After a couple of emails asking similar questions, it seemed prudent to create a post dedicated to this issue. Here is the advice I have for you concerning becoming a technical writer:
What is a Technical Writer?
The most important thing about being a technical writer is being able to convey, in simple terms to a wide audience, how a product works and how it is used. You can have the best product in the world but if your audience is unable to figure out the features and functionality then the product might be perceived as crap.
The main skill of a technical writer is the ability to speak with developers and subject matter experts and then translate this information into useful units of information for your audience – whoever that audience may be: developers, network administrators, end users. Your job is to document concepts, how the product works and how to use it.
Technical Writing Cycle
To create good usable content, you need to follow a creation cycle. Here is an example of a production cycle:
- Read specs or initial product information – create rough drafts and schedules for content
- Get an idea of features and functionality by using the product, and talking to Developers and Subject Matter Experts
- Write initial content to be sent out for review
- Cycle of Review / Revise – repeat until content is ready
- Content delivery and possible localization into other languages, if appropriate
Becoming a Technical Writer
I have a couple of posts that to review as technical writing samples:
These posts will give you some examples of technical writing. I have others if you want to dig through my blog a bit. If you are really interested in becoming a technical writer, you should start building up a portfolio on your blog, or on your computer. Pick some ‘how to’s’ you want to write about, and then document them. If you get the chance have your friends review this content to ensure that you have written the information that people need to get the task done. This will start giving you some experience and will give you samples to hand over to potential employers when the time is right.
Check if your local college offers any technical writing classes. Check out the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications – you can purchase a used version on Amazon.com. The style guide will give you a foundation for technical writing, such as how to write about the interface, and what the different interface components are called. I will admit the style guide is Windows biased, but it will still give you a solid foundation about technical writing. I am sure there are other excellent style guides out there, but this is the one I am most familiar with.
Technical writers can earn a decent living, and doesn’t necessarily mean you will earn less then developers. Remember you are the voice of the product, and without a good voice a product will not do well. Good technology companies recognize this fact.
Microsoft.com/college is a site that contains great information about the requirements for becoming a technical writer at Microsoft as well as information concerning other careers. It is an excellent resource for understanding the different careers available at Microsoft.