How to Become a Technical Writer: Tips for Breaking Into This Lucrative Field

How to Become a Technical Writer: Tips for Breaking Into This Lucrative Field

The growing field of technical writing — the work of creating user guides for new products, capturing how a business brings aboard a new customer, directing a user step by step through installing new software and thousands of other tasks — is a lucrative one.

I made the switch to in 2019 and wish I had known about the option far earlier.

I came to technical writing after working as a newspaper reporter and copy editor. Leaving the profession I’d loved for decades wasn’t easy, but I became even more grateful for my new career when the pandemic started and I became the sole breadwinner for our family of six. Back in March, my husband lost his job and finding a new one in the Covid-ravaged landscape took six months. I don’t like to think how our household would have fared if I’d stayed in journalism. 

Money isn’t the sole reason to consider a job in technical writing, but it’s no small consideration either.

My work on a team handling information technology documents for a federal government contractor outside D.C. pays $70,000 — almost twice what I earned at my last newspaper job.

Want to make the leap into technical writing? Let’s break down what technical writing is and how you can get started in this niche.

What does a technical writer do? 

A technical writer puts things simply — translating complex information into a message that allows the intended audience, whether that’s a consumer or a software engineer, to take the desired action. Tech writers must decide the structure for best presenting the information to boost understanding for the end user.

Tech writers typically churn out standard operating procedure (SOP) documents, technical proposals, online help sections, installation guides, quick reference guides, white papers and more.

Technical communication is not only about writing, but editing (your own work and the work of others) and keeping terminology usage and other word choices consistent throughout a document and across multiple documents. 

While the written word remains the focus for most tech writers, their documents increasingly aren’t printed on paper, but rather read online. And tech writers no longer rely on words alone to get their message across but turn to interactive technologies to deliver a blend of text, illustrations, photographs, screenshots, custom graphics, animation, audio and video.

Tech writers tend to cluster in information technology (IT) fields, with many working in the federal government or for federal contractors. Other popular fields include healthcare, pharmaceuticals, finance, research, engineering and green energy. Some tech writers create documents used solely “in house” while others focus on writing for consumers or the public at large.

Writers who live in high-tech corridors may have an easier time landing work though one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been an uptick in work-from-home jobs in the field.

How much can you earn as a technical writer?

The median salary for a tech writer was $72,850 in May of 2019, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook put out by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

That’s more than what comparable media professionals such as editors, writers, authors and public relations specialists make (their median salaries are in the low $60,000s) and significantly more than what reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts (with median pay of $46,270 earn.

There’s also demand for tech writers. In contrast to journalism, where layoffs and even shuttered newsrooms have become the norm, the number of tech writing jobs will grow in the coming decades. 

Thanks to the ongoing boom in scientific and technical products overall, the U.S. will add 4,300 tech communication jobs between 2019 and 2029, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. (The forecast for the reporters category for that same period calls for 5,800 fewer positions, an 11 percent drop.)

What kind of skills does a tech writer need?

Mention “technical writing” and many people think of dense documents overflowing with acronyms, abstract concepts and jargon. In other words, not exactly pleasure reading. But the latest trend in tech writing substitutes hard-to-read gobbledygook for text that’s accessible to all. 

This push, part of what’s known as the plain language movement, aims to make it easier for the public to read, understand and put into use all kinds of important info (everything from legal contracts to the steps involved in asking for a new Social Security card).

A good tech writer also has a knack for structuring information, laying out the key points in the logical sequence so the end user can zero in on what’s needed without reading every single word. Users can find what they need to know just when they need to know it.

Other building blocks that help a tech writer transition into the field include:

  • The ability to write clearly, concisely and in a neutral style
  • Curiosity
  • An analytical mind
  • An ease in interacting with busy scientists, engineers, illustrators, researchers, security analysts and various SMEs

Who should become a technical writer? 

Most tech comm professionals have at least a bachelor’s degree, often in English, journalism or some other communications specialty. Some tech writers come to the field after careers in academia, elementary education, business or as foreign language translators.

Recovering journalists are also naturals for making the move to tech writing. Anyone who’s worked in a newsroom is likely an expert in conducting interviews with subject matter experts (SME), including being respectful of the SME’s time but also willing to ask follow up questions or even “dumb” questions if some essentials remain murky.  They know how important it is to aim for perfection — from grammar and punctuation to all the technical details — but still turn in the work on time.

