How to become a technical writer

Most the the time I’m a copywriter and sales funnel strategist. That’s what most of my days look like, most of the time.

But once in a while I take on a technical writing project — usually a short-term project for a local company in the financial services industry.

There is a difference between technical writers and copywriters, although the differences aren’t as vast as other tech writers or copywriters would have you believe. I talk about that very issue in this blog post.

I don’t really advertise myself as a technical writer or go out of my way to generate business from this type of writing. I like the work but, frankly, copywriting pays me more, and exposes me to a wider range of clients, and it’s something I can leverage more easily to grow my writing career. That said, I do enjoy tech writing. It’s a different writing muscle than copywriting and I get to work with a different set of clients. So it’s a nice occasional breath of fresh air and if my schedule allows for it, I’ll accept a technical writing project.

A little while ago I was interviewed by someone who was thinking about entering the technical writing field. I think he just found me online and asked if he could interview me. He asked me some questions via email and I answered them. Then I forgot about the interview but recently stumbled over the interview and thought I’d share it here.

His questions are in bold. I’ve edited the interview a little because it was written for one person who had some specific questions and a specific context. But the interview overall would be valuable for anyone who is thinking about being a technical writer so I’m including it here:

Thanks very much for your reply. My questions are as follows:

Well, the first thing you should know is that I actually split my time between technical writing and copywriting. The reason is: I started out as a copywriter and I built up a pretty solid business as a copywriter before I accidentally fell into technical writing. But I like doing both so I choose to split my time between the two. I’ve found that most technical writing clients want me to work at their office while most of my copywriting clients don’t care where I work (which means I get to work out of my home office). I could do one or the other full-time but I look at each project I’m offered (whether tech writing or copywriting) and decide where I want to work and whether the money is what I want to earn and whether I think the project will look good on my resume and whether I think it’s a challenge — that’s how I decide whether I’ll take on a tech writing project or a copywriting project.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know about that up-front. I take on full-time tech writing projects when I want to but I don’t pursue a full-time, permanent “job” as a tech writer. I prefer freelance but my answers to your questions below will apply to someone who pursues a full-time job as a technical writer.

1) Can you tell me about your background and how you got into this field?

I didn’t even know what a technical writer was for several years into my writing career! (I’ve been writing professionally — part-time or full-time — for about 20 years). I graduated from university with a bachelor degree in the humanities, and I got an entry level job at a bank. While I was there, I noticed that there were a few processes that they were doing that weren’t written down so I offered to write them down. I just did it to be helpful and because I liked writing; I didn’t know it at the time but I was doing some technical writing.

And then later when I was in sales management, a similar thing happened: I recorded some processes into a reference document to help some of my staff. Again, I did it to be helpful and because I liked writing.

Later, I branched out on my own as a full-time freelance copywriter. I was hired by SAP (the big software company) to do some marketing and sales writing for them and it turned out that technical writing was a fairly large component of the work. So I drew from my earlier “accidental” tech writing experiences (as well as some on-the-fly learning) to write for SAP. The SAP experience turned out to be fairly significant (in terms of the quality of the experience as well as being a really big name on my resume) and I later leveraged it into tech writing projects with other companies.

So I kind of stumbled into tech writing by accident and turned out to be good enough at it that I’ve been hired to do it by several companies.

2) Tell me about your job. Are there levels of specialization within this occupation?

Right now I’m doing a tech writing project for a large insurance company, and in that project I am writing the policy and procedure documentation for their front-line staff as the company implements a new piece of software. I’m working with a team of other tech writers to help their staff understand what the software is, why they’re using it, and how to use it well.

I think it’s most common to specialize by industry (nearly every industry has its own challenges and opportunities that are solved by technical writing) — finance and health and IT are three fields that require a lot of technical writing but there are many others. In my career, I’ve unintentionally specialized in automotive and finance and IT… I guess that happened without me really trying. I just sort of ended up working for those three industries over and over and then the experience just builds on itself.

There are other ways to specialize, too, such as in the type of technical writing you do. I know of some technical writers who write only whitepapers and analytical reports. Most of my experience has been with software implementations, so I guess I kind of specialize in this way too. And, because I’m primarily a copywriter, I tend to get tech writing projects in which I write for inexperienced and reluctant end-users.

