If 404 error messages with no info or ambiguously-worded assembly manuals give you restless sleep, you may have the genes of a technical writer.
Or, you enjoy thinking about technology and words, which are also two of the most important traits of tech writers.
This was the advice of two experts in the field I recently spoke with: Andrew Brooke, President of Society for Technical Communication (STC) Toronto, and Sumedh Nene, Lead Instructor, Technical Communications at George Brown College.
“Developers are so close to the product they can’t see the big picture. You serve as the middle man and focus on the major issues to make the product more usable.” –Andrew Brooke, President, Society for Technical Communication Toronto
Both stressed how much technical writing has evolved over the last few years, keeping pace with advances in web-based and mobile technology. Once more limited to manual writing, perhaps, the field now covers a range of careers in instructional design, information architecture and general web writing.
This makes jobs and contract work more plentiful, but also more diverse and specialized. I asked them how young professionals typically get into the field, and what kinds of applicants make the best candidates.
Here are the four most common paths to a career in tech writing they outlined:
1. A technology background
Most tech writers have a background in programming or database development, then move into writing, or they are writers who seek out experience in the high-tech industry. In either case, a background in technology is a key ingredient.
Not having this experience will make it challenging when you first set out, Andrew cautions. But this doesn’t mean you need to become a computer science expert.
“Generalists make the best tech writers,” he says. “Developers are so close to the product they can’t see the big picture. You serve as the middle man and focus on the major issues to make the product more usable.”
2. Communication skills
Sumedh agrees that a love for tech is vital but also believes soft skills in communication are essential.
“You need to be a people person. Technical writers do not usually have in-depth domain or technical knowledge. They rely instead on conducting interviews with subject matter experts. They need to know how to ask the right questions, dig for answers, then communicate them to readers,” he explains.
3. Amateurs and enthusiasts
Sumedh reminds people that the field is not dominated by IT specialists. It’s filled with great communicators who have nurtured their interests in some area of technology. They are professional communicators by day, tech enthusiasts by night.
“For example, you need not be a Mechanical Engineer to talk about a car problem. If you are a mechanic by hobby, or just understand how an engine works, you might find work as a technical communications expert in the automotive field — without having to study mechanical engineering,” he explains.
Andrew’s advice for this group is to demonstrate as much relevant experience as you can when applying for a job. This could mean the time you managed the website of a charity you volunteered with, or took the lead redrafting policies at your workplace. Any communications work in a business setting is an asset.
4. Training programs
Technical communications is not a regulated field, nor does it require certification; but post-secondary programs are becoming more common.
Several schools in Canada offer diplomas, certificates, undergraduate degrees (both minors and majors) as well as graduate professional degrees in this field. Four colleges in the Greater Toronto Area currently offer courses in technical writing: George Brown College, Seneca, Glendon-York University and Humber College.
The formal training route is not yet the norm, according to Sumedh, but it will give young applicants especially a competitive edge.
When he entered the field 15 years ago — landing his first job due to his German language skills — he was only one of a handful of professional tech writers in the country.
Now it’s a growing industry in Canada, along with the general expansion in high tech. The competition for jobs may be on the rise, but fortunately there are several paths that lead to the same place.