Technical Writing: How to Break Into this Lucrative World

Technical Writing: How to Break Into this Lucrative World

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?

Filed Under: Freelancing
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40 comments

  • I’ve done some technical writing and I have enjoyed it quite a bit.

    However, I have found that it is an area of freelance writing that strongly adheres to the old adage ‘write what you know’. Especially as the tutorials you produce are written for a specific level of technical reader (rather than for a wider audience).

    • Kimmoy says:

      Hi Katherine,

      In technical writing, I would say you must be able to communicate and structure the topic in a way for others to learn. Not “knowing” can work to your advantage in many cases because the content you write is usually for someone who doesn’t know and needs to learn.

      • Anurag says:

        Hi Kimmoy,

        I have one year experience in technical writing, Can you please suggest me good companies from where I can develop my technical writing skills, or some extra course.
        Because right now where I am its not satisfying for me I am not growing professionally.

  • julie says:

    I hadn’t consider Technical writing before, but after reading your post by new thought is; ‘why not?’ so thank you for another very workable idea.

  • Hi Kimmoy. Thanks for this article. It is important for writers with a technical background to know how to use their knowledge to get a start in freelance writing.

    It can save a lot of time and misplaced effort from someone starting out.

    Best wishes

    John Cosstick

    • Kimmoy says:

      I agree John. Usually a person has either a strong technical background or strong writing skills. The two combined definitely has its benefits in the technical writing field.

  • Raspal Seni says:

    Hi Kimmoy,

    I hardly ever read posts at TWL, though I’m subscribed to posts (due to time and reading other blogs), but this heading surely made my eyes pop out! 🙂

    I’ve been a technical writer, working for clients on oDesk (for pennies), but last year, started a technical blog (which I almost gave up). Then, started a blog about blogging plus a writer website, which I still post on. Was thinking to sell the tech blog as I don’t get time to post there.

    I do love technical writing, but wish to remain a freelancer, working from home. I see a lot of technical writing jobs on LinkedIn, but almost all of them are the usual 9-5 jobs, as you say.

    I’m doing some e-books on technical writing, like Tim Murphy above. I already have a big technical writing portfolio on my blog, though I don’t have any such certification. Does that matter? I have good feedback/testimonial from clients.

    Like you, I come from a technical background too – Electronics and Computer Hardware/Networking. So, I do love technical writing. What would you advise me?

    • Kimmoy says:

      Hi Raspal,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! If you do not want to work on-site, then it’s a matter of how you present yourself to clients and letting them know your terms. It’s a more pro-active approach than say bidding on whatever odesk jobs come your way. A certification definitely helps and is worth the investment, but if you position yourself the right way, you could possibly get by without it.

      Working on-site for a few months isn’t all that bad especially if you love the work, but if you really want to monetize your blog with e-books, go for it and implement what you learn here on The Write Life until you succeed 🙂

      Hope that helps!

  • Tisha M. says:

    Thank you for this article. I’m very interested in technical writing, but with a huge online demand and lots of skill, it is a daunting task. I’ve written a printer manual already, but thanks for the tip to keep writing manuals for things I enjoy!

  • Anita says:

    I am very interested in learning how to get started in technical writing. I’ve been a trainer teaching work skills to help people be more employable for the past six years. I love to research and write, and since I’m open to new opportunities now, I think this would be a great start to a new career. What suggestions could you give me?

    • Kimmoy says:

      Hi Anita,

      Start revamping your resume so that is focuses more on your writing skills. You can send me an email through my website and I will give you a great recommendation. Also, start putting together a portfolio of writing samples. Hope that helps. Best of luck!

  • Laura says:

    I am a licensed attorney and former real estate agent. I want to get out of law into the writing field. A friend mentioned technical writing as a possibility. I worked on a contract at Thomson Reuters writing real estate practice notes for a new product. Would this at all be considered technical writing? Is everything IT technically related, or can it be subject matter specific, not necessarily technical?

    • Kimmoy says:

      Hi Laura,

      Technical writing spans almost all fields: medical, IT, Engineering, Finance, etc. It’s really having the skill to translate complex topics and making them comprehensive for the appropriate audience.

      I’m guessing practice notes are similar to policies/procedures so yes that would be a form of technical writing.

      Your background could certainly help you launch a successful career in technical writing. I say go for it! Good luck!

  • Pat says:

    Thanks Kimmoy. I’m going to check out the online courses. Good info.!

  • JP says:

    Hi Kimmoy,

    Thanks for the article! I am looking to start out on the technical writer’s career path, but I have less than a year of technical experience. My company may have a position available soon. So I’d really like to do what I can to be competitive.

    I have a degree and a lot of experience with writing, language science, and document composition. Unfortunately, my technical experience just isn’t there. What would you suggest I do to become a competitive candidate and, ultimately, a successful technical writer?

