Technical Writing as a Career: Starting from Scratch / by Portia Zwicker

Are you thinking about technical writing as a career and don’t know where to start? Not even sure it’s the right direction for you? Perhaps you don’t even know any technical writers; and therefore, don’t know who to ask for advice. Should you go to school for it? If so, how intense of a program should you consider?

These are all questions I faced a little over a year ago when I started to seriously consider switching fields from music to tech writing. I can’t even remember how I heard about tech writing as a job or field, because at the time, I did not know anyone who worked as one. Fortunately, I was in touch with a career counselor who gave me some great advice on how to proceed. That advice included three areas: alumni, training and professional affiliation.

Perhaps you haven’t yet decided that technical writing is right for you. Did you go to college? If so, your college likely has an alumni network. I was able to search my college’s alumni network to find people working in the technical writing field. Fellow alumni are often very happy to speak to each other because of their shared connection. Then I emailed a few, and I had a very informative telephone conversation with one alumna. I requested an “informational interview” in which I inquired about how she became a technical writer, what her job was like day-to-day, if she enjoyed her job, etc. My conversation with her confirmed that I did, in fact, want to pursue technical writing as a career.

Should you consider formal training in technical writing? I think it depends on your background. Many technical writers did not go to school specifically for that title. Most find their way into the field while working at another related job. Often they were the best writer among their fellow engineers or scientists. Educational training specifically in technical writing is a relatively new thing. Since I come from a music background, I knew I needed that training. Given that I already had a BA, I wasn’t looking for something too intense, or that would take more than a year to complete. When I spoke to the chair of the Technical Communications Department at one of the schools I was considering, he told me their certificate program sounded like a good fit. In fact, he said he thought I could even go through their continuing education program (which costs less, but means I don’t get actual academic credit) rather than going through the application process. If you decide to go to school for technical writing, don’t be afraid to interview current and past students of the schools you’re considering. When I narrowed down my search to two schools, I contacted graduates from both. I found that information extremely useful, and it ultimately helped me make my final decision.

On a final note, I highly recommend that no matter what stage you are at in your technical writing education or career, you join a professional organization such as the Society for Technical Communication. My career counselor recommended that I do this early on, before I even started school. I admit that I did wait, so I could get the student membership rate, but I’m so glad I joined! You get advice from fellow members, learn new skills through sponsored workshops and network with your peers. All of which are important factors for anyone “starting from scratch” or already working in the technical writing field.