Being tech savvy in any specialty field is a plus (no tech writer has ever gotten turned down for a job for knowing too much) and being passionate about technology is a given. A person who writes clearly who also has a degree in engineering, computer science or another technical field probably won’t have trouble landing work as a tech writer.

Whatever your degree or previous professional experience, you’ll want a portfolio to highlight your best work. One way to get some strong samples: Find an entity in need of tech writing and show off what you can do pro bono. Maybe a small business in your neighborhood could use written instructions for a task or a how-to guide to operating a piece of equipment. 

How to break into technical writing 

Anyone mulling a tech comm career might want to connect with the Society for Technical Communication. Dating to the early 1950s, it’s the largest organization for tech writers. The STC offers certificates in tech writing and a slew of other resources. It also has local chapters that offer helpful blogs and newsletters along with conferences and networking events. Virtual seminars have become an STC mainstay during the pandemic.

Other strategies for training to move into tech writing include:

  • Completing free online classes from Ugur Akinci’s Technical Communication Center or another reputable source 
  • Enrolling in a college or university that offers tech writing classes or even degrees. The University of Maryland Global Campus is one good online option.
  • Checking out Techwhirl, an online resource with information helpful to experienced tech comm veterans as well as students and aspiring professionals.
  • Connecting with working professionals through LinkedIn’s tech writers group, Technical Writers United and other groups on Facebook
  • Creating a resume just for tech writing jobs.

You’ll want to read up on tech writing too. Tom Johnson, a California-based tech writer who started his I’d Rather Be Writing blog more than a decade ago, put together a list of resources he calls 40 Foundational Books for Technical Writing. He includes “Technical Writing Process” by Kieran Morgan and other guides to getting started in tech comm as well as two classics perfect for writers of all stripes: William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” and Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.”

So what’s it really like to be a technical writer? 

The shorthand on technical writing: It’s a little dull. 

Maybe that characterization comes from all the onetime journalists working in tech, those diehards who know nothing compares to getting the scoop on election night, snagging an interview with the celebrity visiting town, chasing down the latest twist in a political scandal.

But tech writing delivers its own quiet satisfaction. The job is not as routine as it might seem at first glance. One day a tech writer is updating an SOP to include newly implemented cybersecurity measures, the next calls for talking with an SME to add another question and answer to a website FAQ page. 

So while tech writing lacks the buzz that drew me to writing originally, my new gig lets me draw on many of the skills I honed in journalism — but without the late nights, weekend work and Christmas Eves and other holidays stuck in the office. 

It feels great to know my skills are in demand and that I earn enough to pay my bills and plan for the future.

Photo via Dean Drobot / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Freelancing
Find Your Freelance Writing Niches

Featured resource

Find Your Freelance Writing Niches: Make More Money for Less Work

If you’re not satisfied with your income from freelance writing, you need to start specializing. This ebook by John Soares will show you why and how.

41 comments

  • Wendy says:

    Lucrative? I have a BS in technical communications. I struggled just to get my required-for-graduation (80 hours) internship! I’ve been LOOKING for consumer documentation for over 20 years, WITH NO LUCK. Now the best I can manage is writing creative nonfiction about subjects that benefit from an engineering perspective. With no budget to market them.

  • Excellent advice!

    I’ll add to this that another good source of work early on can be language service providers. I landed my first technical writing job through Lionbridge and was able to gain experience with a very high-profile company.

    If you’re just starting out, then seek out providers that specifically offer technical writing services in addition to other language services. They have the connections to help you gain experience at large companies, which can translate into an amazing portfolio.

  • Sakshi Sharma says:

    Hi,
    I have worked as a Java Application Developer earlier. Want to give a fresh start to my career as a Technical Writer . Can you please refer some useful sample technical documents for the purpose.
    Your help will be very useful.

  • ROZ says:

    I need recommendations for the best online techinal writing programs.

    I have worked in social services for almost 15 years and looking for a career change (ASAP). I have an BLS in Human Resource Management. I graduated almost 20 years ago and seem to be stuck in my current field of employment.

    I am a complete novice at tech writing; therefore, I need to acquire tech skills. I am interested in this field and need a mentor as well as respected program to attend. These programs can be costly , so I want to attend the most respected online program.

    I hope 🤞 to get an reply because I could use the advice.

