Technical Writer

The Job and What's Involved

Technical writers produce technical information such as instructions to help users get to grips with all kinds of technology. The material they write is designed to allow their audience to use a particular gadget or understand a subject.

Technical writers 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 component, 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.

The authored document may take many forms - from a simple leaflet to a multi-volume manual. Increasingly, technical writers prepare material for other formats, such as CD-ROM, video and websites.

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 writers 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 writers work as part of a writing team. Other employers have only one in-house author. They may use design and publishing software, or other specialist software for creating online help systems.

Working hours are usually Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. However, technical writers 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 writers 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 writers working in the UK. They are employed in-house by organisations in many sectors, including:

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

Some writers 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 as a whole.

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

Education and Training

There is no set way into this type of work. Some technical writers 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 writers have a degree or diploma. 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/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications.

Portsmouth University offers a Masters Degree in Technical Communication. The course can be studied full time over a year, or part time over two years. Applicants normally need a degree, which can be in any subject, although applications are considered from practising technical writers without degree-level qualifications.

The ISTC offers an open-learning course in Communication of Technical Information.

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 writers with essential skills, including in the software packages used to produce documents and online material. The ISTC lists approved courses.

Technical writers may also choose to study Sheffield Hallam University's Masters Degree in Technical Communication. The course is aimed at experienced technical communicators seeking a qualification. It is studied by distance learning, typically over three years.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A technical writer 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.
  • IT skills.
  • Interviewing skills.
  • An eye for detail, and a thorough and methodical approach.
  • The ability to deliver to deadline.
  • A well-organised approach, to juggle different projects.
  • Team-working skills.
  • An awareness of graphic design, and the processes involved in print and online publishing.

Your Long Term Prospects

Technical writers 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 head up an authoring team. Progression to general management is possible.

After gaining experience, many technical writers 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.
Website: www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk

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

Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC), PO Box 522, Peterborough PE2 5WX
Tel: 01733 390141
Website: www.istc.org.uk

SEMTA (Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance), 14 Upton Road,
Watford WD18 0JT
Tel: 0800 282167
Website: www.semta.org.uk

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