Advice from Experienced Technical Writers

I recently had the opportunity to job shadow the technical writing group at Thomson Reuters. Many of the technical writers there have worked in the field for more than fifteen years, and I was excited to talk with these experienced technical writers about various concerns and questions I had. We addressed a few main themes, and our conversation was extremely eye-opening and interesting. I hope that this post will helpful to any other beginning technical writers thinking about what to expect and how to prepare.

English Major vs STEM Major

The term “technical writer” is a little intimidating itself. Is there an emphasis on “technical”? Is writing as important as being an expert in the material that you’re writing about? I met with a good number of technical writers at Thomson Reuters, and the majority were English majors. The general consensus was to leave the technical expertise to the subject matter experts (SMEs). It’s recommended to gain a working understanding of what you’re working with, but know that it’s not required to be a computer science major or engineer to be a technical writer in those fields. Additionally, the recommended working understanding will usually be learned during on-the-job training, so it’s not necessary to have even that when you’re applying. Don’t think that you’re making a mistake majoring in English instead of going for a STEM major. The things that you’ll learn pursing a degree in English will be incredibly valuable in a technical writing job.

Work on Communication Skills

More and more frequently I’m hearing “technical communicator” more than “technical writer”. The technical writers I met with assured me that there’s a reason for this. Technical writers work extensively with people. I consider technical writers as mediators between different groups of people, and it’s clear that communication skills would come in handy. The Thomson Reuters technical writing group talked about how they have to be able to observe, listen, communicate, and bring people together. They need a clear understanding of their users/audience, and communication skills can be the driving force behind this understanding.

Critical Thinking is Key

One of the technical writers I talked to described a data analytics issue he’s been having. Data analytics would seem to give you a straightforward answer about your users’ habits and experiences, but even data analytics can rely on assumptions that need to be interpreted. His issue was that he can see how long users spend looking at an online help video. But what does this mean? If a user spends five minutes looking at a video before leaving the page, does this mean that they found what they were looking for, or did they leave the page with their question unanswered? Critical thinking skills are critical in the field of technical communication, so be prepared for challenging situations like this. It’s definitely not a dull job!

Do I Need a Master’s?

I wanted to know if the technical writers had continued on with their education after getting their bachelor’s, and it was split pretty evenly. It’s not required to have a master’s degree, but you should make sure that you have the skills necessary to become a technical writer. If you feel like getting a master’s would help you become a better technical writer, then go for it. Otherwise, a bachelor’s will be just fine. From my research looking at technical writer job postings, it seems like actual technical writing experience is more valued.

Tip: The tech writers did advise learning a bit of programming language.

I appreciated the opportunity to job shadow at Thomson Reuters, and the experience I had there made me even more excited to pursue a career in technical writing.

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