Professionals and companies develop products or new concepts every day, and often, they would need someone that thoroughly understands such products or concepts to explain them better to their audience or end-users with less experience. This is where a technical writer comes in. If you love writing, learning, and teaching others what you’ve learned, technical writing might just be a suitable career for you.
I’ve put together tips on how to become a technical writer, tips to improve your writing, where to get certifications, and how to start earning as one.
What is technical writing?
Technical writing is a type of writing where authors write detailed instructions about a product or explain complex concepts to their audience in a simplified manner. This type of writing could be in different forms. An instance would be the instructional manual that comes with a newly purchased item, the documentation you had to read because you’re trying to learn how to use a new product, or an article you read because you’re trying to understand how a technical concept works.
Technical writing is strictly utilitarian. Its primary objective is to communicate information effectively rather than to entertain or evoke intense emotions. Technical writers can work in various industries, including software development, healthcare, finance, and government.
Some Common Examples of Technical Writing?
- Instruction manuals
- Report analysis
- Software installation guides
- Business plans
- User manuals
- API Documentations
- Press release
- Coding tutorials
- White papers
A technical writer is trained to learn and understand a particular subject or skill and, in turn, help users understand that specific subject in clear and crisp language.
So, how do you become one?
How to Become a Technical Writer?
You can become a technical writer in one of two ways;
- By getting a technical writing degree
Getting a technical writing degree
This is just as simple as it sounds, studying technical writing as a course in the university and obtaining a bachelor’s degree.
Since I’m not so sure if there’s anything like a “technical writing degree” in Nigerian universities, I will be focusing on the self-learning path for the sake of this article;
How to Become a Self-taught Technical Writer.
One of the misconceptions people have about writers is that writing is a talent and cannot be learned if you’re not born with the skill. Well, since you’re here reading this, I’m sure you already have a feel of what my response to that will be.
While I understand that some people’s imaginations might be widened more than others, which gives them the ability to come up with the best scenarios or words. I also believe that writing can be learned through diligent effort.
And thank goodness! Technical writing is not creative writing. The key is to have a thorough understanding of what you’re writing about and be able to use the right/best words to convey your message correctly.
Now to the point, let’s talk about how to become a technical writer without a university degree;
Take a Technical Writing Course
Technical writing emphasizes exactness and demands that an author have exceptional writing skills. And to understand the intricacies of this skill and impress your future employer/client without a degree, you need to go through the proper route by taking a course and earning a certification while at it. Taking the right courses teaches you the following;
- How to write clearer and more effective guides.
- How to write using an objective tone and not a subjective one, and
- How to be more direct and focus on the reader other than yourself.
There are many good technical writing courses out there, but the three courses I will recommend are;
- The professional technical writing course by Ugur Akinci
This course teaches everything you need to know about technical writing. From the principles of technical writing and how to write a documentation plan to how to use flowcharts in your documents and much more. It’s a paid course, but it’s worth every penny. The second is the;
- Technical writing course by Google
This course is more suitable for people that already know how to code or have an idea of how coding works. If you are none of that, it’s still a good start for a newbie, as the second part of the course focuses more on how to make your writing more accessible to everyone, which I believe is something everyone needs to learn.
- The technical writing course by technicalwriterHQ
This is one of the most detailed technical writing courses I’ve come across. There is a module dedicated to teaching virtually every aspect of technical writing. From medical writing and user guides to API documentation and white papers. It’s pretty expensive but, again, worth it.
Understand Your Thoughts and Have a Unique Voice
Think of some people in your life and try to analyze what their speaking or singing voices sound like. They are pretty distinct and unique, right? The same applies to our writing voices. As someone looking to start writing, you need to pay attention to your writing voice and how your readers perceive your writeups. Or try to develop one if you have no idea what your writing voice is yet.
So how do you develop your writing voice?
There are several ways to achieve this. But the first step to recognizing your voice is writing from your heart and embracing whatever that voice sounds like when you read it out loud. Your expressions and intonations matter in the way you want to be heard. If you don’t like how you sound or think it can be improved, you can start reading articles or books by your favorite authors. Figure out what you love about their writing style and try to imitate these techniques until you get what feels right or natural to you.
To improve your writing, the trick is to read a lot and always analyze what you read. This is the only way to measure your progress and determine if your writing needs improvement. Reading technical articles from other writers gives you a good knowledge of the articles that gain the most traction and why. Recognizing “the why” allows you to learn and implement these techniques into yours. There are several technical writing communities where you can find excellent articles. Some of them include Hashnode, medium, freecodecamp
Even if you read countless books/articles and have hundreds of certifications in technical writing and you don’t practice what you’ve learned, then it’s all a waste. You actually need to write to be a writer. And the more you write, the more comfortable you feel writing.
You might be thinking, “what should I write about?” or “how do I even start?”.
Well, I will say you need to start by first thinking about a topic to write on. Do your research, have a good understanding of this topic, come up with an outline, and write your first draft.
Mine was a little easy since I’m a developer. I just went straight into writing about new concepts or techs I’ve just learned. That helped solidify my learning and allowed me to enjoy writing even more.
If you aren’t a developer and have no idea what to write about, I would advise that you think of a topic on a technology you’ve always found amusing and then write about it. If nothing comes to mind, you can visit any of the technical writing communities I mentioned earlier and try to draft out topics from any of the techs the writers have written about.
For example, if someone writes about “How to Perform Distributed Tracing with Zipkin,” Check out Zipkin’s website on google, read and understand what the product does and try to think of something you can write about this product. Or you can simply copy the same topic and rewrite the blog in your voice.
When you’re done, edit the first draft and try to compare what you’ve written to that of the professionals in the community. If you think it needs improvement, don’t be lazy to rewrite your articles several times until it sounds good.
