Can you be a technical writer without an actual technical writing degree? The short answer is yes! I’ve suggested ways for a reader with a teaching career pursue a job in technical communication, but teaching is not the only alternate route into this curiously fulfilling career. Another reader–Celeste, a creative writing major–suggested I address people with other majors as well. Happy to oblige!
More Than One Path
Technical writing is a multidisciplinary career in that it requires multiple thinking types besides pushing words around. That’s why you can find technical writers in areas as varied as accounting, aerospace, automotive, biotechnology, defense, human resources, engineering, medical technology, robotics, software documentation, pharmaceuticals, science, training and development, travel and tourism, underwriting, and others. In fact, I recall that the first session in my first semester of grad school was an in-depth discussion of “What is technical writing?” and “Does X qualify as technical writing?”
In short, you can find technical writing in multiple professions, and as a result you could find yourself “accidentally” in a tech writing position without any formal training or even necessarily applying for the job.
For example, there are times when an engineer might be roped into writing some sort of documentation for the software their team is developing because there isn’t time to hire a dedicated technical writer. However, just the word “documentation” is problematic. Are you documenting the features of the software for management so they know what you plan to develop? Are you writing the end user manual? Or are you writing software notes so that other programmers will be able to code and modify your program later? I’ve written about that here for more details. Likewise, writing for the aerospace business (one of my primary lines of business) has multiple variations as well.
What Sort of Job Am I Getting Into?
In addition to the diversity of fields where you can find technical writers, there are many different types of work that writers do within those fields. This can include writing about…
- Business practices
- Technology development and documentation
- Product engineering or safety description
- Manufacturing or other processes
- Policies, procedures, or training
- Sales, marketing, public relations, education, and outreach
- Customer/client/guest relations
And I’m certain that covers the basics. The good news is: technical writers are everywhere, and the field is likely to continue expanding. I’ve stopped worrying about artificial intelligence replacing my job in the near future, for example, because the fundamental skill set of the technical writer–simplifying, clarifying, or “translating” a given set of complex information for a specific audience’s use requires a set of human abilities (currently) beyond Watson, etc. Indeed, during my time at NASA, I had to switch between writing the same content for elected officials, engineers, scientists, members of the general public, or their children.
You Haven’t Answered the Question: Can I Do This Job?
Again, the short answer is: yes. If you ended up in a tech writing assignment by accident (your boss assigned you a writing task outside your usual duties), it’s a safe assumption that your employer has the confidence that you can do the work. If you applied for the job without a tech writing degree and you were hired anyway, again, there’s an assumption you can do the work. Here are some of the skill sets a technical writer uses on a regular basis:
- Putting content in a useful order for a given audience
- Laying out text and visual elements on a page/website/other output in a way that is logical, orderly, and aesthetically pleasing
- Audience/process analysis (understanding your content from the audience/user’s point of view so you understand which order/layout meets their needs in the first place).
- Interviewing subject matter experts
- Note taking
- Asking questions
- If you want to make a career of tech writing, you might need a few more business-related skills as well
I was doing all of these before I got the M.A. in technical writing, and some of them before I had gotten my B.A. in English literature. Ever take notes in school? Ever done research? Ever read a book or brochure? Ever have to organize something in priority order? Then you can be a technical writer.
I do not mean to downplay the usefulness of a dedicated degree. I got mine to demonstrate to the technical/engineering industry that I was serious about being useful to the space business. I might’ve gotten the career I wanted eventually; that just seemed the best approach for me. The degree was useful and maybe even necessary for me because I was a bit undisciplined in my learning/understanding of the field.
However, a dedicated degree in the field is not necessary to do the job in many cases. Often it helps to have a background in the subject matter in the first place. Other times, it helps if you have a degree in a related field, such as creative writing, journalism, education, or communication. While human resource departments in large organizations sometimes get persnickety about credentials and specialized backgrounds, other organizations–especially the smaller ones where the hiring manager has to sort resumes–are more keen to hire someone with the right skill set.
As my employer at a defense contractor put it when I explained that I knew little about proposal writing and practically nothing about engineering, he said, “We can teach you that. I’ve got plenty of engineers; what I need is a writer!“