Technical Author

The Job and What's Involved

Technical authors produce technical information in the form of instructions to help users get to grips with all kinds of technology. The material they write is designed to allow their readers to use or operate a particular piece of equipment or understand a subject.

Technical authors need enough knowledge to understand their subject thoroughly. However when writing they must bear in mind the perspective of their readers who may be encountering the subject for the first time.

They may produce material for a mass-market audience, such as instructions for:

- Installing or using a software application.

- Assembling a piece of flat-pack furniture.

- Using a car accessory, burglar alarm or mobile telephone.

Other guidance is aimed at more specialised groups, for example:

  • Reports on the results of clinical trials, for a medical audience.
  • Guidance on aerospace or defence systems, written for the people who will operate them.
  • Maintenance or servicing instructions for IT or vehicle technicians.

The documents they produce may take many forms, from a simple leaflet to a multi-volume manual. Increasingly technical authors prepare material for a range of formats such as disks, video and website's. Daily tasks may include:

  • Meeting colleagues to discuss technology and authoring requirements.
  • Deciding how best to organise and present the document.
  • Commissioning any photographs or illustrations required.
  • Writing the material clearly and concisely, making sure it can be easily understood by the target audience.
  • Editing, proofreading and indexing.
  • Testing the written material with users.

To ensure they understand the subject thoroughly, technical authors must work closely with colleagues such as engineers or developers. They may also liaise with printers, translators and other suppliers to prepare the finished document.

In some organisations, technical authors work as part of a writing team. Other employers have only one in-house author. Some technical authors are self-employed.

They may use design and publishing software, or other specialist software for creating online help systems.

Working hours are usually Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm. However technical authors may be required to work longer hours to get projects finished on time. It is possible to work part time.

The work is normally office based. Some technical authors work from home. There may be some travel to meet clients.

Salaries may start at around £18,000 a year. With experience, earnings may rise to £35,000 or more.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are between 5,000 and 10,000 technical authors working in the UK. They are employed in-house by organisations in many sectors, including:

- IT and telecommunications
- Medicine
- Defence
- Manufacturing
- Finance
- Education
- Government

Some authors work for technical publishing companies. Others are self-employed, working on a project basis.

Jobs are available throughout the UK. There are more opportunities in areas with concentrations of high-tech companies, for example the Thames Valley and Cambridge, and aerospace and defence industries, for example Bristol and the South West.

Vacancies are found in specialist publications and on the internet. The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) website lists job openings. Many vacancies are handled by specialist recruitment agencies.

Education and Training

There is no set method of entering into this type of work. Some technical authors have scientific or technical backgrounds. Others move into technical writing after gaining experience in journalism.

Excellent English is essential, together with some kind of specialist knowledge. Some authors have a degree. Degree courses in media studies, communication studies or journalism often include an element of technical writing. However candidates may have qualifications in other subjects, for example engineering, computer science or life sciences.

For most degrees, the minimum requirements are usually two A levels and five GCSE's (A*- C) or equivalent qualifications.

The ISTC lists approved courses on its website. These include:

1. The University of Portsmouth MA in technical communication designed for individuals with a technical or scientific background who wish to take up technical authorship. It is suitable for recent graduates in science and technology who wish to develop their communication skills, and humanities and business studies graduates who would like to develop their technology skills. Applications from individuals without formal degree-level qualifications are welcome.

2. Coventry University's three-year BA Honours degree in communication, culture and media with an incorporated work placement.

Technical authors are frequently people whose extensive experience in their subject area helps to equip them for the role. The ISTC open-learning course in Communication of Technical Information is a suitable way for such entrants to qualify.

A number of private tutorial schools offer courses in business or technical writing, mostly by distance learning. These courses can be tailored for individual requirements, but can be expensive.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Most training is on the job. Several training providers offer short and tailor-made courses to equip technical authors with essential skills, and these may be included in the software packages used to produce documents and online material.

Sheffield Hallam University offers a series of distance-learning courses in technical communication including an MA. The courses are aimed at experienced technical communicators seeking a qualification.

The MA in technical communication at Portsmouth University is also suitable for practicing technical authors without degree-level qualifications.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A technical author must have:

  • A clear and concise writing style.
  • A flair for turning technical subjects and jargon into easily understood text.
  • The ability to absorb information quickly.
  • An analytical mind and an inquisitive nature.
  • ICT skills.
  • Interviewing skills.
  • An eye for detail and a thorough, methodical approach.
  • The ability to meet deadlines.
  • Project management ability.
  • Teamworking skills.
  • An awareness of graphic design and the processes involved in print and online publishing.
  • A good command of the English language.

Your Long Term Prospects

Technical authors may need to change employers to advance their careers, as the numbers employed in a single organisation may be small. In larger organisations, they may progress to manage an authoring team. Progression to general management is possible.

After gaining experience, many technical authors become freelance or set up their own consultancy firm. It may be possible to move into science journalism or publishing.

Get Further Information

Engineering and Technology Board,
2nd Floor, Weston House,
246 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EX
Website: www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk

e-skills UK,
1 Castle Lane, London SW1E 6DR
Tel: 020 7963 8920
Website: www.e-skills.com

Institute of Scientific and
Technical Communicators (ISTC),
Airport House, Purley Way,
Croydon, Surrey CR0 0XZ
Tel: 020 8253 4506
Website: www.istc.org.uk

SEMTA, 14 Upton Road, Watford,
Hertfordshire WD18 0JT
Tel: 01923 238441
Learning helpline: 0800 282167
Website: www.semta.org.uk

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