If you’re just starting out and not sure what to do, I’d suggest just trying to get some experience in a couple of industries, if you can, and don’t worry so much about specializing in a type of writing. I suspect that it’s easier to find work if you’re an industry specialist rather than if you are a specialist in a specific type of writing.

3) What attributes and skills are required to succeed as a technical writer?

  • Clear, simple writing skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Research skills
  • Organizational skills (not just the ability to organize yourself but the ability to organize information)
  • Curiosity and the ability to ask “what if?”
  • Project management skills (especially true if you have multiple documents or large documents to write)
  • Can connect and collaborate with people from many different disciplines
  • Don’t get too attached to your work << reviewers may shred it apart
  • Thrive under pressure
  • (If you work for a larger company) Can understand and navigate the “political” and bureaucratic challenges

4) What do you particularly enjoy about what you do?

I like getting a stack of raw research, notes, reports, use cases, analysis, spreadsheets, etc. and digging into it all to become an expert on the topic, and then developing a strategy to create documents that will be most helpful to the end users.

I like writing… maybe I don’t need to say that. :)

And, I like seeing people use my content to perform their work successfully. (Not all tech writing will have this benefit but the tech writing I do is usually for end users trying to do a work-related function).

Another thing I like about my current project (but this doesn’t always happen with every project) is that I become a sort-of expert in the topic that I’m writing about and I end up doing more than writing… sometimes I’m involved in solving procedural problems because I know the software so well. (For example, we might discover that an end user needs to do something that hadn’t been considered before so people ask for my opinion on how we might help them take that action).

5) What does a typical work day look like? What about a typical week? What are typical daily pressures?

Since I split my time between tech writing (less often) and copywriting (more often), I’ll just answer this question based on the tech writing contract I have right now. But it’s different for every project I’m on:

On a typical day for this project, I show up at the office at 8:00 AM. I meet with the Technical Communications Lead (basically a project manager who directs myself and other technical writers on the particular project we’re working on, and liaises with other project managers in the organization who are in charge of training or analyses or whatever). We go over any details that may have changed since I left the office the night before. (The project we’re on is in a pilot phase so details are constantly changing, even overnight). We strategize about how these changes impact the documents that I am currently writing.

Then I sit at my desk and write!

I have a long list of brand new documents I need to write. (When I say “write” I guess it’s more like a combination of researching the raw notes and documentation, analyzing it, trying to build a coherent structure to it, and then actually writing content to fit that structure. So there is a lot of writing but there is also a lot of reading and thinking involved).

I have a long list of existing documents that need to be edited (for example, they had already been published before the project and now the project has changed some of the steps in them)

I have a long list of documents that are going through the review process and I either need to edit the ones that have returned to me or follow-up with reviewers who are taking too long with their review.

My day is punctuated by meetings. On good days, there are only a couple. On bad days, I don’t get any writing done because I’m in meetings all day long! I’ll meet periodically with the Tech Comm Lead, and/or with the other writers, and/or with subject matter experts, business analysts, stakeholders, and end-users. It all depends on the information I need or a new piece of information they have or some challenge that requires all of the experts to solve.

I leave the office late afternoon or early evening.

Most of my days look like this. There are variations: I’m sometimes “on site” with the end users, watching as they use the software that I’m writing about. Or I sit in on the training they receive. Or I work with people who are testing the software. Or I’ll review other writers’ work. There is a lot of variety. But most of my days look like this.

I think I might get bored of it if I did it all the time but since I don’t do tech writing regularly, I’m usually on shorter term projects.

The daily pressures are:

  • There is time pressure. You have to get your work done in a certain amount of time because other people are depending on it.
  • There is the pressure to be accurate. At least in the tech writing I do, people use it for their jobs so there is the need to be really accurate.
  • There is the pressure of things constantly changing. This isn’t the case for all tech writing projects I’ve worked on but it is the case for a lot of them. Things are constantly changing and it’s hard to stay on top of it all and then know how each new change impacts everything you have already written (which adds further time and accuracy pressures).

These pressures aren’t that bad, though. I like them.

6) What challenges does the job present?

Similar to the pressures listed above: Time, accuracy, and change. If you can keep up with them, everything is easy.

I think the hardest challenge is, with large companies, you get a lot of “politics” and bureaucracy. It’s not always so bad but if a project is particularly controversial or complicated, different parts of the organization will have different opinions about it and that can make your job more difficult.