    • Kimmoy says:

      Do you have a portfolio? Do you have solid knowledge about the subjects or applications/systems the technical writer is expected to work on? You can also use the fact that you don’t have as big of a learning curve compared to someone that is new to the company. It’s a matter of marketing yourself and your skills. Good luck!

      Kimmoy

  • MC says:

    Kimmoy,

    Thanks for the article! And thanks in advance if you get the chance to get back to me. I recently graduated with a Bachelors in History and a Minor in Business. I chose to major in History because of the breadth of subjects that it would allow me to study (economics, socioeconomics, politics, etc…). I’ve always been a very strong writer, and I also enjoy learning about a variety of technical subjects. So after recently learning about the technical writing field I was naturally excited.

    However, it seems that most companies prefer someone with a science, math, engineering, or IT background as opposed to someone with a writing background. Is this usually the case? If so are there any masters programs that are particularly appealing to employers in the current market?

    • Kimmoy says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting MC. There are plenty of opportunities in STEM fields. A strong writing background is very desirable, what you need to focus on in a subject that you’re interested in or experienced in. If you have been writing about economics for example, then you can seek technical writing opportunities in the finance markets. I would recommend you get some professional experience first before getting an advanced degree to be sure this is the career path you want to take. Good luck!

      Kimmoy

  • John Garison says:

    Hi Kimmoy,

    As a tech writer with over 40 years experience, I have to take exception with your statement “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.”

    While there may be some opportunities out there like this, they are few and far between. In my experience documenting software applications, you have to be extremely knowledgeable about the entire system you are writing about, more so that almost anyone else on the team that’s developing it. And often your audience is extremely technical in that subject area as well, and if your documentation is too simplistic, it will be a liability to your product instead of an asset.

    • Kimmoy says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your comment. I still stand by what I wrote as it has been my entire professional experience and the same for many others, not as rare as you may think. For example, I did not know anything or have any experience working in the regulatory finance industry, but I was able to develop that knwoledge on the job. I had to learn the software application from a very technical perspective to write specifications and from a user perspective to write a manual. The skill really lies in being able to learn a complex subject quickly (from SMEs and getting hands-on) and translate it to the appropriate audience. Hopefully that clears up what I meant.

  • Annette says:

    Hi Kimmoy:

    Ran across this website while researching how to get into technical writing. I have written Proposals and RFPs in my degree programs (BS-Telecommunications Management and MBA in Management) and some assisting in writing graduate level papers but no employment in the field. How do I enter the technical writing field. I have worked in the technical field for over 15 years, with two years as a technical trainer.

  • Jessica says:

    Hi Kimmoy!
    I am a restaurant manager for a popular American franchise and 2005 PSU grad, having majored in English. Unfortunately I was never able to break into the field of writing. Call it low self esteem, call it insecurity, call it what you will but I find myself 10 years post graduation in a job I no longer enjoy. A friend recently suggested I apply for technical writing jobs and the more I delve into it, the more excited I become at the possibility of moving into a field in which I am actually proficient.
    I came across your page while searching how to break into technical writing, and I have to say I’m excited again! I would like to take a certification course however I fear I could not afford the time off from my current job, enough that I could support myself. Are there online certification classes I might take? Do you have any advice further for someone in my position? And what would you suggest around the Baltimore area as far as classes or even jobs go?
    Thank you for your time and your awesome article!
    Jessica

  • Jax says:

    This is a rather old thread but I figure it can’t hurt to ask for some advice!
    I’m a senior editing, writing, and media major (it’s like journalism but with none of the fieldwork) and I’m extremely interested in technical writing.
    I’m taking a professional training course in education to get my teaching certificate, which I think could be an advantage, but I have almost no computer experience and I don’t have credits left before graduation. My only professional work experience was an advertising internship, which I hated because I’m the only person who hates creative, casual writing! I’m also not good at it, so I wouldn’t want to put any of my copy in a portfolio. Would good copy editing work leave a good impression?
    I would consider myself a quick and eager learner (and I’m training to explain subjects to people who have never encountered them before), but how can I get my foot in the door with no “technical” experience without digging a hole financially? I’m also pretty shy, but I don’t believe that would be a problem in a field like technical writing. Correct me if I’m wrong. 🙂
    Please reply whenever it’s convenient,
    Jax

  • Tim says:

    Hi,

    I recently earned my BA in English with a Creative Writing emphasis, and I’m looking to break in to technical writing. Do you think I will have more success by focusing on earning a certification or searching for a tech writing job with my current level of skills and experience?

  • Ravdeep says:

    Hi Kimmoy

    Thanks for sharing this article. I am a mother of a 10 month old baby, who had to quit her job as a Software tester to take care of her son. And I am simply living every moment of first time motherhood. But I don’t wish to be a SAHM all my life, I want to do something for myself along with taking care of my baby guiltfree.

