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 delved into how to start technical writing, 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. Still, for someone like me, the options for finding a technical writer job were probably limited to explaining how to assemble 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 must 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. I hoped to show them I could at least research and put words into grammatically acceptable sentences.

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

Then, 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 challenging. I cleared my schedule and locked myself in my office for an entire weekend. When I finally finished it, I got paid promptly. I was asked to do another project 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. Although I still have plenty to learn, I’m now twice as fast at completing an assignment as I was when I started. New 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 being a technical writer:

There will always be technical writing work.

We’ve been hearing talk 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.

As a technical writer, 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 of technical writing 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.

Technical writing is a lucrative option.

The tech-writing industry pays between $30 to $50 an hour, with salaried writers typically making 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 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.

Getting started as a tech writer

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. Still, most corporations have 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 just have to trust yourself to be great.

So if you’re exploring how to start technical writing, don’t hesitate to take the plunge. Search for jobs that push your boundaries, and don’t be afraid to leverage your social media connections. You’re more capable than you think, and all it takes is the courage to begin.

So what’s next after you’ve dipped your toes into technical writing? Take it from me: don’t stop at just being good enough. The field constantly evolves; you must keep up if you want to stay competitive. That means continually educating yourself. Attend webinars, take specialized courses, or even go for a certification in technical writing. Trust me, investing in yourself never goes out of style.

Let’s talk about networking.

I used to roll my eyes at the term, but hey, it works. LinkedIn is a goldmine for this. Connect with other technical writers, join industry-specific groups, and don’t be shy to slide into someone’s DMs (professionally, of course). A simple message can go a long way. After all, I landed one of my first major contracts by just asking, “Hey, are you guys looking for a writer?” Turns out, they were.

Get used to deadlines.

And then there’s the ever-so-daunting work-life balance. I won’t sugarcoat it; deadlines can be harsh. But guess what? Good time management can make you feel like a wizard. Block out your time for specific tasks and stick to it. You’ll find that not only do you get more done, but you also won’t feel like you’re constantly racing against the clock.

What about tackling more complex projects? Initially, writing about topics like blockchain or artificial intelligence can be intimidating. But don’t let the jargon scare you away. You’ve got the research skills; use them. The more you understand the topic, the easier it becomes to write about it. And the more complex the topic, often the higher the pay. It’s a win-win.

Don’t overlook the power of feedback. Constructive criticism is your friend, not your enemy. After completing a project, ask for feedback, and take it gracefully. If you keep your ego at the door, you’ll find these insights to be the quickest route to improving your craft.

Lastly, if you’re still pondering how to start technical writing, remember it’s never too late. I’ve met people who transitioned into this field in their 40s and 50s. So age, background, or experience shouldn’t be roadblocks. If you have a knack for writing and a willingness to learn, you’re already ahead of the game.

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


Discover new technical writing jobs and gigs on Mediabistro’s media job board.

FAQs on Breaking into Technical Writer Roles

1. What skills are essential for someone starting in technical writing?

Technical writing demands the ability to simplify complex information, strong research skills, attention to detail, and proficiency in grammar and style. While not initially required, familiarity with the subject matter is beneficial as you grow in your role. The ability to understand and convey technical concepts to various audiences is crucial.

2. How can I improve my chances of landing a technical writing job without prior experience?

Start by honing your writing skills and familiarizing yourself with technical writing principles through online courses or workshops. Create a portfolio showcasing your writing ability, even if it’s not directly related to technical writing—volunteer for technical writing projects, like creating documentation for open-source software, to gain experience. Networking, especially on platforms like LinkedIn, and leveraging your social media connections can also open doors to opportunities.

3. Are certifications necessary to become a technical writer?

While certifications are not strictly necessary, they can enhance your resume, especially if you lack experience or a related degree. Certifications from reputable organizations demonstrate your commitment to the profession and skill level. They can be particularly beneficial for those transitioning from other fields.

4. What types of industries hire technical writers?

Technical writers are in demand across various industries, including software and technology, healthcare, engineering, finance, and government. Their skills can benefit any industry that relies on complex products, services, or processes.

5. How do I find technical writing jobs?

Beyond traditional job boards, consider looking at industry-specific forums, social media networks, and professional networking sites like LinkedIn. Websites dedicated to freelance and contract work, such as Mediabistro, can also be valuable resources. Don’t underestimate the power of networking; sometimes, a simple message or connection can lead to an opportunity.

6. What is the expected salary for a technical writer?

Technical writer salaries vary widely based on experience, location, industry, and whether you work as a contractor or a full-time employee. Entry-level technical writers can earn between $50,000 and $70,000 a year, with contractors earning anywhere from $30 to $50 an hour, depending on the work’s complexity and the hiring company’s funding.

7. How can I stay competitive in the technical writing field?

Continual learning is key. Stay abreast of industry trends, new technologies, and advancements in technical communication. Participate in webinars, take specialized courses, and consider pursuing advanced certifications. Engaging with professional communities and networks can also provide insights and opportunities for professional development.

8. Can I transition to technical writing from a different career?

Absolutely. Many technical writers come from varied backgrounds, including journalism, teaching, and even fields unrelated to writing. What’s important is your ability to learn and convey technical content effectively. When applying for roles, highlight transferable skills such as writing, research, project management, and subject matter expertise.

9. How important is networking for aspiring technical writers?

Networking is crucial. It can lead to freelance opportunities, full-time positions, and valuable mentorships. Engage with other writers and professionals in your target industry through social media, professional associations, and conferences. A proactive approach to networking can significantly enhance your visibility and chances of success in the field.

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Journalism Advice