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Reader question: How do I move forward out of a stagnant tech writing career?

by Tom Johnson on Jul 15, 2015
categories: api-doc beginnerstechnical-writing

To move out of a stagnant career, immerse yourself in learning on your own. You can learn programming online, for example, or specialize in a knowledge domain or tools.

I recently received the following question:

Hi Tom,

I'm an avid reader of your blog and I'm writing to seek your advise on improving my stagnant career.

I'm a Technical Writer working in New York City, working for a financial services consulting firm. I'm a computer science graduate and I chose technical writing as I loved writing more than programming.

In my short career spanning a little less than 5 years, I've documented many web-based and windows-based software applications and learned quite a few authoring tools like Adobe Framemaker, Adobe Robohelp, etc. I've also developed e-learning modules using Adobe Captivate.

Of late I feel I'm doing monotonous work and that I'm not learning anything new. Also my salary isn't good enough for a person with 5 years experience. In an expensive city like New York, my salary is just enough to get by (thankfully my husband is a Java developer and gets good salary).

I'm stuck in this low-paying job and I don't know how I can improve my career path. In my current job I get to use Microsoft Sharepoint, through which I've learned HTML/CSS, Javascript up to beginner level, but this is just out of interest and I know that's not going to help me as a technical writer. I feel that career prospects for a technical writer isn't great since user interfaces are becoming more and more intuitive, what do you say?

I constantly update myself about the new tools and trends in the field of technical writing reading your blog. I really admire you for you have grown so much as a technical writer and I look up to you as my role model.

I don't know if you've got time to answer questions from your readers but I'd be very grateful if you could suggest some ways to build my stagnant career.

I've got these questions for you:

  • Are there any technical writing certifications that I can do?
  • What technical writing tools can I learn on my own in my spare time?
  • How can I learn API documentation?
  • What programming languages should I learn in order to become a successful, high-earning technical writer?

Your help and advice would be much appreciated. Looking forward to your reply. Hope you won't disappoint me.

Moving out of stagnancy through learning

If you feel your career is stagnating because you’re not learning new things through your job, then the easy answer is to learn new things on your own. If you dive into API documentation, there’s a world of programming you can learn. If learning motivates you, API documentation can pull you out of a stagnant career.

However, you may find that programming concepts are too dry and boring, and you’re not interested in that route. No problem. Pick another focus, such as the following:

  • Video production
  • Usability
  • Support
  • Business analysis
  • Product management
  • User interface design
  • Training
  • Tools
  • Web publishing
  • Marketing

When you specialize in one of these ancillary roles, you can bring a lot of life into a technical writing role. Try subscribing to one of the many online learning resources, such as PluralSight, Code School, Safaribooksonline,, or more to immerse yourself in new tech to learn.

If these additional roles don’t interest you, another route is to specialize in the subject domain that you’re writing about (for example, financial services or the health industry). When you become a subject matter expert, you can play an increasingly important role across any of these specializations. Specializing in the knowledge domain is probably one of the most powerful ways to boost your career. However, you pretty much lock yourself into that domain, so choose well.

Also, look for a new job that allows you to emphasize what you’re learning. It sounds like you’re ready for a change, so I’d say find a new company. Starting a new job will involve a lot of new learning — not just the company’s technology, but the work environment, the tech pubs toolset, authoring-reviewing-publishing workflow, and more.

Answers to Other questions

You asked some other questions:

Are there any technical writing certifications that I can do?

Yes, there are many online tech comm programs. See this guest post by Laura Palmer on taking courses in technical writing. My opinion is that tech comm programs make sense early on in your career, when you’re young and have opportunity to get formal education. However, today you can learn everything you need to learn online by yourself. If you’re a self-learner, the potential for learning is limitless.

What technical writing tools can I learn on my own in my spare time?

It’s hard to know which tools to focus on. I recommend learning more general languages such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and XML instead of a specific tool. But if you want to get more specific, learn the following:

  • MadCap Flare
  • OxygenXML with DITA
  • Atlassian Confluence

I see those tools referenced in a lot in jobs. I also recommend a video creation tool such as Camtasia Studio, and a graphics tool, such as Illustrator.

How can I learn API documentation?

Try taking these two Udemy courses by Peter Gruenbaum:

Also see my online content on similar topics:

You can learn a lot about APIs by simply using them. Using an API will help you practice your technical skills as well.

What programming languages should I learn in order to become a successful, high-earning technical writer?

If your husband knows Java, you’ve got a great resource to teach you right at home. Also see this topic from my API doc survey: The most common programming languages tech writers know.

It’s hard to learn a programming language if you’re not regularly using it, though. I think I’ve learned Java twice now and forgotten 50% of it each time, since I don’t use it regularly.

I’m personally most interested in web publishing technologies, perhaps because I regularly use them on this blog and in my tech comm toolset. I had a lot of fun learning Jekyll because it allowed me to use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript directly.

If any readers have advice, please add it in the comments below.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the tech comm, be sure to subscribe to email updates below. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.