Technical Writer

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Technical Writer

Education and Training: College

Salary: Median—$53,490 per year

Employment Outlook: Very good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Technical writers explain in simple language scientific and technical ideas that are difficult for the average reader to understand. Some write articles and reports on current trends in fields such as science and engineering. Many technical writers in this specialty are former scientists and technicians, but others work in nonscientific fields. For example, some work for insurance companies, explaining terms and procedures to insurance agents, claims adjusters, and other workers in the industry. Technical writers may be employed to write policies and procedures for any type of operation—from banking to shipping. They may also write different kinds of instruction manuals—from how to use a new appliance to how to build a model airplane. Some write press releases and other promotional materials for companies that sell products or services.

Technical writers work for book, magazine, or newspaper publishers, or they may be employed in other industries. Technical writers who work for the federal government write the pamphlets that are published by the Government Printing Office. These pamphlets cover many different fields, including the activities of various government agencies and the developments in research in such areas as medicine, education, agriculture, and aerospace. Some technical writers work for colleges or universities or for the publishers of professional journals. Others work for advertising agencies.

Thousands of business and trade magazines and papers are published by industries and publishing firms to keep readers informed about special fields. Industrial publications are often written and edited by technical writers. These publications are written primarily for a company's employees, while external ones are distributed to inform the general public of the company's activities.

Newspapers, news magazines, and wire services employ technical writers. Large metropolitan papers often employ special writers to cover subjects such as science, aviation, medicine, aerospace, education, religion, and nutrition. Professional journals covering the automobile industry, engineering, computers, medicine, law, chemistry, music, and education use technical writers to report professional trends and to work as editors. In addition, technical writing companies hire writers to prepare articles for other firms.

Many technical writers work as freelance writers. Freelance writers are self-employed and sell their work to publishers, corporations, manufacturing firms, and advertising agencies. They are paid by the job or by the hour. Sometimes they are hired to do specific jobs such as writing about a new high-tech product or advancement.

Technical writers must have excellent research skills. They gather information on their subjects in libraries, over the Internet, and sometimes by interviewing experts in the field. After they have completed their research, technical writers organize their ideas and work at translating any technical language or jargon into text that the average reader can understand. They may prepare charts, graphs, or forms to accompany their initial drafts. Technical writers sometimes show these first drafts to experts in the field before completing the final copy. The experts may give them feedback on the accuracy of their facts or the clarity of their writing.

Education and Training Requirements

A college education is generally required to enter this field. Many writers have a bachelor's degree in either a scientific or engineering field or in English or journalism. Many employers require a degree in a scientific area. Some technical writers start out as research assistants or as trainees in a technical information department and then are promoted to writer duties.

While in high school, interested individuals should take courses in English, math, and the sciences and work on the school's newspaper to gain experience. In college, it is important to take courses in both a technical field and in liberal arts, including English composition and journalism. Some colleges may offer courses in technical writing or at least touch on the subject. Any jobs available on a college's magazine or newspaper are very worthwhile.

Getting the Job

College placement offices can often direct prospective technical writers toward jobs. Internet job sites can also provide leads on job opportunities. In addition, interested individuals may apply directly to manufacturing firms and corporations, colleges and universities, and magazine, newspaper, and book publishers. To apply for a federal government job, candidates should take civil service examinations, which are given periodically.

Freelance writers generally begin by submitting articles to magazines. By reading directories such as the Literary Market Place or magazines such as Writer's Digest and by talking to someone who earns money through writing, future writers can get some idea of what markets are open to them. Magazines generally have their own style and require articles written in that style. Publishers always pay more attention to manuscripts submitted by a literary agent; however, candidates can send their manuscripts in themselves, along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope in case the work is not accepted for publication.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Salaried technical writers generally start by assisting experienced writers. They can advance to positions such as senior writer, or they may become administrators or supervisors. Freelance writers advance by becoming experts in a particular area. A few experts write syndicated columns for magazines and newspapers. Technical writers can also enter other related fields such as advertising and public relations, newspaper reporting, and radio and television broadcasting.

The employment outlook for technical writers is very good through the year 2014. With continued advances in science, law, medicine, and technology, there is a growing need for people who can communicate this information in clear terms. Although some technical writing is being outsourced overseas, the rapid advances in technology have created continued opportunities in the area of users' guides, instruction manuals, and training materials. The best opportunities will be for experienced technical writers and for talented beginners who have a technical or scientific background.

Working Conditions

Freelance technical writers work from home; those with salaried positions work in a comfortable office. Some overtime work may be necessary to meet deadlines. Juggling multiple projects and working long, erratic hours can be very stressful. Freelance writers have stressors of their own: they must keep in touch with a variety of employers and they sometimes go for several weeks without work before finding a new project.

Technical writers must be able to pick out what is important when they do research or interview people. They must be able to organize facts and write an informative piece without using too much unfamiliar language. Freelance writers must have a great deal of self-discipline since they set their own schedules and working conditions.

Earnings and Benefits

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of technical writers is $53,490 per year. Experienced technical writers can earn more than $80,020 per year. Salaried technical writers and editors generally receive benefits packages that include paid vacations and sick leave, health and life insurance, and retirement plans.

Where to Go for More Information

National Association of Science Writers
P.O. Box 890
Hedgesville, WV 25427
(304) 754-5077

National Writers Association
10940 S. Parker Rd., #508
Parker, CO 80134
(303) 841-0246

National Writers Union
113 University Place, 6th Fl.
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-0279

Society for Technical Communication
901 N. Stuart St., Ste. 904
Arlington, VA 22203
(703) 522-4114

Freelance writers' earnings vary widely and depend on their experience and reputation as well as the particular assignment. Since they are self-employed, they must provide their own benefits.