Technical Writing Careers — Answering 13 Questions about Technical Writing Jobs

Technical writing careers are often a mystery to those on the outside. What do technical writing jobs involve? What is the industry like? What is the career path of a technical writer, and what challenges do technical writers face?

Carmen, a student in a technical management program, found me by searching for “technical writers” on Yahoo.com. Fulfilling an assignment in a Career Development course to contact someone working in the technical writing field, she asked me 13 questions about technical writing careers. She’s currently a repair technician who has wanted to enter technical writing for years.

Her questions and my answers are below. Please feel free to build on my answers in the comments section below the post.

Job-Related Questions about Technical Writing

What do you like best about your position as a Technical Writer?

I like the combination of writing and technology. I majored in English and love to write, but careers for writers are usually low-paying. I also really like technology — websites, blogs, gadgets, social media, cyber-utopian imaginations, etc. Technical writing combines my two main interests — writing and technology — in almost seamless ways.

What kind of impact has this position had on your lifestyle?

Given that technical writing jobs pay a decent salary, I’ve been able to support a family with three children and an extremely hard-working stay-at-home mother. I couldn’t have done that had I gone into other writing fields. (For example, here’s a blog about a guy who earned a degree in creative writing but couldn’t put his skills to use, so he started delivering pizzas.)

I’ve found that working as a technical writer has sharpened my troubleshooting skills, given me greater patience and technical familiarity, and has deepened my awareness and interest in technology. For example, my wife jokes that computers — when they seem to work against her — are the Antichrist, and sometimes when she can’t get something to work, she’ll actually slam the keyboard or throw the mouse. Well, I’ve learned that broken websites, procedures that don’t work, and confusing code can all be overcome with some patient problem-solving. This is a skill I developed as a technical writer.

Technical writing also gives me time to pursue other hobbies in the evenings and weekends. Sometimes finishing documentation for a project can require you to sacrifice a few evenings, but by and large technical writing is an 8 to 5 job. That’s nice — not a lot of stress, and it’s not as if people die (regularly) because they can’t figure out the software, unlike careers in medicine.

What advice would you give to someone just entering this career track?

I highly recommend pursing technical writing as a career, especially if you majored in English or Writing. I say English or Writing because much of a technical writer’s day is spent writing (or preparing to write or editing what you’ve already written). Granted, instructions aren’t creatively fulfilling, or even interesting, but you’re still shaping complicated information into easy-to-understand, well-organized text. You’re creating something out of nothing. You are, in fact, writing.

But skill with words isn’t enough (and actually, you don’t have to be very skilled to write sentences like “Click this button,” “Select this from the dropdown box,” and so on). You also need technical aptitude. Does your blood pressure shoot up when you can’t figure something out? Or do you patiently find a way to solve the problem? If you’re a problem solver, technical writing is for you. You’ll be solving technical problems a good part of your day, as you experiment and explore and test how software functions, or might function (or is supposed to function).

To sharpen your technical skills, learn at least three types of programs: a graphics tool (such as SnagIt), an online help authoring tool (such as Madcap Flare), and a video capture tool (such as Camtasia Studio). Create some sample documentation so you can show employers your skills. Start a blog about technical communication so you can demonstrate your enthusiasm and knowledge to your employers. Take responsibility for your own learning, rather than relying on others. Also, get involved in your local STC chapter.

You might also see this post I wrote: “How to Break into Technical Writing”

What kinds of tasks do you complete during a typical day or week?

It’s your lucky day. I’ve already written an incredibly detailed post about this here: “Could you please tell me what the job of a technical writer is like?”

What types of advancement opportunities are available for entry-level candidates in this career track?

Interesting question. Here’s a great podcast on the potential career track for technical writers. Traditionally, junior technical writers become senior technical writers. Then they become managers, or often turn freelance, or do consulting. Some transition into business analysts or project managers, or move into other technology-related fields.

There’s some debate as to whether technical writing is a transitional job — something you do as you’re working your way into another role, such as business analyst, usability specialist, information architect, or project manager. Many people see technical writing as a stepping stone into something else.

Company-Related Questions about Technical Writing

What is the corporate culture of your company?

