Technical writers are masters of the art of simplicity. They’re the magicians who turn technical concepts and complex information into content that’s easily understood and applied. Think how-to instructions. Think tutorials, directions and product descriptions.
What’s the secret behind making this transformation? Being well-versed in the subject at hand. If a technical writer doesn’t start out with a solid understanding of their topic, they do their homework. They often spend time using new products that are in development, interviewing subject-matter experts and reviewing feedback from usability studies to learn more about their subject. They also collaborate with graphic designers, writing labels and captions, to help illustrate information.
Developments in the Field
Traditionally, technical writers have written for printed materials such as instruction manuals, regulatory documents and journal articles. Though writing for print is still part of the job, the role has expanded to include new responsibilities now that so much content is digital.
“There’s been a change of course for the professional technical writer in regard to the essential tools in their toolbox,” said Carl Chatfield, a seasoned technical writer and instructor in the Certificate in Professional Technical Writing program offered by UW Professional & Continuing Education. “Technical writers might now need skills in user research and prototyping. A technical writer might be expected to do web production work, web analytics and even content strategy.”
Despite the changing face of technical writing, though, the primary goal remains the same: Help the reader. “The most rewarding aspect of the job for me,” said Chatfield, “is seeing that connection between what my audience wants to do and then is able to do.”
High Demand, Especially in Washington
Common Job Titles
Technical Writer, Documentation Specialist, Content Writer, Communication Specialist, Technical Editor
U.S. (2020-30): 7%
Washington state (2018-28): 21%
Median Annual salary
U.S. (2020): $74,650
Washington state (2020): $80,440
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET
Demand for technical writers is on the rise, driven by the upsurge in scientific and technical products and web-based product support offered today. The number of jobs for technical writers is projected to increase faster than average compared with other occupations, especially in Washington state.
O*NET projects employment in technical writing to grow by 7% nationally over the coming decade. In Washington state, with its thriving IT industry, projected job growth is even higher, at 21%. A recent search on Indeed.com shows open technical writer positions at more than 150 companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, and T-Mobile.
Breaking Into the Field
Not surprisingly, technical writers often break into the field with writing expertise under their belts. Many of the job descriptions you’ll find list a degree in English, journalism or a related area as a qualification. However, having practical expertise can be an equally effective way to land a job these days.
“I've really seen a rise of the subject-matter expert type of writer,” Chatfield noted, “somebody coming from hands-on work in a field like software engineering or health care and then acquiring the communication skills to be an effective technical writer in that industry.”
Whatever route you take to break into the field, having writing samples to show potential employers can be incredibly helpful. “It's very much a portfolio-based field,” Chatfield explained. “The main thing we focus on in the technical writing certificate program is building out your portfolio of work samples.”
Chatfield’s students create writing projects on technology they're interested in that they can publish on the web, such as for open source software publishers and wikis. Those writing samples can help pave the way to a paying job in the field.
Get Started in Technical Writing
If you're interested in moving into the technical writing field, you may want to check out the Certificate in Professional Technical Writing. UW also offers several related programs and certificates that can help advance your career.