Use Your IT Experience to Move into Technical Writing

By Chandler Harris

With
new technological advances in software, hardware and other devices being
released almost daily, somebody has to articulate these new and updated
technologies to the end-user. That person is the technical writer, a.k.a the
technical communicator, who creates a host of documentation to support new
technology, products and services.

Use Your IT Experience to Move into Technical WritingTechnical
writing is an in-demand field and rated one of the top five high-paying, low
stress jobs by MSNBC. Technical writers earn a median annual wage of $61,620, with
higher-paid
professionals earning more than $97,000. They can work from home part- or full-time.
Plus, technical writing is among the fastest growing occupations, according to
the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with
employment expected to grow 18 percent from 2008 to 2018. This is primarily due
not only to documentation of new technologies, but also the evolving nature of
content available on the Web.

Breaking In

Although
a number of certificate and degree programs are available, many technical communicators
enter the field by leveraging their previous knowledge and write about subjects
they know. Some even transfer within a company from a technical position to a
technical writing position.

“You can come from anywhere and become a technical writer,”
says Jonathan Price, senior technical writer at Ktech and a technical writing
instructor at the University of California Santa Cruz Extension. “
If
you have technical knowledge in a field, and say that you’re a writer, you can
get hired in companies in that discipline.”

When it comes to landing a job in technical writing, there are
three key requirements, according to
Jack
Molisani
,
president of ProSpring Technical
Staffing
: “domain” experience, or
experience in a particular field; excellent written and verbal communication
skills; and knowledge of publishing tools like Microsoft Word, XML
and
Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA). Also, skills that a
journalist possesses are helpful, such as the ability to write and condense
information under tight deadlines, juggle multiple projects, write in an
engaging way, and have an interest in learning new things.

Opportunities in technical communication are often specific to the
industries in a given area. In the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle are
numerous technical writing jobs associated with hardware, software and Web
applications. Other opportunities include medical devices in the Bay Area and on
the East Coast; pharmaceuticals in New Jersey;
finance in New York City; and defense at national
laboratories and in Virginia, Maryland and Washington,
D.C. G
rowing industries that
need technical writers include Software as a Service (SaaS), healthcare and green
energy, according to the Society of
Technical Journalists
.

To Technical
Write or Not to Technical Write

Technical
writing has traditionally been associated with the creation of technical
documentation such as users’ guides, instruction manuals and training
materials. However, technical writers are now being asked to do more than just
write. That’s changed the title technical
writer
to technical communicator,
content manager and information architect. These new titles
have a level of duties that goes beyond writing to include content management,
user interface design, usability, interactive Web content (like social media)
and a greater interaction with customers.

“Technical
writers are ‘writing’ less and using more of their user analysis and general
communication strategy skills,” observes Michael Hughes, president of the Society of Technical Communication. “They’re becoming content
managers and information architects, rather than writers.”

Andrea Ames began her
career as a technical writer and now holds a position as an IBM senior technical staff member and information
experience strategist and architect. Ames
sees technical communicators asked to perform additional
services, such as internal company documentation, employee communications,
content for internal websites, HTML coding, cascading style sheet coding,
social media strategy and even marketing.
Tom
Johnson
,
a senior technical writer at LDS church and author of the technical writing
blog idratherbewriting.com, frequently uses software programs such as Adobe’s InDesign and Photoshop, Microsoft’s SharePoint and Visio and Fantasia.

Says Ames:
“I think if people are intellectual, curious and enjoy technology and are
good communicators, they shouldn’t hesitate to try technical writing out.”

Chandler Harris is a business and technology writer in California.

Comments

16 Responses to “Use Your IT Experience to Move into Technical Writing”

July 22, 2010 at 2:54 am, Walter Hanig said:

The professional organization is “Society for Technical Communication.”

Reply

July 22, 2010 at 2:54 am, Walter Hanig said:

The professional organization is “Society for Technical Communication.”

