Transitioning to Technical Writing

Broadcasting and the media have always fascinated me, specifically radio. Ever since the age of nine, radio has impassioned me. As I said, it’s also broadcasting and the media too. The news has equally fascinated me.

Along the way, at the age of thirteen, I discovered I was a good writer. Upon exiting high school, I won a couple of scholarships in some essay writing contests. I have also written over 20 manuscripts, most of which are autobiographical (thus, considered fiction). Nonetheless, there’s material there for something, sometime, somewhere.

Currently, I am a master control operator. It is not the most exciting of work. In fact, it is a job of regulation. There is no creation in the job whatsoever. I have to find ways to make the job interesting. Actually, the truth is I’m sitting there writing letters to my girlfriend, writing more autobiographical bits, or compiling a myriad of statistics concerning the Dallas Cowboys. I have to create, and I, along with tens of millions of others in the U.S. alone, want to have a fulfilling job.

The only other time I found that fulfillment was during the spring of 2011, my final semester of college when I interned at an international news outlet. Every day, I produced — not “helped produce” — a one-minute web video that showcased six of the world’s top stories. It was so invigorating. Between story/shot selection, video editing, and script writing, I couldn’t tell you which was more enjoyable. I always thought when I graduated that I would find a job like this, even if it paid peanuts.

My girlfriend I suggested I delve into technical writing. Not only does it pay better and have a better job outlook than broadcasting, but I can also use my writing gifts as a career. I decided to give it a shot, and am exploring how one were to break into the business.

From my survey, technical writing appears to be composing and preparing technical documentation. I gave it a shot, and last week actually wrote an operations manual for our live broadcasts here at my current master control job. My boss has yet to read it, none of my co-workers look at it, so I guess it sucks. Or maybe I need to add pictures.

I feel like technical writing may be the answer, but I still have more questions. The biggest for me is whether or not I need to go back to school. Good gravy, with my bachelor’s degree in communications, I don’t want to return to school for another degree. I’m so burnt out. I fought and struggled and endeavored just to get out of school. My last semester was a grapple with a myriad of demons trying to keep me in the academic holding pattern, and I won. I don’t want to go back.

That’s why I joined this site. That’s why I research technical writing every day. If I can avoid biting that scholastic bullet, then that is the shot I’ll take.

Comments

  1. Kyla Town

    Hi Mark, I’ve been a technical writer for nearly 20 years. I didn’t start out with a degree in technical writing, but there weren’t many places to get one when I started. It’s not as easy to break in without the degree now, but it’s still possible. Here are some possibilities:

    • Volunteer to create some technical documentation for a non-profit. They can’t afford to pay large salaries, and so they don’t often get people with the aptitude and desire to write technical inforamation for them. For example, my first job in the field was writing information about mental health for the New York State Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
    • Consider living in an area where technical writers are hard to find. Companies in those areas are more willing to consider someone without a degree who can show them some solid work in the field. Upstate New York is a good example of such an area.
    • Look for jobs in the field that you want to work in and apply. The more you can beef up your resume with relevant and proven technical writing experience, the better chance you’ll have even without a degree.

    In addition, as you educate yourself about the profession, consider the following aspects of technical writing if you haven’t already:

    • Technical writing is often more than just writing manuals. For example, when I worked at IBM, I actually spent very little time writing. I spent most of my time on information architecture, building the infrastructure for delivering our documentation, and participating in product design. Documentation is more and more online, and sometimes it must be highly modularized to keep up with volatile products or technologies. So the book model is starting to fade in some areas.
    • Learn about DITA and article-based (also known as topic-based) writing if you haven’t already. DITA is becoming more common in the industry, and yet there seems to be a shortage of writers who know how to work with it. There is a lot of free information on the web about it.
    • Learn about human-technology interaction and how to assess users’ needs, so that you can develop information that is accurate, retrievable, complete, and easy to understand. Sometimes this means learning how to incorporate technical information into a product interface. Sometimes it means understanding how to better design a product to avoid having to write a lot of information down, which as you’ve already seen, people don’t want to read unless they have to.

    Hope this is helpful. Good luck on the transition!

  2. Kyla Town

    Hi Mark, I’ve been a technical writer for nearly 20 years. I didn’t start out with a degree in technical writing, but there weren’t many places to get one when I started. It’s not as easy to break in without the degree now, but it’s still possible. Here are some possibilities:

    • Volunteer to create some technical documentation for a non-profit. They can’t afford to pay large salaries, and so they don’t often get people with the aptitude and desire to write technical inforamation for them. For example, my first job in the field was writing information about mental health for the New York State Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
    • Consider living in an area where technical writers are hard to find. Companies in those areas are more willing to consider someone without a degree who can show them some solid work in the field. Upstate New York is a good example of such an area.
    • Look for jobs in the field that you want to work in and apply. The more you can beef up your resume with relevant and proven technical writing experience, the better chance you’ll have even without a degree.

    In addition, as you educate yourself about the profession, consider the following aspects of technical writing if you haven’t already:

    • Technical writing is often more than just writing manuals. For example, when I worked at IBM, I actually spent very little time writing. I spent most of my time on information architecture, building the infrastructure for delivering our documentation, and participating in product design. Documentation is more and more online, and sometimes it must be highly modularized to keep up with volatile products or technologies. So the book model is starting to fade in some areas.
    • Learn about DITA and article-based (also known as topic-based) writing if you haven’t already. DITA is becoming more common in the industry, and yet there seems to be a shortage of writers who know how to work with it. There is a lot of free information on the web about it.
    • Learn about human-technology interaction and how to assess users’ needs, so that you can develop information that is accurate, retrievable, complete, and easy to understand. Sometimes this means learning how to incorporate technical information into a product interface. Sometimes it means understanding how to better design a product to avoid having to write a lot of information down, which as you’ve already seen, people don’t want to read unless they have to.

    Hope this is helpful. Good luck on the transition!

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