Technical Writer

Dawn Wilde graduated from college with a degree in journalism, and her first job was writing for a medical laboratory magazine. Initially, she was not too excited write about phlebotomy and urinalysis, but she grew to find the work surprisingly interesting. She enjoyed writing about complex medical subjects and learning about the important role of the medical laboratory in diagnosing illnesses. She later wrote about civil engineering and contract management. Without realizing it, Dawn had joined the ranks of technical writers.

Technical writing is a highly specialized kind of writing. Essentially, a technical writer will take complex information and make it accessible to a specific audience. Most of the time, they do this by writing about complicated and technical subjects, such as medicine, computers, or government regulations. These technical writers create, design, and edit proposals, scripts, articles, manuals, newsletters, and many other kinds of documents.

Another type of technical writer communicates about a subject using technology such as websites or social networking sites. Still others will produce documents such as software or engineering manuals that instruct users how to do a specific skill. These three foci—writing about technical subjects, using technology to communicate, and explaining complex subjects—compose the bulk of technical writing jobs.

Very often, technical writing involves working with professionals such as scientists, doctors, and engineers, who may be experts in their field but are not necessarily the best communicators. You might glean information from a scientist, for example, and translate it into a journal article or interview a doctor about a surgical technique that is later used to train interns. Most technical writers are trained in writing, though not in the specific field they write about. Some writers eventually become near experts on the subject after studying and writing about it for years.

Whether a technical writer is responsible only for writing a document or oversees an entire project usually depends on the company’s size. Smaller companies may expect their technical writers to produce an entire manual, website, or newsletter without help. Larger companies may employ general and technical writers, as well as graphic designers, who work together on a project.

Many different paths can draw you into a technical writing career. You may stumble into it, like Dawn, or you can train specifically in technical writing. Many colleges and universities have English courses that will teach you technical writing, which you can take individually or as part of a certificate or degree program. There are both two- and four-year technical writing degrees. You can earn Master’s and doctorate degrees in technical writing, too.

Salaries for technical writers vary widely, depending on the field, your education, and your experience. Technical writers for software companies tend to earn the highest salaries. The good news is that technical writing overall tends to pay better than most other journalism jobs; an entry-level technical writer can make between $30,000 and $40,000 per year.

Even if you land a job in technical writing, continuing education can significantly affect your earning potential. Associations that promote technical communication offer live web seminars, certificates for specific kinds of writing, and technical writing conferences. These courses are not cheap—some can cost up to $1,000 or more—but they will increase your knowledge and make you more valuable to employers. Experienced technical writers who work in lucrative fields and take advantage of continuing educational opportunities can earn close to six-figure salaries.

Despite the high salary potential, technical writing is not for everyone. Some writers find it oppressively dull to write about dryer subjects common to technical writing. It also can be complicated to work with experts who may resent your interference in their work. Technical writers also do not have the same opportunities to serve the public through their writing; their work promotes the interests of a company or organization. You will not be uncovering injustices and winning Pulitzers as a technical writer.

For many writers, technical writing can be a lucrative and fulfilling career. If you enjoy learning about new things, appreciates others’ expertise, and like the challenge of simplifying complex subjects, technical writing may the perfect career for you.

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