What do I need to do to become a Technical Writer/Content Editor?
September 30, 2014 11:08 AM   Subscribe

My background is chiefly Facilities Management/Procurement/Commercial Real Estate, however, I completed my Business degree last year as a mature student of 32. It is only recently (through exhaustive introspection after being made redundant 4 months previously) that my passion falls within the technical writing/editing arenas. Moreover,What colour is your parachute?enabled me to identify what skills I have utilized and subsequently enjoyed throughout my life/career, to facilitate a career of my choice as opposed to just falling into roles I do not like.

There are a number of occasions where I have executed editing, proof reading and writing skills throughout my career and University, however I believe these brief experiences prove insufficient in being able to now search for Technical Writer/Content Editor roles. Thus, I would like some advice as to what software/frameworks/certifications/qualifications I need to undertake to further develop my writing skill-set when applying for roles in the future. As I said, it's taken a lot of introspection since being made redundant 4 months ago. I have worked for 14 years undertaking a myriad of job roles within various industries. I used to be an agency temp for 4 years, between 17 and 21, before successfully gaining permanent employment for a Central Government department. After 10 years' service within said department, I decided to quit and go to University to do a Business degree. After graduating last year, I then found a permanent job working in Commercial Real Estate. I was subsequently made redundant after 10 months.

What colour is your parachute?was a real eyeopener for me. I can't believe how ignorant I have been all my life and throughout my career, to not realize what job role I shouldbe pursuing/doing.

From designing and writing my own newspaper at Junior School, to writing a diary throughout Secondary School, and from proof reading/editing essays to designing and creating training manuals as a PD and IT Trainer, it was clear as day that I should be doing a job involving writing. I can read for hours till my brain explodes, and I can proof read and edit till my eyelids can't take it no more.

Having identified all of this, I also have developed a huge interest in infographics/data visualisation. I can marry these two together and voila - there is my answer. Being a creative and artistic person who also loves to read and write, it now makes perfect sense.

Here is my plan but I would like a TW's advice as to whether such options are necessary:

- Pursue a Masters in Professional Writing
- Become a member of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Writers
- Become a member of the Society of Proof Readers and Editors (I have to complete a test in order to become a member)
- Learn everything there is to know about Adobe Illustrator/InDesign/Robohelp and any other software (Visio as another example) relevant to becoming a bonafide TW.
- Create an online portfolio of everything I have edited/proof read/annotated/designed/produced (without breaking any disclosure laws)

I've also read about Open Source Projects which can help with portfolio content, however, I have no idea what these exactly involve?

How important is learning Robohelp/Visio and other software platforms to strengthen my skill-set and increase my employability? I suspect these are web-based delivery as opposed to the traditional e-document/paper-based formats? Apologies for my ignorance, this is why I need your help.

I will do what it takes to help develop my career as a Technical Writer, even if this involves self-teaching all the necessary software tools and frameworks.
posted by emma33UK to Work & Money (3 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have worked as a technical writer and I now work as a marketing copywriter. I also teach copywriting and online marketing at the local commuter college. My goal as an instructor is to help my students get a job.

I have worked in a number of different verticals, including consumer software, B2B software, commercial real estate, REIT's, and more.

The funny thing is I don't really have any training. Long ago I got a "Creative Writing" degree, but I learned mostly how to write a Raymond Carveresque short story.

I kind of fell into writing. I wanted to be a teacher, and did run my own school overseas for a while. I came back to Canada with hopes of teaching, but the demographic shift, combined with budget cutbacks meant I had to find another way to earn a living. I was at about your age (I was 32; I also read What Colour is Your Parachute, too!) when I thought that "writing" is the way to go.

My first contract, about a year, was as a "technical writer" for a team of security architects in government. They wanted someone who could use Visio (I learned) to create use-cases, and document meetings. I also documented best practices, which were just ad hoc at the time.

But what I was doing wouldn't really be called technical writing if I worked at, say, a software company.

A large hardware company did interview me for a technical writing position, but the wanted some who could use Framemaker or Robohelp, which I didn't know.

It's important to know that technical writing is, for most people, not the end destination. It's an entry-level job. It's a great way to learn about the product and customer. Understanding the product and the customer is really important - you can go on to marketing, or product management, or client management, or project manager.

I'm just not sure if a lot of technical writers are being hired these days. And even if you did get the job, would you be happy in that environment?

On the content side, copywriting is also an entry-level position at many marketing agencies. Writing, while appreciated, isn't really valued. Most of the money gets spent on the look-and-feel of a site, and the coding. The actual writing is an afterthought, if they have the budget. Or the CEO can write it or something.

So copywriting is an entryway into an agency, but you'll also being doing things like social media managing (posting on Facebook).

Most agencies seem to want to hire a jack-of-all trades, someone who can use graphics programs and some HTML coding and some writing and some social media and some analytics.

My advice is to fake it 'til you make it, and focus on some of the skills you really like. For me, it's writing, analytics, and conversion optimization. My freelancer background also gives me a leg up on PR.

