How To Become a Technical Writer: Education, Salary Range & Career Info


Have you ever tried to put together a complicated piece of equipment or used some software that seemed a bit confusing? You’ve likely had to break out the manual or watch a tutorial on how to complete the task at hand. Without technical writers, none of these helpful tools would exist. We’d all probably be lost in a pile of un-assembled IKEA furniture.

Get ready because we are going to fill you in on all of the ins and outs of the world of technical writing, one of many quickly growing communications careers. We hope you have your catcher’s mitt ready because we are about to throw a lot of information your way!

How to Become a Technical Writer

What Does a Technical Writer Do Exactly?

First, let’s talk about what a technical writer actually does! Technical writers are the folks that prepare clearly and concisely written information in technological areas that provide a ton of information to a specific audience. A lot of your job as a technical writer is going to be centered around figuring out what it is exactly that the products or procedures are intended to do. There is going to be a lot of question asking and on hand experience. This is the best way to really get a feel for what you are writing. If it sounds cool, that’s because it is!

Getting the Job

You will definitely be required to have a college degree to get a job in this field. Most companies will accept you if you have a Bachelor’s degree, although there are some that would prefer that you have a Master’s. It’s a bummer, but an Associate’s degree is not quite enough here and you may want to plug along for another 2 years if this is the job you want.

It is preferred that you have a Bachelor’s or Master’s in journalism, English, or communication. Employers look for applicants that have experience in technical subjects (here’s a great list of the types of technical writing). These degrees will provide you with the proper tools to become a good writer and will help you to adapt to different writing styles later on.

Many jobs require both knowledge and education. It’s great if you have knowledge in areas like, computer science, web design or engineering. These are all important and a pretty big part of understanding your job.

It’s common for writers to have previous experience as a specialist or research assistant in the technical field that they write for too. If you have web design experience that would be a plus on your resume. It is likely to be helpful since the use of online systems is growing quite a bit.

You will need to develop technical communication skills so that you are able to become a technical writer. Developing technical communication skills will help you to know the lingo and in turn make your job easier. A lot of companies will have all of the desired qualifications clearly outlined, so you can beef up on those skills before you apply if you are lacking in an area or two.

Some smaller companies may allow you to jump right in and begin your writing project right away as long as you have the right amount of experience. Whereas in larger firms, they may require newbies to observe for a while before really getting their feet wet with projects. You may need a bit of on the job training to help you adapt to a different style of writing as well, but this part won’t take up too much of your time.

As with any profession, with technical writers, there are traits that are sought after by employers and that may make you stand out among the rest of the applicants. These are some of the marketable skills that will help you to get a job as a technical writer:

  • Communication skills – Be able to take complicated information and translate it into something that will be ready and understood by other people that do not have technical backgrounds.
  • Detail oriented – Detailed instructions will need to be created, so the more detail oriented you are the better your instructions will likely be.
  • Imagination – You’ll need to use your noggin to create information about a product or procedure that is understood by others.
  • Teamwork – You’ll need to work well with others. Your job will require you to be part of a team more often than not. You’ll be working with technical specialists. Illustrators, designers, editors and possibly other writers
  • Technical skills – You’ll need and want to have a pretty solid grasp of highly technical information, which will likely come from your prior work experience. Having these technical skills will in turn make your job as a writer a bit easier.
  • Writing skills – This one is sort of a given since you will obviously need to be a pretty good writer in order to explain all that comes along with a technical product or procedure.

A Few Sample Degree Programs

There are many universities that offer technical writing degree programs. Here are just a few examples to show you the kinds of programs available if you want to pursue a career as a technical writer.

Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University offers a Bachelor of Science in Technical Writing and Communication. This is one of the oldest undergrad technical communication degrees in the country. The program is specifically designed to prepare you for a great career as a successful technical writer. One of the cool things about this program is that it is continually altering the course work and teaching approaches to keep up with the continuously changing technological world.

Florida Atlantic University

Florida Atlantic University is a popular school out of South Florida that offers a technical writer undergraduate degree. The writing department’s intent is to help their students achieve success in this field. There are a lot of courses provided to aid in the success as well.

And here are a few more to consider:

Learning at Full Sail University has always centered around interaction and the exchange of ideas. Our online curriculum fully embraces this philosophy. We have developed our own online learning environment with the aim of being the most people-focused education experience on the web.