    Thanks in advance

  • poorvi says:

    hi,
    I want s to start technical writing. Can you suggest me few sample ideas I could add in my portfolio? I have 2 years of experience in IT industry.

  • Jeron says:

    Hi,
    This is quite an informative post. Thank you. I’d love to delve into technical writing. Could you help me get started. I have an MBA in Project management

  • Megan says:

    I am extremely interested I becoming a technical writer. Do I need to have a degree to be expected to get a job doing it?
    I’m looking for a career that I can work until I am retirement age. I have spent the last few years doing physical labor or always being on my feet.
    I sincerely believe that writing for any type of job would be ideal. Not only because it is less physical but because I have a talent for writing.
    I have hope that after I am able to secure a job writing then one day I will take the time to write a book.
    I would appreciate any advice given to help give me an advantage and allow me to find the perfect job!

  • Melanie says:

    I’ve been a technical editor/writer for 12 years. I have scanned the comments here and agree, each new job seems to require experience and a technical skill.

    I lucked out with my (now) job title by working for a temp agency. The original job was for an admin assistant and when they found out I could write, they YANKED me in; I had to learn really fast! I did not know the job title existed but have not been out of work since – also there are always head hunters looking for my skills. I’m blessed.

    Nerds/techies of all types do not like to write and if you can get the subject matter experts to explain things, and you can write and translate that to text, HTML, etc., you will be in demand. *I call it translating to HUMAN* Communication and people skills are definitely a must.

    I’d suggest you find a nerdy/technical skill that interests you and dig in. I’ve done manufacturing, medical device, research & development, pharmaceutical, and now I’m in IT. IT is very much in demand. It’s not exciting to learn but when writing about computer stuff, it’s really important to know the difference between writing MB and mb!

    Knowing grammar has helped me little in this field – anyone can google grammar rules these days and breaking the ‘rules’ is commonplace anyway. I’m worse at grammar and spelling than before I started. The goal is to be consistent, to communicate clearly, to write to your target audience, and to meet deadlines.

    Deadlines. That brings me to my last point…I think. 🙂 Process. You would do well to study process and task/time management. If you write a document, who reviews it? How many times? What workflow is used? How long do YOU need to review/write/revise?

    Fields that require similar skills include Quality Assurance (QA), Configuration Management (CM), and…*gasp* Administrative Assistant.

    I hope that helps.
    ~m

  • BAM says:

    Thanks for the info. I’ll definitely reread this a few times to help when I’m ready to get started.

  • Matthew Trull says:

    In the spring of 2002 I came to the realization that I hated working retail. Having been laid off from a technical support job a couple of years before that, I had landed on anything that would pay the bills.

    With a strong desire for a career change but no idea what I wanted to pursue I visited the local Barnes & Noble and purchased “Careers for Dummies.” I spent the next couple of days working through the workbook style career fair and found that my interests and abilities pointed toward technical writing. I had never heard of technical writing, but reading the description of the career choice I was intrigued.

    I looked around a bit and found that one of the local universities offered a program for technical writing, so I signed up. About a year later I completed a Technical Writing Certificate Program through the University of Massachusetts.

    Once I finished the program I was revved and ready to go. I eagerly began my job search ready to start my new career. To my horror, every job posting I found online required a minimum of three years experience and a working knowledge of programs like RoboHelp. Unfortunately for me the tech writing program I took did not include the fancy software that was required for these jobs.

    Crushed I figured the next best thing would be to “get my foot in the door” of a company and try to move into a tech writing position from there. There I was back in an IT support position again. I began using what I’d learned about the elements of technical writing to rewrite the online documentation for the department, in my downtime. The people who had created the documentation on the intranet were definitely not tech writers, so I had a bunch of fun work to do during my downtime. It was GREAT!

    Unfortunately for me the company, one of the BIG corporations in America, didn’t see the value of having a tech writer on staff to create clear, efficient documentation for the help desk.

    Here I am again, unemployed due a “corporate restructure” with a strong desire to pursue tech writing, but I still lack any real, documented experience as well as the working knowledge of the tech writing software.

    What I did take away from that position is over ten years of help desk experience AND a bachelor’s degree in IT Management, for which the company paid. So, it’s back to the ‘ole drawing board.

    Now, I find that the job postings for Technical Writers include ridiculous requirements such as Flash, Javascript, and SQL! Why on earth should a tech writer need to write database code? Whatever happened to the good old days where tech writers just wrote clear, efficient, easy to read and understand, how-to documentation, and created some helpful diagrams?