The corporate culture where I work couldn’t be better. I love the team environment, working with other dedicated and talented individuals who are inspiring and helpful (for example, they give access to what I need, answer questions, provide demos, review my documentation, and keep me up to date on changes). There aren’t any political battles or bitter attitudes. It’s really a fun place to work, especially since the entire project team is grouped on the same floor. There’s even a foosball table. And the technological setup is top-notch — see my previous post, “Top 10 Workspace Configurations for Technical Writers.”

One thing to avoid in corporate cultures is an overbearing bureaucracy, where a thousand regulations and procedures prevent you from being efficient. My current work environment is pretty much bureaucracy free.

I’ve worked in other companies where the environment was more challenging. For example, at one place, it took me two weeks before I was given access to the Intranet. In another place, I felt like I had an abundance of unnecessary meetings all day. But despite these challenges, the other environments have also been decent. I’ve always learned a lot in every situation I’ve worked, regardless of the corporate culture.

For alternative experiences, see this comment by Joseph K on a previous post.

Does the company promote or encourage continuing education?

Certainly my company promotes continuing education. They’re sending me to a couple of conferences this year — Doc Train West in Vancouver and the STC Summit in Philadelphia. (Granted, I’m presenting at both conferences.) They also buy me whatever software I need.

What type of training programs does the company offer?

I hinted at this earlier: you’re responsible for your own learning. I have some intelligent, helpful colleagues who teach me a lot — not just about software, but business process and documentation strategies. But I think ultimately, you’re in charge of your own learning.

That said, my company pays tuition if I want to take college credits (in any field). I have access to Safari, an online library with thousands of books and tutorials — I’m still exploring that one. I occasionally view webinars related to the software I use. I can order books as needed, and probably attend workshops or other training up to my allotted training budget.

What are some of the goals of the company of the next few years?

Hmmm, not sure how to answer that one on a public blog. But we definitely want to find technology solutions that help people on a global scale perform the tasks of their role more efficiently and powerfully. We want to leverage the Internet platform to provide helpful resources and information to people everywhere. We want to use technology to further our organization’s mission. The same could probably be said of many companies.

Industry-Related Questions About Technical Writing

What kinds of challenges is the industry currently facing?

Outsourcing is one threat, although I haven’t been following it much lately. I once interviewed an Indian technical writer who said the tech writing industry is exploding in major ways in India. In my experience, I think the technical writer works best when he or she is on-site (rather than remote).

Another threat is a crash in the technology sector. With the first Dotcom crash, many technology companies made dramatic cutbacks to survive. Technical writing is often an easy cut, since you can have the business analyst or subject matter experts (SMEs) write the manuals (or simply ask the existing technical writers to do more work, which is common).

Some leaders feel SMEs have the potential to do our jobs, but the results are often disastrous. (Think about instructions that lack any numbered steps, have a full-size screen print on each page, and are written in confusing jargon that assumes you’re half-engineer.)

Who are some of the major and minor competitors in the industry?

Some people think wikis will reduce the number of technical writing jobs (or transform the role of technical writers). The idea is that project members and users will simply write the documentation in piecemeal fashion. However, this idea is one that only works in unique contexts, like the WordPress Codex, and even there it doesn’t work well.

I agree with Craig on Helpscribe that wikis won’t kill technical writing. I actually once produced a help project entirely on a wiki. I was documenting the new SharePoint 2007 platform and had about 75 wiki topics. Just two people made a couple of brief edits. That was it. And with the wiki, it was a pain to style, it didn’t single source, and it was hard to manipulate and rearrange information. Wikis have been around 10+ years and haven’t replaced much of anything (except Encyclopedia Britannica).

For more on using Web 2.0 technologies in documentation, see DMN’s post on “Web 2.0 and Documentation Don’t Always Play Well Together.”

Another competitor is, as I mentioned above, outsourcing technical writing to places like India. I don’t have much experience with outsourced projects, but Charles Jeter wrote an interesting post on the state of innovation in India. I personally have never lost a job to outsourcing. In part it’s because I wear more hats than just a traditional technical writer.

Are there any likely changes that may affect the industry in the next few years?

