by Jodee Redmond
I’ve been posting lots of jobs for technical writers lately and I must admit that I didn’t really know a lot about what the job entails. One of our readers, Ugur Akinci, has been kind enough to agree to let me interview him about this very topic. Dr. Akinci is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Brown University, where he earned a Master’s Degree and Ph.D. in Sociology.
He worked as a reporter for a daily newspaper from 1994-1998. He has 20 years of experience as a writer, the last 10 as a technical writer working for Fortune 500 corporations like ADP, Honeywell, Fannie Mae, and as a copywriter for his private clients. Dr. Akinci recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about the field of technical writing.
1. How did your background as a journalist help you to make the switch to doing technical writing?
Journalism teaches you mental concentration and time-discipline. When you’re working as a reporter for a daily newspaper you need to concentrate on your topic like a laser beam, write up the story and then deliver it within the same day even if it’s not “perfect.” That kind of discipline, day-in day-out, develops one’s information processing capacity in a hurry. After a few years of that kind of daily churning you turn into a lean and mean data-absorbing and reporting machine. It eliminates your “writer’s block” for good.
A second skill that journalism teaches well is how to listen to people, how to interview Subject Matter Experts and then write it in a way that the average reader would understand.
Both these skills came in very handy when I switched to technical writing ten years ago.
2. What kinds of materials do your clients ask you to write?
I write software, hardware, networking, and security access user guides, system administrator guides, quick installation guides, “spec sheets”, help files, and other hi-tech documentation demanded on a regular basis by the software/hardware industry.
3. What kinds of companies or organizations hire technical writers?
Let me rephrase the question this way: which industries do NOT hire technical writers? Very few. Within the last ten years I’ve seen the following industries hire tech writers on a regular basis:
Computers and hi-tech sector, banks and finance, government at all levels, transportation, telecommunication, sports, all kinds of manufacturing, insurance, hospitals and medical care, sales organizations (both wholesale and retail), non-profits, political and advocacy organizations, travel and tourism, entertainment, gambling, etc.
Tech writing is easily the highest-demand writing niche that I know of today and it pays very well too.
In terms of job availability try this test: go to Craigslist on any day. And search for “Technical Writing”. Then do a similar search for other writing specialties like “journalist”, “novelist”, “poet”, “screenplay writer” etc. And compare the results. Only “copywriter” comes close, on certain days.
4. Is technical writing similar to content writing? In what way?
The answer is yes and no.
It is similar to content writing in the sense that you need to create prose that is easily understood, logically consistent and conveys useful information.
Where it separates from regular content writing is in its procedural nature. It takes a while to learn how to break complex information down to its individual components and then put them all together again in a series of logical steps. The proof of good tech writing is in whether the reader can follow your instructions and achieve the intended result. That’s when you know whether your writing was good or not.
Take this test: try to write a “technical user guide” to making an omelet from scratch. After finishing it, try to make an omelet only by following your own instructions and nothing else. You might be pleasantly surprised at the steps you have omitted because they felt like “obvious” to you. For example you might notice that you have forgotten to tell the reader to turn on the burner, or to dispose the broken egg shells to the trash bin. If you can achieve that kind of attention to “obvious” details and express them in clear and simple English, then you might probably make the transition from general content writing to technical writing rather easily.
5. Do you have any tips or advice you would like to share for our readers who are interested in expanding their services to include technical writing to their clients?
My top advice would be to develop a personal portfolio to break into tech writing. Nothing speaks louder for your skills than a finished work or two at hand.
One thing I recommend to my readers and students is to write a user’s manual for a freely available software like OpenOffice. It does not need to be complete or perfect. Just for example write a manual on how to 1) design a template and then 2) write a book based on that template by using OpenOffice, or any other software for that matter.
One or two manuals like that (each perhaps 30 to 50 pages in length, including screen shots) should be sufficient to give a good idea to the recruiter or prospective client about your tech writing (and information design) skills.
One other piece of advice is to learn some of the specialized tools widely used in tech writing. A relevant software skill is always an advantage. FrameMaker, for example, is one such writing tool and is asked by most top-level tech writing recruiters that I know of. You can break into tech writing with MS Office and Word as well but that’s to me usually an indication of a low-paying tech writing position, which by the same token might be ideal for a junior tech writer.
Since (according to a recent research) 60% of what a typical “technical writer” does involves not writing but actually DESIGNING the document in question, graphic and information design skills is a clear advantage in this niche. If, for example, you’re good with Photoshop, InDesign, Dreamweaver or Illustrator consider yourself lucky because that will be definitely a plus in your search for a tech writing job.
Just like in real estate, location also matters in tech writing. The more industrialized and crowded an area, better will be your chances to find a tech writing job. Some of the best tech writing locations in the United States are Washington DC-Northern VA and Washington DC – Baltimore corridors, North Carolina Research Triangle Area, San Diego, Austin TX, Boston and vicinity, New York City – Northern NJ, Seattle-Portland area, Chicago, etc. Craigslist and Freelance Writing Jobs are great places to check out on tech.
A side note — according to the latest available STC (Society for Technical Communication) Salary Survey figures, the highest paid senior tech writers in America did work in Nevada and made a little over $114,000 a year. Not bad, huh?
STC has a great Job Listing service that is available only for paid members. So you might want to consider that as well.
Best regards and good luck to you all!