If you’ve ever tried to build a piece of furniture from a kit, install printer software on your laptop, or figure out why the warning lights on your car’s dashboard are flashing all at once, you’ve probably consulted a technical manual of some sort. But you probably didn’t stop to wonder who wrote those instructions. If you’re a good writer and have an interest in technology, you might want to be that person: a technical writer. But what is a technical writer? Read on to learn more about this interesting career, including:
- Where to find technical writer jobs
- Where to take technical writing online courses
- The typical technical writing salary
- How to become a freelance technical writer
What Does a Technical Writer Do?
What is a technical writer? Technical writers communicate technical and potentially complicated ideas, concepts, and instructions into language that the target reader will be able to understand. A technical writer bridges the gap between a complex piece of technology and a user’s ability to work it.
In practical terms, this work can take many forms. These days, much technical writing ends up online, on company websites, or as white papers. There’s still a need for printed, hard copy technical writing as well, in the form of user manuals that come with a product (think, cameras or TV sets).
To be clear, most technical writers won’t be required to actually think up how to use the piece of technology or device in question. That is, they won’t be handed a phone and told to just write about it from scratch! Instead, they’ll be given technical and sometimes rather complex instructions from the company or client and will then need to digest and simplify it for presentation to the end user.
You Already Speak Tech—Learn How to Write It
Technical Writing Process for Beginners
Types of Technical Writing Work
Although “technical” may make you think of technology, you should broaden your idea of what a technical writer job description includes. Technical writer positions need filling in the fields of IT, healthcare, finance, scientific research, engineering, transport, energy… there are so many types of technical writing that there’s bound to be one that piques your interest.
Information Technology (IT)
Most people use a variety of IT in their daily lives: phones, computers, televisions, and of course all of the software, hardware, and apps that accompany this tech. All of these elements require a technical writer to explain the functions to users and make troubleshooting steps easy to follow.
Think of healthcare and pharmaceuticals, and you might think of medicine. But this field also covers all of the equipment and technology used in the medical field, from x-ray machines to patient data software. This type of writing requires a good understanding of the intended user, who might be a healthcare professional (such as a lab technician or nurse) rather than a regular consumer.
If you’re less interested in writing about healthcare but wouldn’t mind editing documents in this field, a career as a science editor or medical editor might be right for you.
In addition to the murky world of the stock market, the finance field includes online banking, credit and debit cards, non-bank payment methods, and so on. Writing about these services falls under the umbrella term of technical writing.
From highways and bridges to helicopters and drones, engineering is a vast field. The readers of engineering technical writing might be a lay consumer or an engineering professional themselves.
How to Become a Technical Writer
There’s no such thing as a technical writer degree, per se. Like many jobs in the writing, publishing, and creative fields, there’s no single way of becoming a technical writer. You may go into this career straight out of college or after a decade of experience as a journalist or professor. That’s part of the beauty of a technical writing career! All you really need are writing and editing skills and an interest in the technical field you’ll be writing about.
Although there’s no technical writing degree, many technical writers complete a liberal arts education, majoring in a subject such as English, communications, journalism, or another humanities subject. Because technical writing is synonymous with technology, there’s a mistaken idea that you need to have a degree in engineering or a related field. This isn’t true. A typical technical writer’s education is quite broad.
Having said that, technical writers with a more technical-oriented education may benefit from it. They may be able to break into specialist technical writing fields more easily (which will often mean higher pay), and they may be able to more effortlessly understand the subject matter.
Technical Writing Courses Online
If you don’t already have a solid writing or technical background but are interested in making a career pivot into technical writing, taking online courses can be helpful. Skillshare offers a number of courses related to technical writing, which are a good way to test the waters before taking a leap.
Once you’ve decided to take that leap, the Society for Technical Communication—“the world’s oldest professional association dedicated to the advancement of the field of technical communication”—is a great resource. They run online courses in aspects of technical writing, as well as the Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC) accreditation.
Technical Writing Jobs
A variety of different organizations and companies have a need for technical writers. If you’re looking for a full-time or part-time job within a company (rather than to be a freelancer), here are some tips.
Where to Work
IT companies, the federal or local government, healthcare settings, pharmaceutical companies, financial services, research labs, engineering companies, and the energy sector (including green energy) all need technical writers.
Where you can work will also come down to the economy in your area (unless you’re open to relocating). If you live in Silicon Valley, then you’ll have a different set of job opportunities than if you live in upstate New York. Think creatively about the kinds of companies that need technical writing services when looking for a job.
Technical Writer Remote Jobs
These days, many companies allow for full or partial remote working. Even if you want a job with one company rather than to freelance for many, you may be able to arrange a remote working arrangement. If you see a technical writer job description that doesn’t specify whether it’s on-site, it’s always worth asking about remote work.
Technical Writer Salary
Technical writing jobs tend to pay more than other writing jobs, such as journalism. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median technical writing salary in 2020 as US$74,650 per year, or $35.89 per hour.
Technical Writer Job Outlook
The BLS expects the demand for technical writing jobs to increase by 12% between 2020-2030. That’s more than average, so it’s a good and fairly secure industry to be in!
Freelance Technical Writing
Becoming a freelance technical writer is a great option if you can’t or don’t want to work with just one company, or if you want to do some technical writing alongside other writing work. Many successful freelance writers combine creative writing, business writing, and technical writing to fulfil their creative passions while also making a decent living.
How to Get Work
Networking is crucial for freelance writers in all niches. For technical writers, joining the STC is a great step and will provide networking opportunities through local chapters and online groups. They also have a job directory, which is a good place to look for work.
Additionally, make a list of companies in your area and further afield that you’d like to work with. They don’t even need to be in the same country, as freelancing can be done from anywhere! Send them a letter of introduction and your resume, inviting them to get in touch with you if and when they need a freelance writer. It can take time to land work this way, but if your credentials are strong, many companies will be happy to keep you in mind.
Freelance Technical Writer Rates
Freelance technical writing can be as lucrative as working for a single company as an employee. In many cases, you can earn more money as a freelancer, especially if you’re experienced, fast, flexible with your time, and have a good reputation. It’s important to remember that freelancers often have to pay their own health insurance costs and other taxes, so the rates you charge (or accept) may need to be higher than you would get in a salaried job to cover those expenses.
Rates vary enormously depending on your own experience level and the companies you can get work from. Freelance technical writers usually prefer project rates over hourly rates, but an experienced and in-demand technical writer can expect to make at least $75 per hour.
Start Your Career as a Technical Writer
Can you answer yes to the following questions?
- You like to write
- You’re good at writing
- You like to explain things to your friends
- Your friends turn to you for help with complicated things
- You’re tech-savvy
- You enjoy reading about new technology and developments
If so, a career in technical writing might be for you. Fine-tune that resume, take a couple of technical writing classes online, and see where it takes you.
Become a Software Writer
Get Started with Technical Writing: Learn to Write Software Documentation