How to become a technical writer - Part I

Nov. 7, 2022

Every now and then, people ask me how one can become a technical writer for software companies. Answering that question has always been difficult, as there is no clear career path for becoming a tech writer, nor a demand for tech writers such that it’d push formal tech comms education forward (at least in Europe). While the role has grown in popularity, technical writers are still a small fraction of the total workforce in the tech industry. The question is so powerful, though, that I cannot ignore it. I’ll try to provide an answer.

Why would you become a tech writer?

Run a search for “technical writing” on social media: You’ll see lots of posts about “getting a job in tech”, often stating that tech writing is one of the easiest, high-paying jobs in tech, and that it doesn’t require coding skills. They’re wrong and misleading on many accounts: Technical writing isn’t easy nor particularly well paid. And while it’s not necessary to learn coding to be an excellent technical writer, getting comfortable around code is essential.

Now, there are many interesting, well-paying professions out there. What’s your reason for choosing technical writing if it’s not a path paved in gold? Why would you want to write and edit documentation for software or hardware that has been developed so fast that it’s often barely usable? If you haven’t done that step yet, you ought to ask yourself why you want to work as a technical writer. I can give you a hint based on what worked for me.

One of my strongest beliefs is that the world needs more humanists in tech, due to the social impact of the products they develop and release to the general public. One of the many ways of achieving that goal is by hiring tech writers, because technical writing is a wire crossing the chasm between humanity and tech. In my previous post A love letter to technical writing I wrote the following (cue an epic soundtrack):

Writing about tech is instilling life into inanimate matter, so that the living can use it for the greater good. It’s looking in awe at the command prompt of an operating system and wondering how you could make it more friendly. It’s also explaining to folks why changing passwords frequently is important, sure. Ultimately, it’s adding what makes us human, that is, language, to products made of steel, bits, or chemical compounds.

That’s my reason for being a technical writer, and I developed it over the years. Initially, I entered the profession because I always loved it from a distance. You might have other reasons, or none at all, and that’s fine. Work is work, and one needs to work to sustain themselves. If you do have a reason, though, it better be good. Don’t become a technical writer just because you’ve read somewhere that it’s easier or more lucrative – it’s neither.

This is true for any profession really: Sucky reasons are sucky.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore

I’ve some good and bad news about how to become a tech writer, and they’re the same: There is no single path for becoming a technical writer, nor a best method, training, or skill set, not even when it’s for software. That’s actually a pretty good thing.

Many technical writers, including myself, started as technical writers by chance: We were doing other jobs, sometimes in entirely different sectors, until the opportunity presented itself under the guise of a job ad. What we read in the description contained many of the ingredients we sought in a profession, such as writing and tech, so we ended up falling in love with technical writing, or learned to love it along the way. We were like marbles slowly spiraling down a funnel made of silicon. We wanted tech, and tech needed us.

You can get to technical writing from a potentially endless combination of skills and professions. The same happens with other professions that combine multiple disciplines together, such as Security Engineer, Product Manager, or Game Producer. This is by necessity: composite professions bridge the gap between discrete crafts and bring them together through hybridization. I’ve created the following diagram to further explain my point that there are endless flavors of technical writing:

Chart of technical writing paths

For example, you might be a teacher of computer science who wants to apply educational skills to technical documentation; in that case, you’d be coming from a mix of green (Code) and red (Research) quadrants. Or maybe you’re a software engineer with a penchant for machine translation and computational linguistics (Text). Or perhaps you’re joining the fray from the world of customer experience and business analysis (Comms). Whatever the combination, the question is always the same: What can you bring to the field? Chances are that tech writing needs that if it can result in an intersection of Code, Research, Text, and Comms.

What it is that tech writing needs? An inquisitive mind that strives at simplifying complex technical information and at describing how complex software works using a variety of communication channels. How you get to provide that is not relevant: Many of the best technical writers I know come from non-technical backgrounds, like translation or English literature. Others are deeply technical, even former engineers, but they recognize the value of clear communication. The meeting point is the same for all of them. We all care.

Another way of looking at this is imagining technical writing as any multi-role class in MMORPG video games; one of my recurrent (and nerdy) jokes is saying that tech writers are a lot like the druids and shamans of World of Warcraft, who can support a party by doing different things (I even created this tech writing skills tree to prove my point). As it happens with most RPG classes, tech writing has its own specializations: More code and public relations? You may be a DevRel. More planning and global pictures? You get the Content Strategy perk. Automation and tools are your thing? DocOps is your thing.

When you choose to become a technical writer, you’re choosing your own adventure.