Just saying the words technical writer is enough to make aspiring scribes shudder. Once upon a time, I certainly did. So while planning this article, I decided to conduct an experiment: I went to a Walgreen’s and asked strangers what they think a technical writer does. Typical answers were “write technical or scientific material,” “very complicated reports,” “manuals, legal, or medical documents,” and “stuff for businesses, like annual reports.” Their answers may be vaguely correct, but technical writing is much more than that.
I had the same misconceptions for many years. Then I went back to school and learned what technical writing really was. Now that I’ve been a veteran in the technical writing field for almost a decade, I felt it was time to dispel the top six myths about the career I’ve chosen.
Myth #1: Technical writers only write about highly technical, scientific, technological, medical, or systematic topics.
This is probably the biggest fallacy of all. At its core, technical writing is simply about conveying factual information, for a particular purpose, to a targeted audience. If a technical writer is producing material for an engineering firm, then yes, the work will be of a more complex and technical nature. But there’s a far more diverse list of documents that count as technical writing, such as schedules, training materials, product descriptions, press releases, and reference guides.
Myth #2: Technical writing is boring and lacks creativity.
People often think a technical writer’s job is as exciting as the proverbial bean counter in the field of accounting. To say it’s dull is laughable. Since technical writers cover just about every topic, there’s no reason to expect it to be different from any other field of professional writing.
Since I freelance, I probably get a greater variety of ad hoc projects than someone working for one company. I never know what the next client may have up his or her sleeve, and trust me, it often challenges my skills. Creativity is relative, but when I write reports with charts, graphs, and illustrations, my work isn’t all that different from what you might find on popular data journalism sites like The Upshot or Vox.
Myth #3: Technical writers are not paid well.
On the contrary, we are paid very well. The chart below, with data from Salary.com, lists the average wages for technical writers in New York City, Los Angeles, and Madison, Wis., (where I live).
With enough experience, technical writers can make six figures per year, and salaries across the board are greater than what you’d likely earn as a journalist or editor with comparable experience.
Myth #4: Technical writers need a technical background.
A really good writer doesn’t need to know anything about the subject matter prior to starting a project. Whoever hired you is the industry expert. A great technical writer knows not only what to ask, but also where to find the right information.
Between the guidance and literature your client provides and the information you dig up, it’s the technical writer’s job to know how to research and transform the materials into comprehensible text for the target audience.
Myth #5: Technical writing has a very rigid structure.
According to Technical Communication, 7th edition, by Mike Markel, there are certain elements found in most proposals, such as an introduction (where you would explain the reason for the proposal) and the proposed program section (which describes what you want to do). However, most writing of any type—and most occupations, for that matter—have a standard format. It’s up to the worker to make it stand out.
Think of it this way: Most résumés follow a certain structure that includes employment history and education, but it’s up to the individual to find creative ways to stand out. The same applies to technical writing, where there’s room to present ideas in innovative ways.
Myth #6: You must have a bachelor’s degree to become a technical writer.
I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting you don’t need any formal training if you want a career in technical writing. You do need some type of training to become a technical writer. All I’m saying is you do not need a B.S. or B.A.
Of course, the more education you have, the better. But typical instruction for technical writing comes from a “certificate program,” in which you must complete certain requires classes to earn the certification. It’s probably the best path to take, since all coursework will focus on technical writing, and you won’t have to complete any credits in history, science, or math, like you do for a bachelor’s degree.
Associate degree programs are available as well. These go a little deeper into the subject matter and may cover other types of professional writing.
And as you can see, there are a lot of stereotypes out there about technical writing, but if you want to work with words, it’s a field worth exploring. Now that you have the facts, go get technical. Go write. Be creative.