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Becoming a Technical Writer

By Janet Basdell Plain Words Founder and Director

Technical Writing – You need to be clear and succinct

You don't necessarily need formal qualifications to become a technical writer. But you do need to be able to write clearly and succinctly.

Technical writer – experience and background

A background in a related profession would be useful – in my case I started as a technical translator, before becoming an editor and then a writer. Experience in journalism or writing for contract publishers (they do corporate magazines and part-works) would also be helpful. Plus you need the ability to get to grips with IT applications quickly.

Practice technical writing by writing a user guide

One way to see if you've got what it takes, is to write your own user guide for a video player (or similar device). Put yourself in the position of a first-time user and create a logical step-by-step sequence for each ‘task’, e.g. record a film on one channel while you are watching another, record a film later in the evening when you'll be out.

Test your technical guide on friends or family

Then give the guide to a friend or family member and see how they get on learning to use the video. If they come back full of praise about how easy it was to follow your guide, you'll know you are on the right track.

Use your technical guide to impress potential employers!

Your next step would be to put your homespun user guide to good practical use – by handing it out as an example of your abilities when applying for technical writing jobs or contract work.

Include a copy of the manufacturer-supplied guide for comparison. Yours should of course be better! Obviously this won't have the same impact as a portfolio of work you've done for Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. But it might get you a start.

Writing a user guide off your own bat shows commitment and determination. Few employers worth their salt will ignore these character traits.

Study books, periodicals and websites about technical writing

Besides writing your own user guide, you will need to study all the books, periodicals and websites you can find that are devoted to technical writing. Soak up and learn everything you can. And don't forget to keep honing your skills.

The key to Success in technical writing is persistence

If you have the time, try to write a short user guide every week. For instance, you could rewrite the information leaflet from a packet of paracetamol, endeavouring to make it clearer and easier to understand than the original.

Do this kind of thing regularly and within months your abilities will begin to show a professional edge. The secret is persistence.

An excellent resource that will help you on your way to becoming a technical writer is Susan Bilheimer's ‘How to Become a Technical Writer’ eBook. It's in PDF format and can be downloaded from the Web. You can find out more by going to… Susan Bilheimer's How to Become a Technical Writer eBook

Briefly, though, Bilheimer was a struggling freelance journalist, who needed a way to use her skills more lucratively. Technical writing looked like the answer.

At first, she had no real idea what the technical authoring field was about. But after much study and practise, she forged a successful career out of her ability to write and her love of technology.

Susan Bilheimer taught herself the art (and science) of technical writing. And she is not alone: informal statistics show that around three quarters of technical writers are also self-taught.

There are courses available in technical writing

But not everyone wants to do it for themselves. You might lack confidence or prefer to have an outside stimulus to motivate you. In which case, you could do a course in technical writing – and use the qualifications you get to help you find work.

A number of universities and training companies offer courses in technical writing. Some are good, some not so good.

The reason for this is there's no set of educational standards for the technical writer; nor is there a central body setting out what should and shouldn't be on the curriculum of technical writing courses.

But this may soon change as the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) is in the process of creating a set of National Occupational Standards for the United Kingdom.

In the meantime, here are a couple of recommended courses in technical writing:

Sheffield Hallam University – MA in Technical Communication (MA/PgDip/PgCert)

3 year distance learning course in Technical Communication at Sheffield Hallam University

In 1991, the School of Cultural Studies of Sheffield Hallam University set up the first distance-learning, postgraduate course in technical communication in the UK.

Dr. Noel Williams developed the course in collaboration with representatives from the technical documentation profession – who believed there was a need for a postgraduate qualification in their field.

The course combines the theoretical aspects of effective technical communication with practical and pragmatic approaches to writing in technical and business contexts.

It includes modules which broaden your expertise and understanding of technical communications, rather than merely honing your writing skills.

Year one: Communication planning and theory, information design, language and writing, portfolio of professional reflective practice

Year two: Collaborative work, visual communication, one of software documentation and interface or hypermedia design, portfolio of professional practice

Year three: You define your own area of study, to demonstrate your ability to question and expand your professional practice. You must focus on an area of general interest to the technical communication profession but can tailor the theme of your dissertation to reflect your career strengths and aspirations.

University of Portsmouth – MA Technical Communication

One year full time post-graduate MA course in Technical Communication at Portsmouth University

Technical authorship as a second career course – Portsmouth University

The course has been designed for individuals with a technical or scientific background who wish to take up technical authorship as a second career.

Equally, it is aimed at recent graduates in a scientific or technical area who wish to develop their communication skills and recent graduates in humanities and business studies who would like to develop their awareness of, and skills in, computer applications relevant to technical authorship.

Specialist organisations for technical writing

The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC)

Society for Technical Communication(STC)

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