Journalism Advice

How I Broke Into Technical Writing—and Why You Should Too

High rates and straight-forward assignments are just two of the benefits

Before I got my feet wet as a technical writer, I thought the field was about drawing up instruction manuals or legal documents. Maybe at a higher level some of these people got to write NASA reports or top-secret government stuff, but the options for technical writing for someone like me were probably limited to explaining how to put together a cabinet or work a coffee machine.

Despite what I thought was a complete lack of technical knowledge, I landed a contract job writing eLearning course material that teaches sales representatives how to sell software. Weird, right? The gist was this: I would read through a bunch of source documents, try to make sense of the information and structure it into four lessons based on an outline provided to me.

But let me go back. When applying for the job, I was asked to complete a “writing assessment” that all contractors are required to take to determine their skill level. I almost gave up before even starting. When I read the instructions, I didn’t understand half the words onscreen, let alone what I was supposed to do with them.

So I just did my own thing; I wrote a marketing blurb about the company, based on its website content and whatever else I could find online. My hope was to show them I could at least do research and put words into grammatically acceptable sentences.

I guess it was good enough. A few days later I was given an assignment, for which I would be paid more money than I’d earned in the last six months.

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Then one day I saw a job posting that told me the company was looking for a full-time writer. I jumped at the opportunity—and got the job.That first project was hard. I cleared out my schedule and locked myself in my office for an entire weekend. When I finally finished it, I got paid promptly. And I was asked to do another project—one that made the difficulty of my first akin to something called “How to Zip Up Your Fly: A Post-Urination Guide.”

But the more I familiarized myself with the industry jargon, the more this type of writing started to feel natural. And although I still have plenty to learn, I’m now twice as fast at completing an assignment than I was when I started. And new types of projects became open to me: editing a PowerPoint slide, writing catchy marketing copy and performing quality assurance on a completed course.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about this market:

There will always be work. We’ve been hearing talk for a while about the changing face of journalism, but technical writing isn’t going anywhere. Companies will always rely on the written word to communicate, teach and sell.

Although my ability to extract critical business issues from an SME transcript may be less romantic than, say, my novel about low-income, spirited lesbian waitresses struggling with addiction (that’s a real—unpublished—thing I wrote), the former pays the bills, promises growth and affords me new joys in life.

You learn as you go. I’m not Steve Jobs; I’m just a person who pays close attention to what she reads and asks a lot of questions. I still don’t 100 percent understand the difference between a switch and a router, but I’m not ashamed to ask a colleague. And there’s a hidden benefit to ignorance: If, by the end of my writing, I can understand something complex, I am fairly certain my audience will understand it too.

The work is straightforward. Although there are creative aspects to technical writing, most of the writing I do is black and white. “In this lesson, we’ll cover a, b and c” or “When selling to this type of person, discuss a, b and c.”

It’s nice to have clear expectations and a process to follow, rather than feel like every day is a desperate attempt to flag down the muse. Plus, it leaves some breathing room in my creative well at the end of the day for the types of writing and art that bring me true joy.

It’s a lucrative option. The pay in the tech-writing industry is anywhere between $30 to $50 an hour, with salaried writers making typically between $50,000 and $70,000 a year. For contractors, pay may be project based rather than hourly, which for me had ranged between $400 and $2,500 per project.

Do I think it’s fair that technical writers get paid more than some journalists and novelists? No. I don’t think technical or sales writing is intrinsically “worth” more than beautiful prose. But I won’t deny that the income eases a ton of the stressors of my past life (especially as the sole income-earner in my family, with a toddler and a husband who just went back to school).

Money may not be a motivating factor for all writers, but for those who, like me, have a degree but few professional skills beyond writing, it’s reassuring to know my words are worth more than a handful of peanuts.

Basically, technical writing all day every day isn’t the facepalm-migraine it sounds like, and that’s why I recommend it to anyone who wants to write for a living. My suggestion is to dip your toes in. Search for jobs that are a little bit out of your comfort zone. Google technical writing jobs or sales writing jobs.

The company I work for is a sales consulting company, but most corporations have their own in-house writers and contractors who provide content for training, presentations and other corporate materials. Also, mine your social media. I initially found this job through a status update of a friend of a friend. And then do your best. You may find that you’re way more capable than you initially thought you were. You just have to trust yourself to be great.

Amanda Layman Low is a freelance writer and artist. Contact her on Twitter @AmandaLaymanLow.

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