If you have a knack for explaining the most complex subjects to total newbies, then you should consider the world of technical writing.
Technical writing is all about simplifying complex topics and teaching users how to accomplish a specific task or goal. For example, a technical writer wrote the manual on operating your remote control, as well as the “Help” guide for your favorite writing program.
Could you be a technical writer?
What makes a good technical writer? You should be able to take any Average Joe and give them step-by-step instructions to successfully complete a project. As you may have experienced with Ikea furniture manuals, it’s not as easy as it sounds!
Technical writing is a unique writing career in that you don’t have to be an expert in the subject matter; your end user is typically a newbie, so the level of instruction and detail you are providing is introductory. However, in the course of your work, you’ll learn about new software applications, the latest technology products and the inner workings of systems and businesses — and this knowledge is transferable to other industries and projects.
Benefits of technical writing work
While most gigs are full-time corporate projects, there are also opportunities available on a contract basis, which allows you to earn a steady income for a short-term period. Since many freelancers experience inconsistency in where their next paycheck is coming from, there is a level of comfort in knowing that you will have consistent income for a few months.
Unlike one-off blog posts or articles, the contracts can range from six months to a couple of years in length. This commitment is necessary to develop an understanding of the product and then to create a full suite of essential documents such as policies, procedures, product manuals and technical requirements.
One caveat: most corporate gigs require you to be onsite, so you may have to give up working from home. However, a technical writing contract is a great opportunity to earn a steady income for a set amount of time and if you do a great job, you could possibly extend your contract. When it’s over, you can always return to your more flexible freelance lifestyle.
Demand for technical writers is growing
Technology continues to change, and as each new software or application launches, the need to help users understand and consume these products grows. Each new software-as-a-service product or wearable watch needs user guides and manuals. From startups in the growing phase to large corporations looking to streamline their operational processes, companies require written policies and procedures.
Technical communications is a growing field and technical writers are in high demand, especially in the IT industry. There is work out there — I field weekly requests from companies keen to hire — and it pays well. You can earn anywhere from $40 per hour or more, depending where you live (especially in tech-savvy cities like D.C. and Seattle) and on your level of expertise.
What training do you need?
If you’ve never written technical communications before, you should consider taking a course on technical writing and even earning your certification. If you’re just starting out, certification can help you gain credibility and overcome a limited background in this type of work. The Society for Technical Communication offers online training, or your local community college may be a good option for courses.
When I was starting out, I took a course through my local adult education program to get certified in technical writing. I was transitioning from an engineering background and wanted to add some credibility to my writing skills — which engineers aren’t usually known to have.
You can also work on building your portfolio by simply writing your own instructions for a software app that you like. For example, Tim Murphy created The Mint Manual for Mint.com and was able to launch a very lucrative career.
Connect with IT and software companies
Most technical writing opportunities are within the IT industry, but you can find work anywhere from healthcare to the financial industry. New companies are great if you would like learn and write more about application programming interface (API) or expand on existing documentation, like Tim Murphy did.
Keep in mind that most startups may not have the budget to hire technical writers right off the bat; consider seeking opportunities from companies that have already been funded. That being said, I only recommend reaching out to nonprofit organizations and new startups if you’re willing to volunteer your services so that you can build a portfolio and eventually land paid opportunities. Whether you’re freelancing as a blogger or technical writer, you have to be selective about who has the ability to pay for your services.
Have you tried technical writing? Is it a field you’re keen to explore?