The 8 Steps to Becoming a Technical Writer

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Heather K Adams734
Content + Copy Writer
  • Technical writers produce materials like brochures, instruction manuals and product descriptions for laypeople or professionals in a given field.
  • To become a technical writer, assess your background and experience, complete your degree and learn your trade by taking on freelance clients or applying for entry level technical writing positions.
  • To excel in the career, build your niche, create a website and portfolio, and expand your technical writing skillset through continued education.

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For anyone with a specialized background in a technical field, exploring the world of freelance technical writing may sound interesting. Learning how to become a technical writer may just be your doorway into that gigging lifestyle. It may also get you started on a lucrative traditional career path as well. But what does a technical writer do, and how do you start making money doing it?

What does a technical writer do?

Technical writers produce materials that serve either a lay or a specialized audience in a given field. From engineering to computer science to the medical field and beyond, they all need instructional manuals, product descriptions and other written materials created by an expert writer.

What qualifications do you need to become a technical writer?

Learning how to become a technical writer means more than sharpening your writing and editing skills. You're also going to need some kind of background in the field for which you want to write. While experience is always worth its weight in gold, if you're just starting out then a degree in the field will be your biggest asset. If you have a bachelor's degree in, say, engineering then you can begin to look for technical engineering writing work specific to your area or areas of study. But those writing skills? Don't forget them. Taking a few writing classes on your way to getting that degree will set you up for even more success later on. 

How to become a technical writer

1. Assess your background and experience.

Are you completely new to the idea of becoming a technical writer? If you are then your first step, before you ever look at which kind of technical writer you want to be (more on that below), is deciding where your strengths and interests lie. Do you have a degree in finance? Have you spent years working in a hard science field? Are you an amateur but enthusiastic expert on marketing analytics? 
After taking a good look at your background and your strengths, explore which industries you believe you could write for. Your interests will help you narrow down the list to the one or the few to which you'll most want to apply your efforts at finding work. If you're still a student, or considering going back to school, this step will lead you to step two. If you already have a degree or comparable experience feel free to skip to step three.

2. Complete your degree.

A minimum of an associate or a bachelor's degree is often an educational requirement for technical writing positions (both traditional and freelance), so if you are in the process of completing your degree or going back to school aim for a field of study that both interests and also offers potential for growth. Remember to take any opportunity to study writing and communication as well. You'll need to feel comfortable writing about your given field of study and addressing that writing to a specific audience. 

3. Learn your trade.

Solid research and communication skills are the foundational tools in your technical writer's toolbox, of course, but knowing how to produce actual products is also essential. There are two major categories of technical writing — one that focuses on content for customers and one that produces materials for trained professionals — and the first step toward actually becoming a technical writer is deciding which category is the best fit for you. From there you can start to learn your trade on the ground, either by taking on freelance clients whose needs align with your areas of expertise or applying for entry level technical writing positions.
  • Customer content technical writers create product descriptions, user guides, instructional manuals and other materials for consumers. This content is focused on explaining and teaching non-professional readers on the use of a given product. The writing goal is to distill sometimes very highly technical information into easily-digestible content.
  • Professional content technical writers create technical manuals, service manuals, employee guides and other products for experienced professionals. This content is geared toward readers who are more well-versed in the field, so your writing can delve deeper into the technical specifics of the product or materials. Computer repair professionals, for example, will need a much more technically detailed manual than the average laptop owner.

4. Build your niche.

Once you decide the industry or industries where you want to direct your focus, and you decide who you want to write for (laypeople or professionals), you can then focus on learning the relevant skills needed to serve your target clientele. Become well-versed on the ins and outs of user guides for cell phone owners, maybe, or learn how to write reference manuals for automotive repair professionals. If you're applying for in-house technical writing positions you can then build out your resume toward this specific niche. Even if you're freelancing finding a niche, or a niche within a niche (writing automotive repair manuals only for motorcycles, for example), is a good idea. It won't happen over night, but creating a targeted approach to job hunting is always more efficient and effective than a more scattershot approach.

5. Build a website and portfolio.

If you want to work in a more freelance capacity, think of a website as an extension of your resume. Make sure it tells visitors who you are, what you do and why they should consider working with you. A portfolio of relevant writing samples and a blog you actively contribute to are solid ways to show off both your writing skills and your professional technical expertise. Consider adding papers you wrote in school if you're just starting out, or writing a few articles on your own that are focused on your niche. You can use these articles in your portfolio, and also submit them for publication in a relevant trade magazine or website. Published samples add weight to your writing cred.

6. Turn your blog into a business.

Another way for freelance technical writers to grow their audience and establish their expertise is to grow a following for their blog, and even monetize the blog. There are online resources a-plenty for learning how to do just that, but the essentials are that you'll need to find a niche topic to focus on as an expert writer and then explore it in depth with posts geared toward helping readers learn more about it. For freelancers, a popular blog obviously adds to your cache as a professional writer and as an expert in your field. But a blog with a large following can also serve the technical writer in a more traditional employment situation as well. Anytime you can show off that technical know-how and those writing skills, go for it.

7. Build your technical writing skills.

Whether you take the freelance route or walk the path of more traditional employment (or both!), follow any opportunity to learn about and grow new skills. If you cut your teeth on user manuals for computer owners, consider expanding those skills into writing operational manuals for the professionals that repair those computers. Adding depth to your technical writing toolbox increases your value to both current and future employers. Besides that the world of technical writing is broad — you might find something you love even more than what you're doing now.

8. Continue your education.

Adding certifications or advanced degrees to your resume will take your technical writing career to the next level, obviously. Completing a master's degree or a PhD program will solidify your position as an expert in your field. Yet even just staying abreast of new developments in your field will enhance your ability to produce high quality and relevant technical products. The point is to keep learning and growing as a technical expert, and even as a writer.

How to find work as a new technical writer

If you're new to technical writer, and especially if you want to grow your experience by way of being a freelancer, try bidding on projects posted on bid sites such as Upwork. This is a popular way to start taking on clients and you'll often find gigs just for beginners on these sites. Many writers from different fields begin growing their professional network, skills and portfolio in this way. There are a number of job boards geared toward freelancers, and some are specifically focused on clients looking for technical writers in their field.
For more traditional employment look for entry level positions at technical companies in your field. Not only will you learn the more practical ins and outs of how to become a better technical writer (by working under more experienced writers and editors), you'll also have the opportunity to create a number of different kinds of technical writing products. This broad array of experience will serve you well as you grow your career and perhaps become a specialist for a given product, or if you decide to try freelancing later on and need a niche. You'll already know what you're good at, what you like to do and maybe even what the market is looking for.

How much money can you make as a technical writer?

As a freelancing technical writer your potential for income will vary widely based not only on your level of your experience but also your ability to market yourself and find new or steady clientele. Income for all technical writers can range anywhere from under $50,000 to over $100,000 a year. According to Glassdoor, the average annual income for a technical writer is about $57,000. You experience and expertise are where your potential for income growth will really be determined.

Are technical writers in demand?

They are indeed! We are in the midst of what the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics projected to be a ten percent growth in the field between the years 2014 and 2024. Technological developments and growth in a wide variety of specialties — from the ever-growing science of cell phones to breakthroughs in medical treatments and beyond — means technical writers are going to be able to find work for quite some time to come.