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Changing Your Career to Technical Writing [Guest Responses from Bill Albing and Alyssa Fox]

May 16, 2010 • beginners, general

Recently a reader wrote me asking for advice on changing careers into technical writing. I asked for some colleagues to respond. Bill Albing, an information architect in North Carolina, and Alyssa Fox, a technical communications manager in Texas, responded to the question. With permission from Bill, Alyssa, and "Cedric" (the name I've given the reader), I posted the conversation here.

Hello Tom,

I am very interested in making a career change to technical writing and wanted a bit more information on the career field.  You seem pretty knowledgeable and passionate about the career by the looks of your blog posts, so I was hoping you wouldn't mind me bugging you about it.

I have a bachelor's in business with an information systems concentration and have experience working and writing professionally (training materials, newsletters, things like that).  I want to take some courses in technical writing or do a certificate program though to bulk up my writing skill and make me more of an asset.  I wanted to know how much which program you attend matters.  I live in NYC and there is a really solid looking, affordable online program offered by a local college and was hoping that would be sufficient.

Finally, it would be nice to speak with someone who is a technical writer and find out what the job is really like.

I apologize for the barrage of questions but really am seriously considering this career and would like to know as much about it as possible so that I may make the most informed decision possible.  Thank you so much in advance for your time and assistance.  I look forward to your reply.

Kind Regards,

Cedric

Response from Bill Albing

Cedric,

I think it's great that you are considering tech writing as a career.  Here are some points to consider.

The best way to find fellow technical writers is to find a local chapter of our biggest professional association -- STC (Society for Technical Communication) http://www.stc.org. Or other groups like ACM SIGDOC,  UX (user experience) or UI (user interface) groups, or training or editing groups, etc.

Also, find people online -- use Twitter and Linked in to connect to others. Start with me and the people who follow me and the people I follow. The STC New York Metro Chapter is one possibility (President:  John Posada, +1 (732) 259-2874 jposada99@gmail.com,  Web site:  www.stcnymetro.org).  Find Scott Abel (http://thecontentwrangler.com/) and Anne Gentle (http://justwriteclick.com/).

Every one of us does different work, so you'll get a different answer from each of us about what tech writers do. But we have a common bond of a commitment to the audience and getting the information to them that they need. I work in software documentation and my background is computers and electronics, but my audience is not mainstream users.

Others work in pharmaceutical/biomed; others work in government or for non-profits. There are different industries and different types of technologies. There are different levels of business, from the factory floor to the CEO, each with different tech writing challenges. Some work online, others publish books. We often start with contract work until we gain an expertise and decide on a career path -- some like contracting, some like full-time, some like owning their own business. Here's a cute little article about breaking into the field.

Your credentials are fine. Your business degree with a concentration in info systems is great. Getting more degrees and more academic training is not necessarily going to help. What they teach in academia (especially if in an English department) is not necessarily useful in the business world. What I mean is that having a Masters in English won't necessarily make you a better technical writer.

For example, you can't learn some things from an academic course, such as how to work with limited resources, what are the variables that must be considered, how to get information from experts, how to structure information for multiple audiences -- these types of things. Your experience with training materials is valuable; your work on real projects is as much a credential as anything academic. Creating a portfolio of your work is a good idea at any stage of your career.

The field is changing drastically -- from big doc departments of writers downsizing and more work moving to lone writers and customer-generated docs. In all honesty, STC has been dropping in membership for the last few years. This may be because traditional tech writing careers are changing and no one does just technical writing anymore. Or it may be because STC as an organization isn't changing with the times, I don't know. It could be both. But many of my colleagues have different titles now, wear more than one hat, are working more online than previously, and may or may not have time for STC anymore.

Tech writing is a balance of knowing your technical stuff and being able to write about it (communicate it). Neither skill is more important than the other. If you can't balance both then you're either a techno-geek or you're a writer. For those of us who feel called to do both, and it sounds like you are, then do both! My motto has always been, just do it. There are plenty of opportunities to find work, despite the doom and gloom predictions about the economy. The job market is not shrinking -- it's changing. The traditional jobs are shrinking. Look on Indeed.com for jobs -- not just technical writing, but also other titles. See:

  • Content Strategist
  • Information Management
  • Information Architect
  • Information Developer
  • Technical Writer
  • Technical Documentation
  • Documentation Manger
  • Content Management
  • Business Analyst

Here's an example list.

Hope that helps. Feel free to contact me anytime with questions or if you'd like encouragement.

--Bill Albing
volunteer:
Principal Information Architect, KeyContent.org
bill.albing@keycontent.org

day job:
Senior Information Architect, Paragon Application Systems, Inc.

Response from Alyssa Fox

Cedric,

Bill did a great job summarizing some points to think about below, so I'll just piggyback off his.  :)

First of all, let me say that your prior experience with training materials and newsletters will be a strength in breaking into this field due to the fact that you know how to communicate information to the audience you're writing for. Same thing with tech writing -- it's just usually a technical audience. Your business background will also help, no matter which industry you end up in.

As Bill mentioned, you can do tech writing in several fields. I'm based in Houston and in software development, but besides software, the other 2 biggies here in town are oil/gas and medical writing. I love software, and you get the opportunity at some places to contribute to user experience, usability, product design, etc. as well as "just writing doc."

As a hiring manager, I am much more interested in your ability to take complex information and make it easily understood than I am by any program you've completed or certification you might have gotten. Most of what you need to know to be a successful tech writer cannot be taught in a program like that -- things such as great communication so you can interview subject matter experts, the ability to present information in a logical organized format, how to work on multiple projects at once and stay sane, etc. The kinds of things you've done in your career already usually tell me more about your abilities than a tech writing program.

Finally, I agree with Bill that the industry is changing. We don't just write documentation. We develop processes, we help design our products, we help code our projects, we create multimedia tutorials, we blog, we improve user experience, we manage projects, we conduct usability testing, we help develop and refine requirements, we create content strategies across functional departments. There really are a world of opportunities in tech writing right now.

Hope this helps, and if you have further questions, I'd be happy to help out. Good luck to you!

Alyssa Fox
Information Development Manager, NetIQ
STC Houston incoming president

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.