Reply

July 22, 2010 at 4:41 am, Peter from Mesa said:

This is not a very good idea. I am an unemployed technical writer who has been unable to find steady work for about a year and a half. This article reminds me of the late 1980s, when I was laid off from my job as an electronics technician. The government was running a program to train people to be electronics technicians. Why? There were not enough job openings for all of the experienced technicians. Now, you are encouraging IT people to switch to a career that does not have enough openings for those of us who are experienced!

Certainly, knowledge of a product or service is important, but being able to lay out the document, write to a specific audience, and edit the content for proper English grammar and punctuation makes or breaks a document. Perhaps the IT work group should hire a technical writer. Describe the function and audience, and the experienced technical writer can put it into a nice package. The IT group, of course, will have the final word on the technical content.

I¿ve seen way too many people who can turn a computer on, open Word, and type, who think that they are technical writers. They just aren¿t. Learn your end of the business and let us professionals help you document it.

Reply

July 22, 2010 at 4:41 am, Peter from Mesa said:

This is not a very good idea. I am an unemployed technical writer who has been unable to find steady work for about a year and a half. This article reminds me of the late 1980s, when I was laid off from my job as an electronics technician. The government was running a program to train people to be electronics technicians. Why? There were not enough job openings for all of the experienced technicians. Now, you are encouraging IT people to switch to a career that does not have enough openings for those of us who are experienced!

Certainly, knowledge of a product or service is important, but being able to lay out the document, write to a specific audience, and edit the content for proper English grammar and punctuation makes or breaks a document. Perhaps the IT work group should hire a technical writer. Describe the function and audience, and the experienced technical writer can put it into a nice package. The IT group, of course, will have the final word on the technical content.

I¿ve seen way too many people who can turn a computer on, open Word, and type, who think that they are technical writers. They just aren¿t. Learn your end of the business and let us professionals help you document it.

Reply

July 22, 2010 at 4:49 am, Peter from Mesa said:

I¿m an unemployed technical writer who has been unable to find steady work for 1 1/2 years. In the 1980s, when I was laid off from my job as an electronics technician, the government ran a program to train people to be electronics technicians. Why? There were not enough jobs for the experienced technicians. Now, you are encouraging IT people to switch to a career that does not have enough openings!

Knowledge of a product is important, but being able to lay out the document, write to a specific audience, and edit for proper grammar and punctuation makes or breaks it. The IT group should hire a technical writer. Describe the function and audience, and the experienced writer can put it into a nice package. The IT group, of course, will have the final word on the technical content.

I¿ve seen way too many people who can turn a computer on, open Word, and type, who think that they are technical writers. They just aren¿t. Learn your end of the business and help us professionals document it.

Reply

July 22, 2010 at 4:49 am, Peter from Mesa said:

I¿m an unemployed technical writer who has been unable to find steady work for 1 1/2 years. In the 1980s, when I was laid off from my job as an electronics technician, the government ran a program to train people to be electronics technicians. Why? There were not enough jobs for the experienced technicians. Now, you are encouraging IT people to switch to a career that does not have enough openings!

Knowledge of a product is important, but being able to lay out the document, write to a specific audience, and edit for proper grammar and punctuation makes or breaks it. The IT group should hire a technical writer. Describe the function and audience, and the experienced writer can put it into a nice package. The IT group, of course, will have the final word on the technical content.

I¿ve seen way too many people who can turn a computer on, open Word, and type, who think that they are technical writers. They just aren¿t. Learn your end of the business and help us professionals document it.

Reply

July 25, 2010 at 3:31 am, Karen Mulholland said:

Yes, you can use your technical education as a springboard into technical writing. That’s what I did with my degree in electronics, when I saw that there were many good technicians and fewer good tech writers.
BUT…
Don’t go into technical communication because you’ll make money at it. Go into it because you’re passionate about it and would be writing about how to do stuff anyway, even if you dug ditches for a living.

Technical writers are often among the first to be laid off in a downturn, particularly in high-tech businesses. I’ve been laid off so many times I consider it a skill set. I’ve walked away from tech writing because I didn’t feel my contributions were valued. But I always go back because it’s what I love doing. For me, that’s the ONLY reason to pursue a profession.

Reply

July 25, 2010 at 3:31 am, Karen Mulholland said:

Yes, you can use your technical education as a springboard into technical writing. That’s what I did with my degree in electronics, when I saw that there were many good technicians and fewer good tech writers.
BUT…
Don’t go into technical communication because you’ll make money at it. Go into it because you’re passionate about it and would be writing about how to do stuff anyway, even if you dug ditches for a living.

Technical writers are often among the first to be laid off in a downturn, particularly in high-tech businesses. I’ve been laid off so many times I consider it a skill set. I’ve walked away from tech writing because I didn’t feel my contributions were valued. But I always go back because it’s what I love doing. For me, that’s the ONLY reason to pursue a profession.

Reply

July 25, 2010 at 10:45 am, Carlos said:

Yep, not a good idea. Tech writing jobs are slim to none, the social media spin is a good plug but that is mostly marketing.

I recommendation enhancing your technical career, learn a new technical skill and try finding a away to apply it to a specific industry (Law, Insurance, Healthcare, etc.)

I think you would be better positioned for a job faster that way.

Best of luckQ

Reply

July 25, 2010 at 10:45 am, Carlos said:

Yep, not a good idea. Tech writing jobs are slim to none, the social media spin is a good plug but that is mostly marketing.

I recommendation enhancing your technical career, learn a new technical skill and try finding a away to apply it to a specific industry (Law, Insurance, Healthcare, etc.)

I think you would be better positioned for a job faster that way.

Best of luckQ

Reply

July 26, 2010 at 7:13 am, GA said:

There IS a “Society of Technical Journalists”, but this article meant to talk about STC (www.stc.org). Just reading it has put it off. I was going to pass on the link to some fine fellows who want to make a career in it but I’ll refrain now! Knowing the facts as well as proof-reading the writing are the most basic things one can practice as a writer, especially a technical one. In that respect, this article is setting a really wrong example 🙁

Reply

July 26, 2010 at 7:13 am, GA said:

There IS a “Society of Technical Journalists”, but this article meant to talk about STC (www.stc.org). Just reading it has put it off. I was going to pass on the link to some fine fellows who want to make a career in it but I’ll refrain now! Knowing the facts as well as proof-reading the writing are the most basic things one can practice as a writer, especially a technical one. In that respect, this article is setting a really wrong example 🙁

Reply

July 26, 2010 at 10:17 am, Mark Feffer said:

Those of you who pointed out our error are correct: The organization is the “Society of Technical Communications.” (www.stc.org). My fault, and I’m sorry about the mistake.

Mark

Reply

July 26, 2010 at 10:17 am, Mark Feffer said:

Those of you who pointed out our error are correct: The organization is the “Society of Technical Communications.” (www.stc.org). My fault, and I’m sorry about the mistake.

Mark

Reply

July 30, 2010 at 5:46 am, April said:

Exactly what Peter from Mesa said.

I’ve spent a career cleaning up from people who ‘decided to give technical writing a try’.

I’ve also spent a LOT of hours on the phone with unscrupulous temp agencies who try to shoe horn me in to positions that I’m not qualified for. I am a technical writer, not a SME that can write.

I’m currently looking for a jr. tech writer and will not consider anyone without an educational background in technical communications with an emphasis in writing and editing. A minor in computer sciences is a bonus.

Reply

July 30, 2010 at 5:46 am, April said:

Exactly what Peter from Mesa said.

I’ve spent a career cleaning up from people who ‘decided to give technical writing a try’.

I’ve also spent a LOT of hours on the phone with unscrupulous temp agencies who try to shoe horn me in to positions that I’m not qualified for. I am a technical writer, not a SME that can write.

I’m currently looking for a jr. tech writer and will not consider anyone without an educational background in technical communications with an emphasis in writing and editing. A minor in computer sciences is a bonus.

Reply

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