How to become a technical writer

August 01, 2023 · 6 min read · By ASU Online
Get the details on what technical writers do, how to become one, and the online degrees that can develop the skills you'll need to succeed in the role.
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What does a technical writer do?

A technical writer is a professional who can create content that breaks down complex information to be more understandable for its audience. These writers create various forms of technical documentation such as instruction manuals, information graphics, training programs or reference guides. For example, a technical writer could write a user manual explaining how to utilize a software product, proposals for a company’s financial documentation or a case study for a marketing team to more easily understand how to target their audience. Regardless of which industry a technical writer pursues, they play an important role in helping understand an audiences' user experience with their goods or services.

 

The skills you need to excel as a technical writer

Technical writers are experts in communicating complex technical information in a clear and understandable manner. To be effective in the role, you should possess a combination of technical and communication skills. Here are some of the most important skills that technical writers need to possess:

George Standifer, a technical writing instructor at Arizona State University’s School of Applied Professional Studies, said these are the 13 most important skills a technical writer should possess:

  1. Technical proficiency: Technical writers must have a good understanding of the subject matter they’re writing about. You should be able to grasp complex technical concepts and translate them into accessible language for your target audience.
  2. Writing skills: Strong writing skills are essential for technical writers. You should be able to write clearly, concisely and logically, using appropriate grammar and punctuation. Technical writing often requires precise and unambiguous language.
  3. Audience analysis: Understanding the audience is crucial. Technical writers should know who their readers are, their level of technical expertise and what they expect from the documentation. This helps tailor the content to suit the audience's needs.
  4. Organizational skills: Technical documentation can be extensive, so technical writers must be skilled at organizing information. Creating logical structures, using headings, subheadings and bullet points to make the content easily navigable is essential.
  5. Attention to detail: Accuracy is paramount in technical writing. Writers need to be meticulous in verifying facts, data and technical specifications before including them in the documentation.
  6. Collaboration: Technical writers often work with subject matter experts, engineers, developers and other stakeholders. Collaborative skills are necessary for gathering information and clarifying technical details.
  7. Adaptability: Technology is constantly evolving and technical writers must keep up with the latest advancements. Being adaptable to change and learning new tools and technologies is important.
  8. Visual communication: The ability to use visuals effectively, such as diagrams, charts and images, can enhance the understanding of technical concepts and improve the overall user experience.
  9. Knowledge of documentation tools: Technical writers should be familiar with various documentation tools and software, such as Microsoft Word, Adobe products such as FrameMaker, InDesign and Photoshop, or other authoring tools commonly used in the industry.
  10. User empathy: You’ll need to understand the end-users' perspective and empathize with their challenges. This will allow you to create user-friendly documentation that addresses their needs and concerns.
  11. Information architecture: Knowing how to structure content and create effective navigation paths in both printed and online documentation is vital for user accessibility.
  12. Quality assurance: Reviewing and editing your work for clarity, correctness and consistency is essential to maintain the quality of the documentation.
  13. Compliance and regulatory awareness: Depending on the industry, technical writers may need to be aware of specific regulations, standards and compliance requirements that affect the documentation.

 

Where do technical writers work?

Technical writers can work in many technical industries ranging from information technology to healthcare manufacturing and more. Writers can choose to pursue working full time for an organization or working independently for many companies as a freelancer. Depending on which industry a writer works in can determine their physical working environment. Some roles may require writers to work in the office daily to collaborate with other team members, where some may allow a hybrid or remote schedule. The work environment can also be dependent on the type of products or services an organization is promoting. If the organization is primarily focusing on digital services, the majority of work may already be done online, allowing for more flexibility. However, if the company is a product-based organization such as engineering, the employer may require writers to become familiar working hands-on with the products they are writing about.

Technical writer salary and job outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of technical writers is expected to grow 7% between 2021 and 2031. The median annual salary for those in the role was $79,960 as of 2022.

Tips for those starting their technical writing careers

“When starting your career, you need to master the basics,” said Standifer. “Start by understanding the fundamentals of technical writing. Study style guides, such as the Microsoft Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style, and familiarize yourself with the key principles of clear and concise communication.”

Standifer also recommended that technical writers practice continuously. “Create a portfolio of writing samples and seek feedback from experienced technical writers or mentors,” Standifer suggested. “Consider contributing to open-source projects or creating personal projects to build your portfolio. And when seeking feedback, accept it gracefully and be open to constructive criticism, as it's an essential part of improving your writing and growing as a technical writer.”

You should also be adaptable, as technical writing assignments can vary widely, from user manuals to API documentation. Be flexible and willing to adapt to different writing styles and formats as needed.

Lastly, Standifer recommended showcasing your problem-solving skills. “Technical writing involves understanding complex topics and translating them into simple, actionable information. Demonstrate your ability to research and solve problems in your writing,” he added.

 

Prepare for a career in technical writing with these ASU Online degrees

Earning an online degree can provide you with the foundational knowledge and practical experience you will need to begin your career as a technical writer.

ASU Online’s Bachelor of Science in technical communication prepares you for specific technical writing tasks such as simplifying detailed information into a format that is more accessible for its intended audience. In courses such as TWC 401 Fundamentals of Technical Communication and TWC 431 Principles of Technical Editing, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of the concepts driving technical writing. In addition to writing and editing, the coursework encompasses visual design, front-end web development, usability testing, user experience and more.

“Our bachelor’s in technical communication uniquely prepares students to achieve their goal of becoming a technical writer through our comprehensive, contemporaneous coursework, our public-private collaborations, and our world-renowned faculty,” said Standifer. “We’re constantly embracing changing industry trends and needs with academic excellence in a seamlessly integrated asynchronous teaching environment.”

ASU Online’s Bachelor of Arts in English has a more broad approach, with coursework that focuses on critical thinking and the fundamental skills of writing. You’ll gain expertise in areas that are beneficial for a career in technical writing including communicating with different audiences, solving complex problems and adapting leadership abilities. During courses such as ENG 309 Rhetoric for Writers and ENG 305 Interpretive Theory, you’ll have the opportunity to discover your personal writing style.

Everything you need to know about ASU Online classes and degree programs

We’ve compiled what you need to know about online classes and degree programs at Arizona State University. Read on to learn all about what to expect from the ASU Online learning experience.

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