7) What are the education and training requirements for technical writing?

Many of the technical writers I’ve worked with have taken the technical communications course at the local college. I think if you’re just starting out and you want to get some education that will help your career, that’s probably a good place to start.

I know some employers want people to have some kind of communications education, even if it’s not in technical writing (i.e. journalism is often considered an acceptable substitute)

My educational background (I have an MBA and a stockbroker’s license) and my experience (I’ve been a writer for a long time with several tech writing projects behind me, as well as a journalism background and some copywriting expertise) allowed me to bypass those educational requirements. But it also ties into my approach: I believe there are some similarities between technical writing and copywriting, and I take a “how-does-this-impact-the-business?” approach to my tech writing research.

But if I were starting out again and wanted to pursue a full-time career as a technical writer, here is what I would do:

  1. Take a technical communication program
  2. Study business (I think this helps tech writers understand how their content impacts the business they are working for)
  3. Learn to code (the technical skill is really helpful even if you never actually need to code)
  4. Learn to be a great project manager (maybe get a certification from the Project Management Institute)

8) What other occupations could you pursue with the experience and skills you have developed in this field?

I think I could make a pretty easy, immediate transition to become a business analyst (that is a trending career opportunity!) or work in change management (helping organizations navigate through challenging transitions).

And with a little extra (but fast) work to shore up some weaker areas in my resume, I could probably transition within 12 months into training and instructional design, software testing, or project management.

So there are some immediate and some short-term options.

Again, I believe there is a close link between tech writing and copywriting and I jump back and forth somewhat frequently. So if I wasn’t a copywriting but wanted to become one, there are just a few skills I’d need to brush up on but I’d have a good foundation of research and analysis (a huge skill required for copywriting).

9) Are there many opportunities for technical writers?

Truth be told, I don’t look for tech writing work; it somehow finds me but I’ve never been short of tech writing work. I’ve had a non-traditional career path with good projects, and I’m a pretty blatant self-promoter and networker. However, I do know of other technical writers who constantly struggle to find work.

On the other side of the equation, I know some companies are ALWAYS looking for solid technical writers and they complain of a shortage of them.

Therefore, I think there are lots of opportunities for talented, well-connected writers.

10) What are important areas for future development in this line of work?

Skills in project management, business analysis, and IT will pay huge dividends.

11) What other skills will be needed in the future?

I can’t think of anything other than the things I’ve already listed — project management, business analysis, and IT. Study those and stay on top of those trends and you’ll be fine.

12) What would be a good entry-level position for this line of work?

What makes this a difficult field to enter is that not all companies call this work “technical communication”, and, they rarely have a “technical communication department” but tend to scatter technical writers into different departments (usually IT but also sometimes training departments, change management departments, and elsewhere).

13) What advice would you give to a person looking for an entry-level position in this occupation?

  • Push your education beyond technical communication (i.e. It’s good to have an education in technical communication but I think my business background gives me an advantage that other tech writers do not have).
  • Learn to be a great project manager. Tthis is a huge skill that will impact the success of your work.
  • Network like crazy, and don’t stop after you’ve got a job.
  • When you have a job, become indispensable to your employer: Take on the trickiest, most perplexing writing assignments you can ask for (the ones that everyone else runs away from because they are too difficult or too politically sensitive or too confusing) and do an awesome job. Do that a couple of times and you’ll never be without work.

— END OF INTERVIEW —

Thanks to the guy who asked me those questions. I love how thorough he was and I hope other people will benefit from this too. All the best to him as he pursues his career.

An added note with a bit of honesty: Technical writing is not my dream job. I enjoy it because it’s challenging, so I take on tech writing projects from time to time. However, I can’t do it all the time or I would go absolutely bonkers. And as I read through this interview, I can’t help but notice that some of the themes I mention over and over (research/analysis, project management, business knowledge) are skills that will help anyone in any job, regardless of what you do or what you want to do.

If you have more questions about what is required to be a technical writer, feel free to get in touch and I’d be happy to answer them for you. And if you’re a company that requires a tech writer, I’m not really looking for more work but I’m always open to considering new, challenging projects if I have the availability.

How to hire the best ghostwriter for your content (and what you should REALLY look for)

Businesses need content to sell their products or services: They need marketing material, web content, sales scripts, instruction manuals… and sometimes they need content written which will actually be the product sold (as in the case of ebooks).

