People always seem surprised that I work as a technical writer instead of sitting at home watching TV soap operas and knitting for grandchildren. It’s not just that I’m considered an old lady nowadays. An Asian developer young enough to be my son actually expressed that same surprise out loud 16 years ago! Because he was one of my co-workers in the then-viable telecom field, I resisted the urge to pull a Lt. Uhura on him and throw him into the nearest closet. If I had, he’d be there still, probably wondering what he’d said.
Nowadays I deal with some people’s amazement that the banking industry (where I currently work) would have any need for technical writers at all. Uh, ever heard of computers? Today’s world runs on computers. Given strict federal regulation of the banking industry, the computer-related tech writers are highly educated and skilled at what they do. But there’s a whole host of us who write policies and procedures relating to how banking employees do their jobs. The customer is entitled to a seamless experience, and more than that, I’m not allowed to say.
Twenty years ago, there were no more than one or two universities in the nation that even offered more than one course in technical writing. And the classes were repeatedly canceled because not enough students enrolled in them. Now there are certificate programs in tech writing, as well as Computer Science degrees. The geeks would like every technical writer to have at least a bachelor’s degree in Engineering or Computer Science. But those are the geeks. What about everyone else?
Of all the technical writers I’ve met, some are indeed so hard-core technical that it would be difficult to hold a conversation with them if you’re not. Otherwise, they’re fascinating to listen to, as Mr. Spock often said. But the field is so vast that a degree in a particular field, along with core English writing classes, will produce a different expertise every time:
- Writers at JPL in Pasadena, California need a different background than the tech writer who documents software for Microsoft® or Adobe® or a thousand other companies.
- Marine biologists need vastly more science classes in their life’s backpack than the tech writer who labors year after year producing policies and procedures manuals.
- Webmasters will benefit more from computer programming and graphic design classes than the fellow student who’s moving into medical writing.
Technical writing can be very satisfying but in high stress or boring jobs, the tech writer often goes home at the end of the day with a fried brain.
That said there is little or no creativity permitted in technical writing. (If the creative writer wants to earn a living as a writer, he or she will need to invest extra time and effort in learning other types of writing that can pay bills, such as copywriting.) Technical writing is normally among those professional skills that pay well, but not in a down economy. Then (as in now), the tech writer is the first to go. An employer’s attitude too often is, “We can do without writers. The customer can call tech support if they have questions.” Pity the poor tech support personnel, already thrown to the wolves at most companies, trying to deal with irate customers whose documentation is three years out of date!
Another type of writing that can pay bills is journalism or newspaper reporting, but the hours are on the ugly side, the assigned beat can be dangerous, or boring (think neighborhood council meetings), and the pay is not the highest at entry level or mid-career. Moonlighting as a freelance article writer may be necessary or even enjoyable.
TV reporters fare better financially, but there is growing citizen unrest at the rude intrusiveness of cameras and microphones in times of family tragedies. Ethics questions remain to be answered. In the meantime, a newspaper reporter’s notebook, or micro-cassette or digital recorder is far less obtrusive.
A Bachelor’s degree in English can be limiting, though many technical writers have liberal arts backgrounds and employers value them highly for just that reason! Theirs is a wide angle lens on life. A Journalism or Communications major can be more versatile and more practical, or at least a minor in Communications or Journalism. Classes in psychology, criminology and a host of hard science and computer science classes add great value to a writer’s education. Good fodder later on for fiction writing, too!
The direct approach is that to be a technical writer, you can major in just about anything and find work in a good economy, as long as you can write. However, to prepare for the tough times, study what interests you the most in the science and engineering fields, grab all the computer skills you can, and make sure you have a very solid grounding in English. And even though I’m going to give offense here, this is not the field for people who speak broken English at best.
An intelligent employer can teach you about the company’s products, but they won’t teach you about the building blocks of life and they can’t teach you to write.
Check out my other article for much more detailed information on getting into technical writing.