    I cannot think of doing a full time job with long working hours. I need a job where I have flexibility and learning. I have done bachelors in Computer Science, masters in MBA and had been working with IT industry for 4-5 years.

    After reading yourarticle, I feel Technical Writing is an area which i could explore. Do you think I am going in the right direction! Also what I need to do to break in to Technical Writing?

  • Usha says:

    Hi Kimmoy,

    I have over 2 years experience as ABAP Consultant ,and 3 years experience as a freelance content writer. I want to move into technicalwriting.What good books would you suggest to restart my career as tech-writer.I also want to write some product based writing…

  • Christopher Sansonetti says:

    Hi Kimmoy,
    Thanks for the great article! I would like to transition from tech writing in manufacturing industry to the IT industry but companies will not touch me!

    I have been doing tech writing on and off for 15 years (doing tech writing for my own martial arts business and working as a tech writer for manufacturing companies). IT companies want 2-5 years of software experience and I have zero software experience.

    I have 2 questions:

    1. How do I get get IT experience? Maybe on the weekends I can start creating small manuals like Tim Murphy.

    Also, I would be happiest to do tech writing from my home office (not driving one and half hours back and fourth from NYC).

    2. Where do I look or how do I get tech writing work that I can do from home?

    Thanks
    Chris

    • Mark Lewin says:

      Hi Chris,

      Sorry for the late response but your question popped out at me!

      I’d say that by far the best way to transition into IT technical writing is to pick an open source project and volunteer as a tech writer. These projects are usually crying out for people to assist with documentation, tutorials, release notes, etc and have a range of tasks from the very simple to the very complex that you can get involved with depending on your expertise.

      You’ll learn some new stuff, have something to show in your portfolio and make some contacts that might be willing to act as a referee or know of vacancies. What you won’t get for your trouble is paid but as soon as you can point prospective employers to your work I think it won’t take long before you can apply for tech writing roles with confidence.

      Check out this SO question/answer for possible places to start.

      Good luck!
      Mark

  • Jenna maica yap says:

    Hi kimmoy im a cpa by profession and work on the general accounting for the past 4 years,. I become interested in technical writing aince i want a home based freelance work and i am interested in writing. What advise can you give me to start my career in finance technical writing. I am looking for ways to practice my skills and build my portforlios to start. Can you give me any suggestion or recommendations? Thanks

  • Nicely written Kimmoy. I think most of my writing gigs have been technical. I am a coder myself and a wordsmith. I was wondering have you considered writing a blog post on where to find technical writing gigs? This is what i am really bad at. Maybe some ideas can get me started.

  • Christian Chedrawi says:

    Hi there!

    I loved reading this article. I recently graduated with a Computer Science degree but I’ve also been writing articles for blogs ever since I was 16. In a way, I think of myself as the perfect candidate for a technical writer position, but it’s SO hard to find work as a fresh graduate.

    Any suggestions on where to start? I don’t have “technical writing” experience but I have writing experience as well as CS degree so I’m hoping that can help!

    Thank you and keep writing!

  • Gloria says:

    Hi Kimmoy,

    I am thinking of going into technical writing/ technical communication but have no experience in any technical field.

    Is this necessary? Is it enough to complete a Bachelor of Communications – perhaps majoring in business?

    Thanks,

    Gloria

  • Patti says:

    Hi,
    I am a former pharmaceutical engineer turned middle school science teacher. I would like to embark on a new career that would benefit from the engineering and the teaching, and I thought technical writing might fit the bill. But, I have no idea how to go about finding a position. Help!

  • Lynn Chandler says:

    Hi,
    I recently graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology. Can you tell me if there is a niche for summarizing psychological research such as literature reviews for researchers? If so, can I break into that without a higher degree and would a technical writer certification be enough to qualify me?

    Thanks,
    Lynn

  • Alison Galey says:

    Hi Kimmoy,

    I am a 5th grade teacher. I have a masters in elementary education and have been thinking about other options both in and out of the education field. I am interested in writing lesson resources and materials for companies that design curriculums and also think technical writing is appealing. My goal would be to write curriculum resources and I am wondering if I am taking the wrong step by pursuing freelance work as a technical writer? I feel a little lost about how to begin this career change.

  • Alexandria Hauser says:

    Hi Kimmoy,

    I am a study technician at a pharmaceutical company looking to become a technical writer. Is it true that being computer literate in programs like Adobe, Java, etc … is helpful in the field.

  • Alexandria Hauser says:

    Hi Kimmoy,

    I am a study technician at a pharmaceutical company looking to become a technical writer. Is it true that being computer literate in programs like Adobe, Java, etc … is helpful in the field?

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