Here’s an interesting observation. You’re writing me to ask about careers in technical writing. You’re asking me to provide insight on the technical writing industry as a whole. But I’ve only been a technical writer for less than 5 years (been a writer for much longer, though). The interesting thing is that I’m the one being asked for advice, and am giving it. Hundreds of others will find this post and take direction from it.

We’re seeing the rise of amateur content. If you want advice from someone with more authority and experience, you should have written someone like Neil Perlin or Doug Davis. Instead, because I’m more visible in Google, I become the de facto expert on technical writing. That reversal of roles, where non-leaders become leaders, amateurs become experts, and ordinary people become highly visible, will shape all industries dramatically in the next few years.

Another change is DITA, an XML language that allows you to reuse topic-based content. Over the next few years, DITA will become a standard technology embedded into the most popular help authoring tools. This will facilitate single sourcing and enable technical writers to be more efficient. As we’re more efficient, we’ll play greater roles with training, support, and quality assurance. I already wear each of these hats to some degree.

Madcap FlareAdobe Robohelp

This entry was posted in beginner tips & careers, web 2.0, wikis, WordPress on by .

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, DITA, and more. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog.Email

73 thoughts on “Technical Writing Careers — Answering 13 Questions about Technical Writing Jobs

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  3. Carmen

    I have learned a great deal from the answers to these interview questions. I plan to continue checking out this site for valuable information and new developments relating to technical writers. Thanks!

    Reply
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  11. Chris Cargile

    Great article and overview on the industry and an even better, extremely insightful perspective on the direction that the web is gearing us to head into. Your analogy stands up to the test; the mere fact that when I googled this ‘query’ on freelance/tech writing and your article/result popped up proves that you’re the de facto expert. However limited my background in this field, I’m quite confident that you’re essentially the de jure expert as well (AT LEAST TO MOST OF US)..and sure glad you’re preaching the word! Thanks for the great report and links!

    Reply
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  14. Vijayalakshmi

    These questions are more helpful for the junior technical writer who are in need of more details about technical writing and its growth in the future technologies.

    Reply
    1. Praveen

      Hi,
      I am in search of junior technical writing.. if you are already Working in Technical Writing .. Then please tell me if there is Vacancy in your Company..

      Regards
      B Praveen Kumar
      9848664804

      Reply
  15. April M

    I have to add – there are great schools out there with Technical Communications as a major. I wish more employers would require a tech comm education – I’ve seen so many of them turned off to ‘tech writers’ because the only experience they have is with history teachers, burned out engineers and wanna be professors re-engineering their resumes to “break into” the technical writing field.

    Reply
  16. Maanasa

    Hi Tom,

    I have a Masters Degree in Information Systems from India.I got graduated in the year 2005 and immediately got a job in an organization which offers professional certifications in IT & E-Business in USA, headquartered in NY.My role was to design the curriculum , develop courseware and labs.I didnt even know what technical writing was when i got the job but later found it very interesting and informative.I resigned my job an year later and moved to the USA as i got married and as my husband works here.

    Currently i do not have a work permit but would definetely like to use my previous experience in writing whenever i can work here.So i request your guidance in acquiring skills which can help me in finding jobs in similar roles/in technical writing.My major concern is that i do not have any degree in English.Coming to the technical knowledge i worked with some screen capturing tools & also have programming skills in Java & also learned Testing tools.

    As my husband is into software consulting we mostly stay away from our hometown St Louis,MO for sometime in a year so i would like to prepare online.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Maanasa

    Reply
  17. Maanasa

    I would also like to mention that your blog is very informative for novices like me.I came across your blog when i googled about Technical Courseware Development.

    Best Wishes,
    Maanasa

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Maanasa, thanks for leaving a note to let me know that my blog is informative. I’m trying to guess where the name Maanasa might come from.

      Reply
  18. Tom

    Maanasa, Oh, strike my previous comment. This is what happens when I respond in reverse chronological order. You want me to recommend guidance in acquiring skills to help you find a technical writing related job? I say every tech writer needs to master at least 3 tools: a graphics tool, a help authoring tool, and a video capture tool. Then you need to have a basic understanding about how to document software (use lists, keep topics short, organize them in ways that make sense, etc.). Try looking in books. Sorry I can’t recommend any off the top of my head. Maybe others will leave a comment as to why.

