user friendly and intuitive.

That said, the demand for technical communicators to contribute in system documentation is at an all-time high. If you know a programming language, you could play a key role in documenting APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) or writing tutorials that developers can leverage.

Needless to say, the salaries for programming writers are higher than generalist technical writers.

Don't Underestimate the Power of Communication

As part of your role, you'll be meeting and spending time with a lot of people other than your own team of writers or editors, such as the staff from development, testing, business analysts, or deployment team. 

Learning to buy their time and valuing their knowledge goes a long way in terms of relationship building and making sure that you have your ground covered up from all possible angles. Gone are the days when writers worked in silos.

Enhanced Skillset - Need of the Hour

While your written and verbal communication skills can land you a decent technical writing job, you might still be required to hone your skills from time to time to become a domain expert.

For creating developer documentation like API/SDK/Deployment manuals, you might be required to understand the advanced concepts of programming. In some cases, the employer might even expect you to know or do coding. Imagine a scenario where you're handed over some header files to modify or edit the developer comments within the code. If you don't have the relevant knowledge of programming, you will not be able to perform the job, leave alone adding any value.

Wearing Different Hats

While it is a luxury to have a graphic designer or an editor at your disposal, more often than not, you are expected to wear different hats or asked to do more than what was defined in your offer letter or job description. This is not such a bad thing!

Sometimes you'll be asked to create a document template in Word or HTML and knowledge of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) (or more specifically, Styles) will be good to have. At other times, you may be required to create or edit images, illustrations, or videos. It doesn't hurt to know a few graphic designing tools like SnagIt, Photoshop, CorelDraw etc.

Bridging the Gap between Technical and Marketing Content

By any chance, if you're working for a services company, try helping the marketing or presales team by writing or editing proposals, case studies, whitepapers, website/blog content, etc. 

The management truly appreciates someone who can help the company win contracts or look good in front of customers.