What do Technical Writers do, exactly? A lot of things.
What Do Tech Writers Do?
According to the US Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, Technical Writers perform a variety of functions: “… prepare instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles, and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily.”
I’ve worked in jobs where I have done all those things. During my internship, while at university, I worked with a product instructor to prepare training material for the company’s products. I would sit in on the training, listen to questions from the trainees, and go back to improve the content before the instructor took it on the road.
I’ve written user- and administration-level user material. Most recently, I worked in an R&D environment on the bleeding edge of technology, mostly in the role of Technical Editor. At university, I wrote a weekly opinion column for the school’s daily paper and a monthly column in the local newspaper.
As tech writers, our job is to simplify the complex. My personal mission statement has always been: “My job is to make engineering’s job easier.”
How Do I Make Engineering’s Job Easier?
In the bleeding-edge high-tech industry, a design engineer provides their design notes to a writer. The Tech Writer then organizes the notes into a template provided by the corporate Tech Comm department or its equivalent.
It helps if you have a background in the field in which you want to write. My experience is electronics and computers, so that’s where I’ve worked. A friend of mine has a background in biology and works for a medical equipment designer and manufacturer. Your education in a field can help you formulate intelligent questions to improve the documentation.
Another part of the job of a Tech Writer is as a translator. You must translate the engineering document, usually written in either note form or broken American English, into a consistent format for users. Most companies have a style guide to which you will work. You must also make sure the content is written clearly enough to be translated into other languages without losing context and clarity.
What Is A Style Guide?
A style guide is a set of guidelines by which you should write for a given entity. While many companies have internal guides (house style) by which you should document their products, they likely also use the Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Stylebook, the Microsoft Manual of Style, or any number of other guides. The academic world uses the Modern Language Association style. Even major publishing houses use style guides.
Most styles with which I’ve worked ask for content that is written in second person, active voice, present tense. Why? Clarity. You are giving instructions to someone on how to do something. Make it active, make it clear, make it directed.
How Do I Get Into Tech Writing?
Many avenues into the career exist. I began my journey more than thirty years ago by updating military documentation as needed. When I got out of the service, I wrote test procedures as a technician. At another job, I created a technical user guide for each production unit I built. Most high-tech companies today want a Bachelor’s degree in a field related to their business.
One place to look for professional guidance into the Tech Writing field is the Society of Technical Communication. Up until a few years ago, the company for which I worked paid the annual membership fee. Now that I’m no longer working in the field, my membership has lapsed.
A search for “technical writing” yields more than 130M hits. Poke around at what’s out there. Look into a communications program for technicians at your local community college or university.
Endless possibilities exist in the Technical Writing field. Take the time to explore the prospects.
Do you have a question about technical writing? Leave a comment. I’ll answer your query, or we’ll explore together.