    There is an online course here: http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Technical_writing. You might find it useful. One little grammar note — put a space after a period.

    Reply
  19. Maanasa

    Tom,

    Your welcome.Thanks for suggesting the online course and also for the pointers.I will also try referring books in course.

    Like majority of the Indian names my name also comes from the Sanskrit language.

    Regards,
    Maanasa

    Reply
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  21. anu

    I have a question……that is…being a homemaker for 3 years, is it posible for somebody to work as a technical writer without any experience?? though i have computer knowledge and iam very much interested in writing, how does the technical writing course helps one??

    Reply
  22. Tom

    Hi Anu,

    Yes, you might be able to land an entry-level job as a technical writer without much experience, but you do need to put together writing samples. Create a portfolio of sample writing that demonstrate your ability. Write instructions for software that you use, or for some open source projects.

    Reply
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  24. Alice

    This is an interesting article with all the help-full Q&A’s and suggesting the online course is very good for novices people and for skilled and experienced job-seekers too.

    Reply
  25. Writing Career

    Thanks for this great article. This article is very useful and informative for the novice. And these 13 questions given by you are helpful to understand the prospective of technical writers.

    Reply
  26. Vanessa

    Excellent post. This is a very accurate overview of tech writing. However, there is one assumption in this post that I’d like to point out, which is that a technical writer will be writing about software. There are many, many products out there that need a technical writer working on them. Basically any product with any not-immediately-obvious features has (or should have) someone writing instructions for it. It could be you! If you’re interested in documenting physical products, like hardware, medical devices, forklifts…you might want to develop some illustration skills. Some companies have graphic artists to do illustrations, but having this skill will definitely help you. It also helps to have industry-specific knowledge, such as a background in science or healthcare.

    Reply
  27. tech writer

    Tom – I would like to clarify something in this article that I think may be misleading. The article itself and the subsequent comments imply that it is somewhat easy to become a Technical Writer, and that basically anyone can do it.I think this is somewhat misleading and I would like to clarify. Ideally a successful Tecnical Writer requires the following:

    – A natural talent and enthusiam for writing

    – A Bachelor’s degree in a writing concentration

    – Ability to learn about complex subject matter (e.g., software development/functionality, electrical/mechanical engineering, etc.)

    – Ability to interview and extract necessary info from SMEs

    -Ability to pay close attention to detail for extended periods of time

    – A natural inclination to help and be an advocate for the end user

    – A personality type that is condusive to building and maintaining close working relationships wiyth other professionals in the corporate environment

    – Project management skills

    Just like any other profession, Technical writing has specific challenges and intricacies that require a certain type of professional. Not everyone can or should do it.

    Reply
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  29. mahesh

    Hello Tom,
    This is mahesh ihad done graduation(b.sc) and am working as a customer care executive and heard about this technical writers…and about the great oppurtunities in this aswell…so am really intrstd in this and i would like to know some information about this… iwould like to know what is the basic knowledge i should have to step in to this and do we need the excellent skills in writing..and what are the courses needs to b learned to choose this as a career option….
    hope you will help me in this…
    thanks & regard,
    mahesh.g

    Reply
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  31. Jerine Sebastian

    Hello,
    I am a Graduate in Bachelor of Engineering. I am pursuing a course on technical communication at present in India. Would I be able get a Technical Writer job in the US without relevant experience?
    I have created a lot of documents as part of the course. Can I use them as deliverables?

    Reply
  32. Praveen

    Article gives myriads of information about technical writing profession. It gives the new entries aware of the field and one to choose the career option in it.

    FOr jerine sebastain
    As a fresher it is difficult to get the one. If you are having relevant experience in technical writing field it is possible.
    I am working as faculty @ IQTI Bangalore for technical writing.

    Reply
  33. Suraj A. Joel

    Hi,
    You have done a great work. This information was very useful for me. I’m an IT Engg plus an MBA in Software Enterprise Management. I’m looking for a break-through in this field. Just wanted to appreciate your work. Thank you.
    Regards,
    Suraj.

