Technical Writer Careers

Significant Points

  • Most jobs in this occupation require a college degree-preferably in communications, journalism, or English-but a degree in a technical subject may be useful.
  • Job prospects for most technical writing jobs are expected to be good, particularly for those with Web or multimedia experience.
  • Excellent communications skills, curiosity, and attention to detail are highly desired traits.

Nature of the Work

Technical writers, also called technical communicators, put technical information into easily understandable language. They work primarily in information-technology-related industries, coordinating the development and dissemination of technical content for a variety of users; however, a growing number of technical communicators are using technical content to resolve business communications problems in a diversifying number of industries. Included in their products are operating instructions, how-to manuals, assembly instructions, and other documentation needed for online help and by technical support staff, consumers, and other users within the company or industry. Technical writers also develop documentation for computer programs and set up communications systems with consumers to assess customer satisfaction and quality control matters. In addition, they commonly work in engineering, scientific, healthcare, and other areas in which highly specialized material needs to be explained to a diverse audience, often of laypersons.

Technical writers often work with engineers, scientists, computer specialists, and software developers to manage the flow of information among project workgroups during development and testing. They also may work with product liability specialists and customer service or call center managers to improve the quality of product support and end-user assistance. Technical writers also oversee the preparation of illustrations, photographs, diagrams, and charts. Technical writers increasingly are using a variety of multimedia formats to convey information in such a way that complex concepts can be understood easily by users of the information.

Applying their knowledge of the user of the product, technical writers may serve as part of a team conducting usability studies to help improve the design of a product that is in the prototype stage. Technical writers may conduct research on their topics through personal observation, library and Internet research, and discussions with technical specialists. They also are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter and establish their credibility with their colleagues.

Technical writers use computers and other electronic communications equipment extensively in performing their work. They also work regularly with desktop and other electronic publishing software and prepare material directly for the Internet. Technical writers may work with graphic design, page layout, and multimedia software; increasingly, they are preparing documents by using the interactive technologies of the Web to blend text, graphics, multidimensional images, and sound.

Some technical writers work on a freelance or contract basis. They either are self-employed or work for a technical consulting firm and may be hired to complete specific short-term or recurring assignments, such as writing about a new product or coordinating the work and communications of different units to keep a project on track. Whether a project is to be coordinated among an organization's departments or among autonomous companies, technical writers ensure that the different entities share information and mediate differences in favor of the end user in order to bring a product to market sooner.

Work environment. Advances in computer and communications technologies make it possible for technical writers to work from almost anywhere. Laptop computers and wireless communications permit technical writers to work from home, an office, or on the road. The ability to use the Internet to e-mail, transmit, and download information and assignments, conduct research, or review materials allows them greater flexibility in where and how they complete assignments.

Many technical writers work with people located around the world and with specialists in highly technical fields, such as science and engineering. As a result, they must be able to assimilate complex information quickly and be comfortable working with people from diverse professional and cultural backgrounds. Although most technical writers are employed directly by the companies that use their services, many freelance writers are paid on a project basis and routinely face the pressures of juggling multiple projects and the continual need to find new work. Technical writers may be expected to work evenings, nights, or weekends to coordinate with those in other time zones, meet deadlines, or produce information that complies with project requirements and is acceptable to the client.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A college degree is required for a position as a technical writer. In addition, knowledge in a technical subject, as well as experience in Web design and computer graphics, is important.

Education and training. Employers look for candidates with a bachelor's degree, often preferring those with a major in communications, journalism, or English. Some technical writing jobs may require both experience and either a degree or knowledge in a specialized field-for example, engineering, medicine, or one of the sciences; others have broader requirements, such as a background in liberal arts. Knowledge of a second language is helpful for some positions. Experience in Web design and computer graphics also is helpful, because of the growing use of online technical documentation.

Other qualifications. Technical writers must have excellent writing and communication skills and be able to express ideas clearly and logically in a variety of media. Increasingly, technical writers need familiarity with electronic publishing, graphics, and sound and video production. Also needed is knowledge of computer software for combining online text with graphics, audio, video, and animation, as well as the ability to manage large, complex, and interconnected files.

Technical writers must be detail oriented, curious, persistent in solving problems, self-motivated, and able to understand complex material and explain it clearly. Technical writers also must demonstrate good working relationships and sensitivity toward others, especially those from different backgrounds. In addition, the ability to work under pressure and in a variety of work settings is essential.

Advancement. Some technical writers begin their careers not as writers, but as specialists in a technical field or as research assistants or trainees in a technical information department. By transferring or developing technical communication skills, they eventually assume primary responsibilities for technical writing. In small firms, beginning technical writers may work on projects right away; in larger companies with more standard procedures, beginners may observe experienced technical writers and interact with specialists before being assigned projects. Prospects for advancement generally include working on more complex projects, leading or training junior staff, and getting enough work to make it as a freelancer.

Many firms and freelancers provide technical writing services on a contract basis, often to small or not-for-profit organizations that do not have enough regular work to employ technical writers full time. Building a reputation and establishing a record for meeting deadlines also makes it easier to get future assignments. An experienced, credible, and reliable freelance technical writer or editor often is able to establish long-term dealings with the same companies.

Job Outlook

Employment of technical writers is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations as the need to explain a growing number of electronic and scientific products increases. Job prospects are expected to be good for those with solid writing and communications skills and a technical background.

Employment change. Employment of technical writers is expected to grow 18 percent, or faster than the average for all occupations, from 2008 to 2018. Demand over this decade is expected to increase because of the continuing expansion of scientific and technical information and the growing presence of customer service and Web-based product support networks. Legal, scientific, and technological developments and discoveries will generate demand for people who can interpret technical information for a general audience. Rapid growth and change in the high-technology and electronics industries will result in a greater need for people who can write users' guides, instruction manuals, and training materials in a variety of formats and communicate information clearly to others. This occupation requires workers who are both skilled writers and effective communicators and familiar with a specialized subject area.

Increasing acceptance of interactive media to provide nearly real-time information will create employment opportunities for technical writers because of the need to revise online information. Businesses and organizations are making more material available online often in formats that permit greater scrutiny and comparison of detailed information. The growing amount and complexity of information available on the Web will spur demand for technical writers. Professional, scientific, and technical services firms will continue to grow and should be a good source of new jobs even as the occupation finds acceptance in a broader range of industries, including data processing, hosting, and related services and educational services.

Job prospects. Job prospects, especially for applicants with solid communication and technical skills, are expected to be good. The growing reliance on technologically sophisticated products in the home and the workplace and the increasing complexity of medical or scientific information needed for daily living will create many new job opportunities for technical writers. However, competition will exist for technical writing positions with more desirable companies and for workers who are new to the occupation.

In addition to job openings created by employment growth, some openings will arise as experienced workers retire, transfer to other occupations, or leave the labor force. Also, many freelancers may not earn enough money by freelancing to remain in the occupation, thus generating additional job openings.