Things Students Can Do to Prepare for a Technical Writing Career

This is directed toward my younger readers who are still attending school and seeking advice on things they can do now to be a technical writer once they’re done with their formal education (quick hint: your informal education never ends!). If you’re no longer a student reading this and have other advice, by all means, add your thoughts to the comments.

Things to Learn

Writing & mechanics

Obviously you want to get more education in the technicalities of writing. If you’re growing up in the Anglophone (English-speaking) part of the world, congratulations! English is still the international language for things ranging from diplomacy to science to technology. I don’t know what the state of education is in other parts of the world, but the writing skills of Americans are pretty uneven (I have a long list of pet peeves I see on a regular basis), so anything you can do to stand out from the average will be appreciated by future employers.

Technical content

While you’re getting classroom instruction in the details of grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax, and organization, don’t forget to read broadly and (in your favorite subjects) deeply. If you have multiple areas of interest, by all means, feast on what your local library or bookstore has to offer. Learn the words and phrases that are common to particular industries. You might encounter bad or confusing writing, too. If you can identify ways that things can be improved, great!

Technical skills

I presume you use multiple forms of computer already, but be sure to take a typing class. You’ll appreciate being able to touch-type rather than using what I call the “Columbus method” of typing (discover a key, land on it). That might be the most useful class I ever took in high school because I use it daily.

Learn how to use other technical tools as well. My list of suggested technical skills probably needs to be updated, but it’s at least a start. You might be a literary person, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to avoid technology entirely–it’s increasingly embedded into our culture. As a side skill, you can be conscious of how people interact with technology. You might have to write instructions for people using it at some point. You’ve been that new user–how did it feel? What did you wish to know?

Entrepreneurial skills

A lot of technical writers and editors are freelancers, meaning they’re not full-time employees. The reality is that engineering and other technical firms usually hire engineers first and often don’t hire writers for documentation, marketing, or other needs until later in their development. If they do hire writers, they hire them on a temporary basis to write things like proposals on a rush basis. There are full-time employees out there, to be sure, but freelancing/entrepreneurial skills are just good to have in case you find yourself out of full-time work and need to fend for yourself.

The most important lessons you can learn, however, are attitude-related:

  • Your skills as a writer and editor have value in the marketplace and smart companies will pay to hire you for them.
  • You might not be a math or science genius, but you can learn the words employers use to conduct their business. Again, you’re being hired for your writing skills, not to be an engineer.
  • You can use your love of reading or researching widely and deeply to find the information you need–to locate a job or answer a question on the job once you have one.

Things to Do

If you’re a hands-on person, consider trying the things that interest you (rocketry? costuming? farming?) so you’ll have a better, first-person familiarity with the subject matter. And this is one case where I highly recommend doing as I say, not as I did when I got my high school diploma or B.A. in English Literature. I was a lazy, impractical student who wanted to write the Great American Science Fiction Novel instead of think about boring things like paying bills. However, if you take the time to work on real-world projects using your writing skills, you will be building a portfolio of work that will start you on the road to success in college or university and beyond.

What do I mean by real-world projects? Your school undoubtedly has clubs of some sort: student council, science club, theater guild, what have you. Most of them have writing needs, they just don’t know it yet. Theater departments need programs written, formatted, and edited. Student council needs meeting minutes written as well as bylaws and other documents written. Science or technology clubs have newsletters or instructions to write up for their members. Oh, yeah: and your school might have a student newspaper–you could always write for them.

And here’s a weird one, but trust me on this: stay out of trouble with the law (especially drugs) and avoid overspending on credit cards if you can help it. Why? Because employers do background checks before hiring you. Government agencies, such as NASA, will check to see if you have a criminal record and if you have a lot of outstanding debts. The downside of a criminal record should be obvious. The downside of poor credit is that employers can treat that as a sign that you’re irresponsible. Also, financially desperate people can be easily recruited by other countries to steal technical secrets because those countries are willing to pay spies to get those secrets. There are serious penalties for espionage, legal, financial, and criminal if you’re caught, and you don’t want those. It helps to take the long view on your career.

Meanwhile, read and write to your heart’s content in subjects that interest you. That’ll make you as ready for the world of work as your friends studying engineering or medicine. Go forth and conquer!


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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Things Students Can Do to Prepare for a Technical Writing Career

  1. DJ RMX says:

    brilliant advice. I’m not a young person (36) but I have considered a career in some kind of technical writing. This advice (and your website) is amazing. Thank you.

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