    • Jeff Young says:

      Hi Matthew,

      in search of a career in technical writing, I’ve come across the same ridiculous software, computer language, graphics design requirements of various companies. These companies may not truly understand the role of a technical writer, or, are trying to economize by combining technical writing with software engineering, web design, programming, etc. Just as you and I discovered, how can the typical technical writer be certified in so many, non-technical writing computer language and programming requirements? Yes, I’ve seen technical writer job descriptions that ask for ERP, SQL, RHNO, Website design and programming, and a slew of other computer requirements. At my past manufacturing employers where I worked as a production or quality supervisor, the employers didn’t require I know anything beyond WORD, EXCEL, and PowerPoint, which was enough for technical writing, although ADOBE should be added. So I accomplished much technical writing at former employers while working as a supervisor. It seems to me the other companies would be better off diverting their IT and engineering people into technical writing assignments. The problem for them is, the very same IT and engineering people decline or deflect the technical writing assignments on the basis that it is not part of their job description and interferes with their official job duties and responsibilities.
      I have applied for technical writing jobs over the past 8 months without success. Companies are just too demanding over their peculiar technical writer, non-writing requirements. I suspect the only thing aspiring technical writers can do is to freelance, establishing themselves for hire in places like, Craigslist.org.

      Sincerely,
      Jeff Young

  • Jeff Young says:

    I sincerely desire a technical writing career, whether as an employee or freelance. My problem is that in spite of all my research, I am still not certain how to proceed. I really need a mentor to show me the ropes. I don’t even know how much to charge for a freelance assignment.

    I have a business degree from a well-known university. Subsequent, I amassed decades of technical writing experience from work assignments while serving in the military and later for civilian manufacturing companies. Typically these organizations did not employ technical writers although it would have been in their best interest. Normally these organizations waiting until someone joined who demonstrated very good English verbal and written skills. More, they were not resistant to taking on additional work beyond their official job duties. Yes, some organizations had individuals who could have done the writing but evaded the extra work one way or another. Enter myself. My bosses learned quickly that I could write English well. They also saw that I was, ‘can do’, and did not resist, evade, or complain of the extra work. They handed me the technical writing assignments. Often my bosses were fair and allowed me to do the writing assignments during work hours and not insist I do it on my off-time or on the weekends.
    My specialty has been, standing operating procedures, work processes and procedures, how-to manuals, instruction guidelines, training materials such as job booklets and tests. I’ve also written administrative documents. Now with all that experience I hope to become an official technical writer. But I need help and I am not in a position to pay someone to teach me. Can you advise?
    Thanks,
    Jeff

    • Malcolm Armstrong says:

      How did you go Jeff?
      I am interested as I have much the same experience as you have.
      Im just looking at technical writing as a job now as Ive just been make redundant.

      • Jeff Young says:

        I have been looking at Technical Writer job openings on the Internet. There’s a huge problem in what companies identify as a, ‘technical writer’. Many companies expect technical writers to be software programmers and web designers. Others post a job description that could only be filled if you had already worked at the company. Many are asking for unique software and program skills that are not related to technical writing but are part of the information database software systems of that company. I’ve read requirements to be trained in, SQL, ERP, SSL, RHNO, and other proprietary computer skills. It’s simply not enough to be a writer these days. Most of us technical writers simply use WORD, Adobe, EXCEL, maybe POWERPOINT, maybe VISIO, and that’s all we need to do technical writing but many companies have made it very limited in scope as to the necessary requirements of a technical writer. These companies may be looking for a long time. I’ve applied to a few companies seeking technical writers but have not heard back from a single one. It seems the best way to get a technical writer job is to work at some company as a clerk and learn their computer software systems then later apply as a technical writer. But it’s not a practical career path for your typical technical writer like you and me. I tried finding an established technical writer to glean the necessary information but haven’t found anyone. I tried through LinkedIn but no responses from those I contacted.

    • Melanie says:

      You ARE a technical writer! Those things you wrote about are very much in demand! Just because you do not have the actual TITLE does not mean you cannot pursue it. Beef up your resume to highlight what you WANT to do and GO FOR IT. You have nothing to lose by writing more do to this. You like writing, remember?
      ~m
      PS. Perhaps try USAJOBS.gov for your particular skills.