Not everyone can write or wants to write, and that’s where a ghostwriter comes in. Ghostwriters are hired by the business to create content that is attributed to the business rather than the writer. It’s a very common practice in writing.

HERE’S THE PROBLEM
When businesses look for ghostwriters, they don’t always know what to look for. Sure, they look for someone with experience as a writer — preferably with experience in a specific industry or with a specific content type — but beyond that, there are just question marks.

Over the years I’ve worked as a ghostwriter for hundreds of clients and I can tell you that each client comes to the table with a different set of ideas and expectations.

If you need to hire a ghostwriter, here’s what you need to know:

THE FIVE ROLES OF CONTENT CREATION
All written work (regardless of what kind of content you want) is put together by five different roles. These roles can be performed by one person or by more than one person. The roles (in order) are:

  1. The thinker — The thinker comes up with the clever ideas and catchy elements; they perform content strategy; they consider the audience and the value the audience is seeking; and they solidify the concepts into a workable shape.
  2. The researcher — The researcher looks at what the market is looking for and how it’s communicating its needs; they look at the competition and what is already on offer; and they look for opportunities (including SEO, marketing messages, etc.).
  3. The scribe — The scribe takes the ideas from the thinker and the research from the researcher and they write it out; they massage the ideas, if necessary, to create a powerful and focused piece of content.
  4. The editor — The editor reviews what the scribe has created and makes sure it is aligned with the thinker’s vision and the researcher’s findings; they ensure coherence within the document and between the working document and other content produced by the business.
  5. The publisher — The publisher makes the content available to the target audience. It could be as simple as copying the text and pasting it into a blog publishing platform, or it could be more complex like printing and binding a book and setting up distribution.

Businesses who hire ghostwriters often bring need one or more of the roles mentioned above, but they don’t always effectively communicate that need.

If you’re a business looking to hire a ghostwriter, look at the five roles above and figure out what you already have and what you need. Then look for a ghostwriter who can perform the roles that you need. You might look for them in a single person or you might assemble a team, depending on the size of your budget and the scope of your project and the skills of your team.

EXAMPLES FROM MY EXPERIENCE
I’ve worked with several clients who have simply said, “I’m starting a business and I want to position myself as an expert. Can you create for me an ebook, sales letter, marketing material, and other sales funnel supporting content?”. These clients hired me to think, research, write, edit, and sometimes even publish their work.

I’ve worked with several clients who have said, “I’ve made a name for myself as an expert in my niche. Here is my content, research, and experience. I’ve got the system in place to take the content you write and sell it.” These clients hired me to be the scribe and editor, and they’ve taken care of the thinking, research, and publishing.

WHY THIS MATTERS
For business owners, knowing exactly what kind of roles you’re looking for in a ghostwriter will help you in the following ways:

  • You’ll be able to better manage the project and your budget
  • You’ll be able to find a ghostwriter faster and more easily
  • You’ll be able to find a ghostwriter who fits your needs
  • You’ll be able to communicate more effectively with your ghostwriter
  • You’ll end up with a project that is closest to your vision and will help you to achieve your business goals

So the next time you’re looking for a ghostwriter, remember: You’re not JUST looking for a ghostwriter. Be specific about the roles you want your ghostwriter to take on.

What is the difference between copywriting and technical writing?

I call myself a “business writer” because it encompasses both copywriting and technical writing. But I have bumped into a lot of people recently who don’t really know what I do: This month, while working with some clients for whom I’m doing copywriting, I was asked what a technical writer was; and, while working with a client for whom I’m doing technical writing, I was asked what a copywriter was. I confess that I’ve spent so long doing both that I was a little taken aback that people hadn’t heard of the other.

So here’s a definition — my definition, maybe not an “official, definitive, industry-approved” definition of what I do every day:

As a copywriter, I develop external content — content for clients that sells their products or services to their customers. I write web copy, press releases, articles, blogs, etc. Copy that sells.

As a technical writer, I develop internal content — content for clients that sells their strategic initiatives to an internal audience. I write instruction and training manuals, knowledge center content, policy and procedure best practices guidelines, etc.

In both cases, it’s content that sells… it just happens to sell to different audiences and possesses different characteristics: Copywriting often relies on sales language to create an emotional connection with the reader and get them to spend money. