Answering my own questions since 2001

Should I Become a Technical Writer?

Over at Ask Metafilter, somebody asked that question. As a former technical writer myself, I was interested to read the discussion. Here’s the worst advice I could find:

To do this job well, of course, you practically need to be a programmer yourself, and today that means knowing not just the basics of how to code in some language (something C-derived is a must), but also things like design patterns and development methodologies.

I have worked as a technical writer, mostly, since 1982. It is a hard, grueling job. I honestly can’t recommend it if you have alternatives.

If you plan to work in software, as most technical writers do, I recommend taking an introductory, theoretical course in programming. I’d also suggest you read a couple of books on the software development process. The book that helped me the most was Software Project Survival Guide. This research ensures that you can at least speak some of the lingo and have an understanding of whta, say, ‘unit testing’ is.

As for technical writing being a ‘hard, grueling job’, that’s just laughable. I can’t find it now, but I read a study that found technical writing to be one of the least stressful jobs around. It can get busy around release dates, but it’s very cyclical. After the product is released, there’s often a lot of downtime.

And the best advice?

If you already have a B.A. you will be very seriously dissapointed by a Technical Writing program at a community college.

While communication skills are only a part of a tech writer’s skill set, a B.A should give you 80% of that set.

13 Responses to “Should I Become a Technical Writer?”

  1. Rick

    Yeah, that is some pretty terrible advice. I am also an ex-tech writer and I agree with you that it is very stress free. I’d have loads of downtime between releases, which I loved. Now that I’m a business analyst, I sometimes miss the stress-free days of tech writing.

  2. Miranda

    … especially if after a BA and a Technical Writing program you still can’t spell “disappointed”.

  3. Jes

    I’m shocked that anyone would stay in a job for over 20 years if they found it so “hard” and “grueling”. I too am an ex-tech writer. I absolutely loved the work – from playing with new software to editing the intern’s rambling prose to writing web content. I’m a project manager now, and oh, how I yearn for those fun and easy days as a tech writer.

    carley Reply:

    Jes-
    I’m a college student majoring in English/ Creative Writing. What company did you work for for Technical Writing?

  4. jd

    i wonder if anyone out there knows about a good online course in tech writing. i am thinking about using an outfit called online-learning (http://www.online-learning.com/course_ptw_desc.html). it looks like a big part of the material is related to learning the basics of tech writing as well as XML.

    i’m looking for a quick, structured introduction to tech writing that’ll also give me a certificate i can staple to my resume. i already have a degree in English and a master’s in journalism.

    i would post this question on another site (Ask Metafilter), but darren’s is where people talk about how other sites are wrong. also, people on this site have written about how much they enjoyed working as tech writers, so i prefer their versions of the job.

  5. Andrea Coutu

    JD: try Malaspina University’s tech comm courses. I did my first two years there, with a focus on writing and journalism. They didn’t have tech writing courses back then, but I can speak for the overall quality of their writing programs.

    I’ve always enjoyed technical writing. However, I’ve heard that, in the past, technical writing could be a fairly demanding professional, especially on the hardware side. I don’t think this has been true for some time. It’s more of a 1970s/80s reality, perhaps because tech writing used to be more about the machines than the users.

  6. jd

    Andrea:

    thanks for the link and the advice, but i’m not sure i have two years to invest in that sort of program.

    also, i went to the site linked through your name and loved the first page of it. sort of scary how you bring back a lot of happy childhood memories with one or two lines. powerful marketing, really, because i was smiling and a happy song was running through my head as i read the site, which is full of stuff i would usually not find overly interestng.

  7. Andrea

    Thanks, JD. Glad you liked my site. I think you can take just a few courses from Malaspina — not sure you need an entire diploma.

  8. kristen

    Is certification needed to become a technical writer? My husband is getting a degree in journalism but thinks he might want to do technical writing afterwards. What options does he have to become a technical writer?

  9. tina

    I am thinking about taking a course in technical writing. I’ve worked in the past as a IT project manager but have been in the field of education for the past 6 years. It seems most people are journalist majors. Is that who companies usually look for??

  10. livyy

    Heyy i would like to do some technical writing in the future and i was wondering if anyone knew what i should be taking in highschool and so on to become one? and is it a good job? i sort of want to do tech writting and web design and stuff and i was wondering how the job is? because i dont like taking commands and i wouldnt like to be in an office much…(and i absolutly dont want to waste my life working:P) would that be a good job for me?? and i would like to know if the pay is anygood…because that also is a factor :)
    thanks

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