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Q&A: What should my major be for a career in technical writing?

by Tom Johnson on May 12, 2012 •
categories: beginners technical-writing

Should I major in technical writing in college?

I received the following question from a reader:

I'm a 20 year old college student and I just finished up my first year at a local community college and I was wondering what my major should be if I want to become a technical writer when I eventually graduate. Right now my counselors have me majoring in General Science (b/c my dream job would be to work as a writer at Scientific American) but I'm wondering if that's the right path I should be taking. I'm new to this site but I've already found a wealth of great information by just browsing about. Any advice you can offer would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

If your dream job is science writing, follow a science major. Remember that having skills to write is only one element of technical writing. Knowledge of the domain you're writing about (for example, science) is equally important, if not more.

That said, I don't know of many science-writing jobs. There are far more jobs for technical writers in the software industry than anywhere else.

If I could go through college again and choose my major once more, I would probably still choose English literature with an emphasis in creative writing, but also add a secondary major in graphic design. Reason being, the combination of graphics and text make an excellent combination.

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Why not computer science? Well, the software I write about isn't something that a degree in computer science would have necessarily prepared me for. I don't have a strong interest in documenting APIs, so the more advanced computer programming knowledge might simply be lost on me.

Another possible route for a major would be to ditch writing altogether. If you already have good writing skills, pour your mind into science classes and write on the side. Become an Isaac Asimov. Knowing John Donne's poetry and Charles Dickens' plots won't necessarily help in a career in technical writing anyway.

Whatever your major, technical writers are lifelong learners. Most professional technical writers fell into the profession from meandering paths. Some were anthropologists, others teachers, or philosophers, physicists, and botanists -- you name it. They've all managed to develop the skills they needed to excel in the field. So does it really matter what your major is? Not really. Learn to think critically, ask questions, write well, and be patient. Those attributes will do more for your career than any specific major you choose.


Photo from Flickr by Herkie

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.