  • Ariana says:

    I have always loved writting with a pen and just writting about anything in general i have a strong interest typing on computers and really believe that this is my dream career that i want to do for myself how would i start and what qualifications would i need to enter the job of my dreams

  • Pamela Ye says:

    I would love to get a job as a freelance technical writer. I’m not sure how that works. I have no experience in this area but I did write Lab Procedures and SOPs. I have some knowledge in business writing such as business letter, employee handbooks, mission statements, etc. I have a B. S. in Chemistry, minor in Mathematics, Master in Business Administration, and Master of Science in Accountancy. I’ve learned how to write better in my MBA classes. My background is in science, health care, and sales. I am good at editing. Since my background is not in English, I am not sure how I can attract someone’s attention in this area.

  • Fiza says:

    Hi,

    I am an electrical engineer with 6+ years of experience in technology products and services as a design engineer and project manager with excellent communication and written skills.

    I am now looking for a home based technical writing career and would love to be connected to someone who can help me excel in this career path and I can assure a very long term commitment in return.

  • kate reifers says:

    Though it may sound intimidating, technical writing is already a skill most general writers have. The greatest skill for technical writing that you bring to the table, is how to present data and technical copy is with concise, succint writing.

    Most professions, engineering for example, may have highly intelligent individuals, but just because they can draft a design for a combustion engine or fabricate an electric lighting fixture, doesn’t mean they’ll be capable of explaining it to the general public. Take, for example, installation instructions for a new gadget or toy.

    Think about the last set of install instructions or users manual that you’ve read!!! How many of you are like me and whip out the red pen every time, just to correct (sooo OCD!!) poorly explained instructions or even spelling mistakes!!!???

    Most non writers can’t write a cohesive sentence to save their lives (not a criticism, but an observation. )

    I love specification sheets, tech manuals, and especially white papers!

    Here is an example of a White Paper I researched, wrote and designed. Its called, “Aerospace & Defense Manufacturing in Tijuana, Mexico – An industry overview.” You are welcome to view or download no charge. It might help you organize an outline and may serve as a reference for approaching the narrative this type of document uses.
    Here’s the example:
    http://www.slideshare.net/katethepoet/aerospace-defense-manufacturing-in-tijuana-mexico-white-paper-2013

    • Kate,
      Thank you for this input – I agree with you 100%. I think you hit the topic points extremely well. Writers can embark on technical writing but the ‘writing’ part of it needs to be there. This is why excellent technical writers (who can write) are able to do well. Thanks for your feedback!
      Rob

  • Sara says:

    Very informative! I have been considering something else in the education field (I’m a teacher) and love to write. I have no portfolio yet, tho….. Thanks for the ideas!

  • Thank you for this invaluable information. I’ve written a manual letter suite for a credit-related company, but this article takes me off in a whole new direction.

  • C.S. Jones says:

    Quick question: Would you say that having a college degree is any more or less important for technical writing than other types?

    • Rob says:

      Thank you for your question – I will say that having a degree is something that creates a well-rounded invidual and gives you an advantage when looking for work. It provides you an edge, however the more focused your degree is on English/writing, technical topics and concepts (computer science/engineering, etc) – then yes I believe it will be helpful. Hope that answers your question!

  • Aisha says:

    This is interesting I have written some technical related stuff but this has given me a new direction on how to get more technical writing jobs.
    I like the research that is needed because it gives me the opportunity to learn new things by writing on it.
    The complexity can sometimes be challenging but I must say I love the challenge.
    I have written reports on
    -Attendance management systems
    -Architectural photography
    -Gothic architecture
    -Emergence of mobile technology in Africa
    -Metal fabrication
    just to name a few.
    For some writers this type of writing might be boring but for me I love it.
    Looking for technical writing buddies any one interested? contact me
    Great write up Rob!

    • Kailash says:

      Hi Aisha,

      I am interested in technical writing. I work as an I.T trainer and can email / upload work content that i have created.

      Look forward to receiving a reply.

      Regards

    • Thank you for the feedback!

    • Sayit'so says:

      I have just realized, after much frustration in current career, that I have been on every side of technical writing through college and work. I have decided to take the leap. I believe this will satisfy both my left and right brain. I am looking for mentoring, please forward any advise. I’m very excited about the adventure.

  • I haven’t tried technical writing yet, but have been intrigued by this type of work for some time. Thanks for shedding some additional light on the topic!

Speak Your Mind

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.