The thing that has always worked for me is knocking on doors, emailing people, phoning them up for coffee. Want ads are not helpful. Understand who the decision maker is - who has the authority to hire you? Who needs help?

I wouldn't spend a lot of money on coursework, because in this space universities typically have little understanding of what employers want.
posted by Nevin at 11:33 AM on September 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

I am a technical editor. I was a freelance (print) technical reporter/columnist/editor and then a Web editor from the early 90s through 2008, laid off due to the recession, and since 2011 I have been a W2 employee, editing extremely boring and repetitive technical reports for a leading company in a growing field that pays just OK, gives decent benefits, and allows me to work at home with extreme flexibility. Before that I was a techie for decades (field engineering and technical support, where I realized that the same questions came up over and over again, and I began writing down the answers and thus found my forte).

When I realized, after the dotcom bust in 2001, that my days of well-paid freelance technical reporting/opining (at $1 per word, believe it or not) and editing ($70K a year, believe it or not) were over and I would need a degree to continue scraping out a living in this field, I went back to college and completed a degree in journalism with an Individualized Degree Program (IDP) minor in technical communications (that's where I basically took all the miscellaneous coursework I had ever done in computer science, biology, math, electronics, etc. over the years and fashioned it into a minor with an essay). I also took a course in business writing. The journalism coursework included a course in InDesign, which I have used rarely, but YMMV.

I chose journalism because it is the only discipline that specifically teaches editing. It was perfect for honing my (adequate, but untrained) editing skills, and teaching me how to shift into editor mode (a special mindset that allows you to see the errors that your brain wants to pretend are not there).

I would not think that a masters in professional writing would help much. You're not going to be writing or editing fiction. Your creativity will be used to develop visuals of factual information. Adobe Illustrator/InDesign/Robohelp skills would be good, but you need to know how to write just the facts. Adverbs and adjectives are not your bailiwick. Dreamweaver would be another good app to learn, since there is a market for Web editors. Your ability to construct working links will be more valuable than your ability to correct dangling participles, unfortunately.

Also, it is true that technical writer (and sometimes technical editor) are entry-level jobs. Even though our work is essential, it is not always well paid.

In my search for work after the aforementioned dotcom bust, when the gigs stopped falling into my lap, I learned that most employers do not actually know what they are looking for in terms of hiring people with technical (or any other) editing skills. I was hired through an employment consulting firm that also hired a paralegal and a former government stenographer/typist/secretary at the same time. My current employer put much more weight on my technical background than my editing, but these days they tend to accord almost magical properties to my ability to find errors and discrepancies that others miss. It's all due to being taught by a professor who was also a working newspaper copyeditor.
posted by caryatid at 9:40 PM on September 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you need to narrow down your goals. Technical writer, science writer, proofreader, editor, infographic designer, and data visualization designer are different roles that require different skills (and I wrote here, the job title "technical writer" itself is used for roles with a wide variety of responsibilities). You could aim to be a jack-of-all-trades eventually, but I think you'd need professional experience in each of these areas to be convincing. A lot of companies won't care about your knowledge of X and Y if they're hiring for Z.

I've been a technical writer in the software industry for over ten years, so I can address your plan from that point of view:

* A masters in professional writing is not useful for technical writing jobs. If you want to pursue more education, I'd recommend a bachelor degree or certificate in technical writing, depending on what's available in your area and price range.
* Becoming a member of the ISTC is probably useful, if the fee is within your budget. I'd also look at the STC, which is US-based but probably the largest technical writing organization for English speakers. Personally, I've never joined a tech writing organization, but I entered the profession via internal transfer from a software development role, so I had an easier start.
* I'm not sure that being a member of the SfEP is useful for a technical writer. If I saw that on a CV, I'd probably consider it a plus; but when hiring new tech writers, I'm much more concerned with their technical skills than with their editing skills.
* Learning about Adobe Illustrator/InDesign/Robohelp and Visio... From my point of view as a technical writer, these aren't useful. I haven't needed to use Visio in over six years. I've never used Illustrator or InDesign; those belong to the realm of the graphic designer. Robohelp is passé; tools like Flare and Author-it are more popular with tech writers these days. And you never know what tools your potential employer uses anyway. As I mentioned here, it's not very important to know the ins and outs of a particular tool. It's more important to know what certain tools are, and the basics of how they work.
* Creating a portfolio is a great idea.

Check out this question regarding writing documentation for open source projects. You should also take a look at Technical Writing World and TechWhirl, as well as technical writers' blogs such as Every Page Is Page One and I'd Rather Be Writing.

To address some points from Nevin and caryatid: Whether or not companies are hiring tech writers depends on where you live. I work in continental Europe and I've had five job offers in the past six years. Salary also depends on where you live and what industry you're in. I currently make more than a few senior software developers I know (though not more than the developers at my own company). It doesn't have to be an entry-level career if you have a passion for it. But if your ultimate goal is to do something like copywriting, editing, or graphic design, then it seems to me that it's more efficient to focus on those jobs from the outset than to try to move into them via the route of technical writing.
posted by neushoorn at 1:20 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

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