    Reply
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  35. Craig Haiss

    I like that you mentioned blogging as a means of showing enthusiasm. Blogs can offer many benefits to those entering the field, including a way of demonstrating expertise, a medium for exploring ideas, and a way to network with other professionals in the field.

    Great post, Tom!

    Reply
  36. Meenu

    Hi,
    A very informative blog.
    I was looking for websites which will help me in preparing for my technical writer’s interview.
    I am sure this will be of help

    Regards,
    Meenu

    Reply
  37. Sai Krishna

    Hi,

    I have been working for years in the finance and accounts domain. Since I have a flair for writing, I thought of taking up Technical Writing as a full fledged career. I also got myself enrolled in a course that offers to teach tools like SnagIT, Robohelp, Visio and FrameMaker. Having a fair knowledge of these tools coupled with an intense understanding of what a reader of software product/process would want to know, I think one could become a good Technical Writer. What do you say? Further, reading your extremely informative blogs, I feel I could confidently make a career transition. Wish me all the best!!
    Krishna

    Reply
  38. Deepa

    Hi,

    Very informative blog which i have come across for Technical Writers career growth as well. With highly motivating and creating self confidence for those who are looking into this career path.

    Best regards,
    Deepa R.K.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Deepa, thanks for your comment. I do like to think my blog helps technical writers along their career paths. In general, starting your own blog is also a helpful tool for professional growth.

      Reply
  39. Su

    Hi Tom, ur blog is wonderful!! I’m a technical writer in India with 5 years of tech writing experience..i was wondering if you could let me know of any company whihc sponsors an H1 visa for a technical writer.

    Reply
  40. Shrobona

    Hi Tom,
    I just read your blog and loved it! One of my peers, who recently entered this field, stumbled upon your blog while researching something on the net. I can’t thank her enough! It just made my job so much easier.
    A crystal clear perspective about our existence!

    P.S.: “idratherbewriting.com” is defintely in my bookmarks now! :)

    Reply
  41. Deepti

    Hi

    I am looking for a career in tech. writing. I have worked as a content writer for around an year but as I want to enter into IT this is something which suits me. I have done my masters in english literature and have good knowlege of ms word 2003. can u please let me know if I could get a job of a fresher based on it?

    Reply
  42. Chithu

    Valuable piece of information for any writers to interview their juniors and for those who has aspirations to become a technical communicator or writer.

    Reply
  43. Prashant

    Hi,
    Tom sir,
    I am Prashant currently woring in an USA based MNC company in Noida U.P. as a content writer. Sir i want to tell you that I did MCA from an Open University but i am working in writing field, sir it is very intresting job for me but i am not sutisfied with it becouse i am totaly IT profetional in .Net technology. Sir i am confuesed what i do ???? So i want a just help from you kindely suggest me which way will be good for me, here i want to tell you as a content writer i am working near about 1 year past ………….

    Reply
    1. Chris

      And I’d suggest Prashant cleans up his English language, too, to be a good ‘Content Writer’, except – of course – if his content writing job does not involve the use of English.

      @Tom Johnson, your blog is the definitive ‘reference card’ for Technical Writing. Well done and thank you.

      Reply
  44. Nirja

    HI Tom,
    Thanks a lot for packing most of the information in one blog only. Like everyone, wanted to thank you. Looking forward for more informative blogs like this. Great Job !!!!!
    Regards

    Reply
  45. manjit

    hi tom,
    I joined a job on content writing recently. As a bachelor in technology, i am unable to stick my mind to just writing simple articles according to the client specifications.Can i come to technical writing field eventually . What are the requirements and prospects for technical writing jobs. Can i earn a good salary if i choose to continue in this field?

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      I’m not really sure what a “content writing” job is. Is that an SEO farm or something? Sure, you could try to break into technical writing. It’s a great field. See my beginner tips for more information.

      Reply
      1. Krishna

        Hi Tom,

        I am Krishna working as Technical writer. I have 3 years of experience in Writing technical articles for Scientific and Research Equipments. As of now i have changed my job into software field. So let me know how to write Technical document for a software product. If you have a soft copy of those, please mail me kpbvs.1987@gmail.com.