Programs:

  • Creative Writing, Master of Fine Arts (Online)
  • Creative Writing for Entertainment, Bachelor of Fine Arts

Take a Look at this Video

Sometimes it is really nice to hear a first-hand account of what a job is all about from someone that knows it best. It will help to put everything into perspective and may shed some light on what may otherwise have been a dim area. With all of that in mind, we’d like you to take a look at this pretty informative video by eHow.

This is a super helpful little snippet from someone that is already a technical writer and knows exactly what it takes to make this a reality. The gentleman that is giving us the scoop on becoming a technical writer not only is giving us a ton of information, but he also has a pretty epic beard (we know that’s not super important, but it’s still pretty cool). The video is super short and will only take you a few minutes to watch it. You will gain a lot of information and is totally worth a look see.

Do I need a technical writing certification?

The simple answer to this question is – no. A technical writer certification is not mandatory, but having a certification looks pretty sharp to potential employers. The certifications show that you have a level of competence and professionalism. Having a certificate may also help you to gain a bit of steam and possibly advance a bit to bigger opportunities quicker than your peers without one.

A stellar resource for technical writing certificates is the Society for Technical Communication. The Society for Technical Communication has certifications to become a Certified Professional Technical Writer and Certified Professional Technical Communicator. Both of which will look pretty nice to potential employers.

You can also check out the American Medical Writers Association if you’d like to gain some extra experience to add to your resume. The American Medical Writers Association has certifications that will allow you to branch out a bit and gain some experience in another sector of technical writing. The medical field is nearly always booming, so this may be a good direction to head in. Another place to visit is the National Association of Science Writers, who also offer some certifications.

What’s the Average Technical Writer Salary?

We can’t talk about your future job without talking about how much money you are going to be making, so we turned to our trusty friend the Bureau of Labor Statistics for information. Don’t forget to hop on the BLS website after you’re done reading this whopper of an article to see the graphs first hand.

As of May 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the median yearly salary of a technical writer is on average $70,290. That translates into $33.80 an hour before Uncle Sam takes his cut. The BLS reports that an entry level technical writer may pull in $50,262 a year on average, while a more experienced technical writer may have a salary of up to $88,737, according to Salary.com. As you can see there is quite a range here.

Technical Writer Salary

Source: Salary.com

The salary of a technical writer will also be industry dependent. For example some of the top paying industries for technical writers are electrical power generation, transmission and distribution, wholesale electronic markets and agents as well as financial investment activities. It’s not a bad idea to see if you are interested in any of these industries and trying to build a name for yourself.

Another thing to keep in mind is the impact that the location may also have on your salary. There are going to be states and cities that will have better rates of pay. As we’ve said, the BLS has a ton of extra information like this that will be helpful when the time to start job hunting rolls around.

Are there Online Technical Writing Courses?

Indeed there are several online technical writing courses and degrees available! There are programs online that are available at both graduate and undergraduate level. Each program has a ton of course options and will help you to be prepared fully for your new job.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University offers a Bachelor’s of Science degree in technical communication online. That’s right guys, you can totally get your degree while you sip your coffee and stay in your pajamas! Arizona State University will teach you a ton of really import skills. This program will really help you to expand your knowledge base, so get ready to make some brain space

Some of the awesome things you will have to look forward to are:

  • Collaborate with colleagues and other professionals
  • You’ll learn how to respond to the needs of a specific audience
  • Use the standard tools for accessing, retrieving and evaluating information
  • Use conventions of format and structure in documents
  • Develop flexible strategies for drafting, revising, editing and proofreading
  • Apply appropriate standards, laws, policies and accepted practices
  • Work confidently in a range of digital environments

You will take a range of interesting and beneficial classes during your 4 years working towards this bachelors program. It will leave you primed and ready to begin working as a technical writer or excited to extend your schooling for your Master’s degree.

Northeastern University Online

A Master’s of Science in Technical Communication is available through Northeastern University Online. This program is designed to help you to expound upon your technical writing skills. The online degree program prepares you for the job just as well as the on campus program will. This is a cool degree program that lets you decide whether a specialization in biomedical or the computer industries is best for you.