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually, you get better at it.
That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
― Octavia E. Butler
Curate a portfolio
Next is to curate a portfolio of the best articles you’ve written. A portfolio could be a medium profile that showcases your best works, a google doc folder, a collection of your LinkedIn posts, or a portfolio website. I prefer using a proper website that lets you use your own domain. Having a website sends a message to employers that you take your work seriously, and they tend to value organized individuals more. Thankfully, you don’t need to break the bank to own one. Hashnode allows you to create a personal blog in just a few steps for free. You get a high-performing and secured blog with no extra configuration and can even add a custom domain if you want. Here’s an example of what one looks like-blog.racheltomi.work.
Start Earning as a Technical Writer
After you’ve completed all of the above, I believe the final step is to start applying to jobs that fit your area of specialization. A format that seems to work is by;
- Reaching out to Companies that need your skill
The first step is to check out companies with good products but not properly written documents or a blog explaining how to use their products well. Draft out a good article outline from this, search for these companies on google, reach out to the CEO, CTO, or hiring manager on LinkedIn, and pitch your topic to him/her.
You can tell them you will be willing to write the first article for free, and then they can decide whether to hire you after they’ve read it. Or you only send them a very detailed outline and try, as much as you can, to charge very low.
- Writing for marketing agencies or publications.
The second technique is to apply to technical marketing agencies or publications looking to hire freelancers. These agencies get contracts from growing software companies to create blog posts, white papers, or tutorials for their audience using professionals like you who know how to convey messages properly. Some include contentLab, nxne media, hashnode, devSpotlight, etc. If you’re curious about how to apply to these agencies, their requirements and how much they pay their authors per blog, this post explains everything you need to know, do well to check it out.
Is coding required to write technical articles?
This depends significantly on the type of company or client you’re looking to write for. Some companies require writers with a basic understanding of coding or can at least read it. Some other ones need actual software engineers who can write codes and also teach them. While the others require no coding experience at all. If you’re looking to write for software development companies, you might want to learn the basics of programming. If not, I will say you do not need any coding experience to write technical articles. Technical writing is a broad field.
So, I suggest that you look out specifically for companies that require no coding knowledge and read job descriptions well enough to avoid wasting your precious time.
If you do not find the software aspect of technical writing interesting enough, you can always try out other fields like finance tech writing, product reviews or cryptocurrency. Just try out new fields till you find the one that works for you.
4 Tips to Improve Your Technical Writing Efforts
Be a Good Researcher
One of the most essential skills to have as a technical writer is research skill. Nobody knows it all, and you can’t give what you don’t have. Even if you’re knowledgeable about a topic, you still want to do proper research to be sure that you don’t share confusing or outdated information. There are days you will have to write on topics you have little or no idea about. You don’t need to panic. All you have to do is get ready to learn.
Researching can involve using your favorite search engines, reading a book, watching videos, or reaching out to an expert more knowledgeable about the subject matter.
To conduct proper research using search engines, your search should contain essential keywords targeted toward what you want to learn about. And if you are also reaching out to an expert or senior colleague, you have to be polite and go straight to the point to avoid wasting their time.
My first professional technical article was challenging, but because the topic aligned with my goals at the time, learning and researching became easier. After I wrote my first draft, I still wasn’t confident enough and had to reach out to a senior/friend who was knowledgeable about that subject. We went through it together; he gave me a few pointers, and I became confident about what I had done. If you don’t feel confident enough about your writing, or think it can be improved, don’t hesitate to do the needful or reach out to people. Your confidence shows in your writing, and that also determines how your readers will perceive you.
Know your audience
Who are my readers? What are they looking to learn? What are their needs? These are questions you should ask yourself every time you are about to start a new project. Knowing your audience helps you understand how to effectively convey your message. For example, if you are writing for experts in a particular industry, using certain words or acronyms might not be an issue for them, but with beginners, you might want to spell out every little detail.
If you don’t understand how your readers think, you won’t be able to recognize their needs and might not be able to pass your message across effectively. You have to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Consider the challenges they might face either as an expert or a beginner. Think of the questions they might have and provide answers to them. Your readers are always looking for answers, and as a technical writer, you must provide these answers in the clearest way possible. This will save your readers time and frustration and allow you to create guides that are not only informative but also approachable, clear, and user-friendly.
Avoid Technical Jargons
Consider the two statements below;
Statement with Technical jargon: “The program experienced a segmentation fault due to a null pointer dereference.”
Simplified statement: “The program crashed because it was trying to access a memory location that didn’t exist.”
Can you spot the difference between both statements? The former is exactly how you sound when you use unnecessary complex words that can be better simplified.
That you are writing a technical article/guide does not mean you have to sound robotic. Whether your client requires you to use a professional or a conversational tone. You have to ensure to simplify your language at every chance you get. Here are a few tips to avoid using technical jargon;
- Use simple words and sentence structures.
- To explain complex technical concepts, use real-world examples your audience can relate to.
- Use diagrams or charts to explain complex technical concepts.
- Apply the three C’s of technical writing- Ensure that your writing is Clear, Concise, and Consistent.
Is technical writing a promising career?
I will say yes to that.
But just like every other career path, what determines success in a career depends less on how much you know and more on how well you can use that knowledge. Your environment, your network, and how committed and persistent you are to succeed are all factors that contribute to a person’s career success.
However, in terms of salary, the average salary for technical writers in Lagos, Nigeria, is around NGN120,000 – NGN160,000 per month, according to glassdoor.
If you are looking to get a remote job instead, the average salary for technical writers in the United States is around $64,092 in a year. And as a freelancer, you can earn between $100 – $1000 for every article you write.
If this career path interests you, don’t hesitate to make that significant change.
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”—-Wayne Gretzky