        Thanks & Regards,
        ————————
        B.V.S.Krishna Prasad

        Reply
  46. Redator Web

    Great tips you gave, back in 2008! My only advice, nowadays, would be: write less or divide your thoughts among many posts. You know, people’s attention over the Internet is smaller than reading magazines, so we must try to write less but more efectively. ;) Anyway, great tips!!

    Reply
  47. Sarah Stegall

    I’m a tech writer with more than fifteen years’ experience in the software, hardware and networking/telecomm industries. I think you are giving some good advice/responses here, but I would add one or two comments. First off, I have seen fads in tech writing come and go, and I am more than half convinced XML is one of them. The more I study it, the more it looks like a solution in search of a problem. I’ve worked in large and small companies, and I can tell you right now it is NOT an appropriate solution for a small outfit. The time required upfront is too much to ask a small company to invest. And if you’re a large company, with a lot of legacy material to convert — holy moly, you need someone full-time just to slice and dice your material, chunk it and fit it into the Procrustean bed that is XML and DITA. So if you’re just starting out and want a job at Oracle or Cisco, by all means learn XML but be prepared for it to become obsolete in a few years. Don’t hang your entire career on it. If you’ve been around awhile, don’t tear your hair out if you don’t know XML or DITA. Your other skills will more than compensate.

    Second, to the lady who asked if you could get into tech writing with little or no experience, the sad answer is yes. Sad, because the reason you can get into the field with little or no experience is that many, many, many hiring managers have no earthly clue what a technical writer does. They either want a software developer who can write clear instructions in English (a creature no one can afford), or they want someone who will merely re-format the text coming out of Doxygen or similar automated programs. The people who hire and manage technical writers, unless they were once writers themselves, rarely have any idea what we do, how we do it, or how vital it is. It’s just a fact of life, get used to it.

    Third, I would warn you that interviewers will ask you how good you are with Microsoft Office, whereas any good tech writer will tell you that MS Word is the worst possible choice for long, complicated documents. They will ask you how many words a minute you can type, as if that was at all relevant to a career devoted to understanding and translating complicated materials. Then they’ll ask you to proofread a document or take a spelling test–a little more relevant, but it would be better to ask a technical writer to write a procedure in order to get an idea of their ability.

    Finally, a word of advice on your colleagues. Your success as a technical writer will depend as much on your interviewing skills as on your writing skills. You will need to be able to ask questions of strangers about matters on which they are expert and you are not. You will need to be able to come up with intelligent questions that demonstrate that you know something about the subject matter, even if you don’t actually read C++ code. My experience is that many technical writers are rather introverted, not good at interviews. Worse, many engineers are also introverted; this can make for an awkward interview experience. In the software industry, many, many of your engineers will not speak English as a first or even a second language; they may be uncomfortable speaking it or explaining highly technical details to a non-engineer. So my advice is to cultivate your people skills, learn to put interviewees at ease, and know how to ask good questions to extract important information.

    Hope this helps.

    Reply
  48. Chelsea

    Hey Tom,
    Any advice for someone like me? Currently in school, working towards a certificate in Technical Writing. What should I do to gain some skills within the field? The programs you listed above, are they still relevant or are there others I should learn?

    Thanks for your help. This article was really good to find!

    Chelsea

    Reply
  49. Narender Chahal

    sir.. i am IT graduate(Fresher-MCA). I want to build my career in IT in development sector ln Java development. but currently i have an opportunity to join a Technical writer job. That’s okk but in future i don’t wana to be limited to this designation. I want to be a software engineer and good developer.

    so basically what i am asking is that should i join this job. Is its working experience will be counted in any IT software company. Please bear with me if something is irrelevant.
    But i honestly expect a pure guidance toward all these so that i can take further steps.

    Please reply soon as i have to decide it right now.
    Thanks in advance……

    Reply
  50. mohit chauhan

    Great Post Sir :)
    I’ve been a technical writer for about 8 months from now and I have learned a lot in my journey. I really want to learn more and more about this wonderful niche. Can u tell me what are the necessary technical skills? As in tools, software, etc.
    I know snagIt, MS Word. Was thinking of learning Adobe Framemaker! Shall I?

    Reply

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