5 Must-Have Qualities of a Successful Tech Writer
Carol Tice | 19 Comments
Victoria Mixon: 5 Must-Have Qualities of a Successful Tech Writer. Makealivingwriting.com

Victoria Mixon

by Victoria Mixon

Write for a living!

Great salary, great benefits, professional editors at your beck and call, and a long-term career track. A dream come true: technical documentation.

I’ve been involved in tech documentation in the computer industry for over 20 years, which is a good long chunk of time. I remember the launch of certain technology now on display in the Silicon Valley Tech Museum. Many of my closest friends are tech writers—even my husband is a tech writer. We live pretty darn well!

So what does it take to break into the industry?

  1. A college degree. When I worked for IBM back in 1992, it didn’t matter what your degree was in—my writing partner had a PhD in anthropology. But times have changed, and now managers expect you to have a degree in a writing-related field like English or Journalism. So get that one under your belt.And think about whether you’re interested in working in computer technology, medical, biotech, legal, or some other industry, and take a few classes in that subject while you’re at it. You’ll need them to make yourself attractive as a newbie to prospective employers. You’ve got lots of competition—some of it from folks with actual technical degrees who just prefer the writing.
  2. Being in the right place at the right time. This means living where technical companies congregate. When I started out in the computer industry that meant Silicon Valley, but the industry has expanded quite a bit since then, and now the top companies have offices all over Southeast Asia and Europe. And the industrialized world is simply littered with start-ups, some more profitable (and therefore able to afford tech writers) than others.Computer documentation took a hit in 2008, but the imminent retirement of Boomers means the medical field is expanding fast. Talk to the folks teaching the technical classes you’re taking in your chosen field. Find out where the companies are.
  3. Desire for a career. Technical companies hire new college graduates for tech writing positions all the time (because they’re cheaper than experienced writers), but they’re less likely to hire a professional writer who just happens to have turned their sights on tech documentation. If that’s you, be prepared to try harder to impress them with your dedication. They don’t necessarily trust you to stick with them if your sights land on some more attractive job later. You can’t breeze in and out of tech writing on your way to bigger and better things.If you want to be a tech writer, count on being a Career Tech Writer.
  4. Flexibility. The giants of any industry have quite specific corporate cultures. At IBM we used to laugh about the image of IBM suits with their shiny wingtip shoes, but when I started wearing a nose ring to work I got frowns from management. They also might claim the right to review what you write for publication apart from work and may very likely demand drug testing. Those guys aren’t messing around.Start-ups are a lot looser, and their corporate cultures can be pretty fun, especially if they let the maverick engineers out of their cages on Friday afternoon. Start-ups are terrific places to make idiosyncratic friends—unfortunately, they also tend to go bankrupt once in awhile. Tech writers typically circulate in the industry, so your resume will always be very important to you.
  5. Pragmatism. The money sounds good. . .and it is. A brand new tech writer can expect to be offered around $50k/year plus stock options, and an experienced writer will break $100k plus stock options and some very nice bonuses. Contractors can make significantly more—although you won’t get stock options, bonuses or maybe benefits—but you’ll need some regular salaried experience before they’ll take a chance on you. Still, a lot of even the smaller corporations offer perks like free chow in the break room, on-site pool tables, ping-pong and gyms and travel expense accounts.Be prepared for the fact that technical industries are built around the technicians—the computer, medical, or biotech engineers, the lawyers or other specialists—and you’re only there for support. This means your department is in line for the chopping block whenever the company tightens its belt, either for economic reasons or to attract a prospective buyer. It also means you and your peers are going to spend a certain amount of time sending each other emails about how you can’t get no respect.I hope you have a sense of humor!

If you’ve got the attitude, qualifications, and personal stability for a salaried career in writing, then technical documentation is an excellent choice for you. It’s nothing like certain writing careers, such as English professorships or publishing acquisitions, which focus entirely on the traditional publishing industry. And, while it has a lot in common with other nonfiction areas such as journalism or ad copywriting, which focus on producing lots of clean, clear copy on deadline, it’s not only about the writing but also about understanding technical subjects and using specific software to create books.

Ask yourself if this sounds like the dream job for you. And if it does. . .well, pull up your socks and do what you’ve got to do to get yourself there!

A. Victoria Mixon is a professional writer and independent editor with over thirty years’ experience in both fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of  The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual. She can be reached through her blog, Victoria Mixon, which was recently named one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers.

Got questions about breaking into tech writing? Leave a comment and we’ll do our best to answer.

19 comments on “5 Must-Have Qualities of a Successful Tech Writer

  1. Resume on

    What?s Going down i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I’ve found It positively helpful and it has helped me out loads. I am hoping to contribute & help other customers like its helped me. Good job.
    Resume recently posted…1My Profile

  2. Stephanie Gerbig on

    Very timely article for me! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

    I’m a freelance web writer who loves the computer and tech world. I have nearly 2 decades of writing experience, but nothing when it comes to official tech writing. But I’m very interested in it. I actually read tech manuals (not for fun, but when I need to…okay sometimes for fun) and I get so frustrated when they’re not written for the reader.

    While I have the interest and the writing experience (and a comms/journalism degree), is there any other training I could get that would help me out, such as a Microsoft certification or similar?

    Thanks!

    • Victoria Mixon on

      Yeah, John, it’s good money, especially if you get a salaried position, which can pay you just for showing up and rummaging through the snack room refrigerator while your co-workers stand around arguing about whether to use gerunds or imperatives in 3rd-level headers. Not that I have ever had that experience.

      🙂
      Victoria Mixon recently posted…5 Qualities of a Successful Tech WriterMy Profile

  3. Jess on

    You mention using “specific software to create books.” What are some of the software programs that are useful to get familiar with if you want to break into technical writing? Is demonstrating ability with programs like QuarkXpress or Indesign enough?

    Great post, thanks!

    • Victoria Mixon on

      That’s a really good question, Jess. In fact, my husband & I just talked about this the other day.

      It’s evolving fast. I worked largely in FrameMaker, which was the industry standard for a very long time, but it’s losing its status in recent years. So I asked my husband, and this is his advice on what to learn:

      – XML, particularly DITA. Those are standards rather than software packages—the beauty of XML is that it can be edited using a variety of software, including FrameMaker and several free packages.

      – Wikis. Collaborative documentation, particularly with user participation, is probably the most important current trend. Also learn how to extract important questions from mailing lists & support organizations.

      I hope this helps!
      Victoria Mixon recently posted…5 Qualities of a Successful Tech WriterMy Profile

  4. Julia on

    Really glad to see a (really good!) posting about tech writing! It’s how I got my start in writing (with a journalism degree) and at an amazing salary, hard to beat in almost any writing profession–although some people have suggested to me that it’s not “real writing.” As I’ve moved more to business/soft tech. writing, due to a change in geographic location, I’ve still managed to pick up tech. writing freelance jobs from time to time. It’s a wonderful profession, and I’m glad to see it get some writing love!

    • Victoria Mixon on

      Oh sure, Julia, you’ll hear ‘it’s not real writing.’ And you’ll be laughing over that one all the way to the bank.

      I learned a ton from my years in tech writing that applies directly to my work in independent editing now: clean, clear language, writing toward a specific point, professionalism and making deadlines, understanding the subject matter, and what happens to a writer who thinks they’re too smart for their audience.

      Many of the canonical greats were nonfiction professionals. If Henry James could have been a tech writer, you better believe he would have.
      Victoria Mixon recently posted…5 Qualities of a Successful Tech WriterMy Profile

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