Some of the helpful skills you will learn if you attend Northeastern University’s online Master’s of Science in Technical Communication are:

  • Becoming skilled at organizing, creating and writing technical communications
  • Understanding key presentation principles, including how to use visuals to organize content
  • Mastering the varying levels of editing
  • Learning how to tailor a technical presentation to a specific type of reader
  • Learning how to create end user and developer documentation
  • Gaining more strength during interviews in order to get the most technical information possible
  • Having a good grasp on the legal, ethical and cultural issues that pertain to technical communication

The Master’s of Science degree focuses heavily on the different areas of technical writing and goes in depth a great deal. Since this is an extended course load, you will have plenty of time to figure out what direction you’d like to go in as a technical writer.

What’s the Job Outlook for Technical Writers?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the job outlook for technical writers isn’t too shabby at all. Employment for technical writers is expected to grow about 15% from 2012 to 2022. This is a bit faster than average than all other occupations. The growth of employment for technical writers is due in large part to the continued growth in scientific and technical products. The expansion of web based product support is also starting to play a large part in it as well.

With a continued need for high technology and electronics industries, there will be an even greater need for skilled technical writers. Those instructions manuals surely aren’t going to write themselves, after all. Since there will be such rapid growth, there will also be ample jobs to be had. It’s probably not a bad idea to spiff up your resume and load it up with all of your experience if you are at the point of job hunting. The early bird gets the worm, right!

Day in the Life of a Technical Writer

By now you may be wondering “what exactly would I be doing all day?”, so we figured we might as well tell you! We want you to meet our buddy, Tom!

Meet Tom

Tom is a technical writer that was kind enough to share what his day to day life looks like. We found this to be pretty helpful. Tom’s account of what he does each day will really give you a clear view of what you will be doing each day. Let’s take a quick look, shall we?

Each day Tom rides the metro to work and listens to podcasts about various technology topics. This helps him stay up to date on all of the newest news. We bet he gets coffee on the way too, because who doesn’t need a good cup of Joe to start their day?

Tom often has to attend meetings each morning where lots of information is discussed. Each member of the team will provide an update and status check for the big bosses. There is often new stuff discussed during this meeting as well.

He’ll then return to his desk and explore the new product or technology he is to be writing about next. He’ll hop around the office and visit some of the engineers and developers to ask some questions during the day as well.

At some point in the day he will attend another meeting about another project. Tom will then repeat the process of reviewing some new stuff and asking questions. There is definitely lots of writing that goes on between all of his tasks too.

After a long day of hard work, Tom will board the metro again. He’ll plug in his earphones and tune out the world while he listens to more podcasts.

Are there Opportunities to Freelance?

Of course there are! This is a great niche to be in to become a freelance writer. Technical writers, like all writers, have the opportunity to freelance and often command a higher rate when doing so. You’ll have the option to write by the piece, have a contract for a certain amount of work or you can even create your own business. Doesn’t that sound awesome?

Starting your own technical writing business is actually pretty easy and doesn’t require much to get started. All you really need to hit the ground running is a computer with word processing software, an internet connection and mad writing skills. You’ll want to create some solid relationships with the right companies and maybe give a few foot rubs here and there to get your name out there. It’s pretty cool to be your own boss, so why not give it a shot!

Final Grade

It’s report card time, Dudes and Dudettes! We are going to give it you straight and real, just like we always do.

Degree vs Debt: B

The degree to debt ratio isn’t all that bad with this job. You can get this job with an undergraduate degree, but not an associate’s degree. So you’ll have to pay for four full years of school before you can get going. The job does pay fairly well (not great, but well), so you’ll likely be able to keep your debt down and make a pretty good living. Don’t forget that you can also do some freelance work or create your own technical writing company to earn some extra cash.

Degree difficulty: B-

The course work itself isn’t all that difficult for the most part. It is very writing intensive though. You will really need to be able to (1) write quickly and clearly as well as (2) understand technical things and be able to put a spin on it so that the technologically challenged folks (like us) can understand what all the jargon means.

Happiness quotient: C+

You’ll be happy with this job, but you may not be proclaiming your love for it from the roof tops or anything. It’s writing and if that is your passion in life, you will find threads of excitement in your daily grind. It can be tedious and boring at time, but it pays well and isn’t too stressful.

Job outlook: A-

The job outlook for technical writers is very good. This is largely due to technology entering many new industries and medical areas needing skilled writers as well. A 15% growth rate is nothing to shake a stick at for sure.

Sources & Recommended Reading

We would be lost in a sea of internet searches without our awesome and super helpful sources. They totally served as our life rafts and gave us tons of great information. We figured we should definitely pay it forward and share them with you.

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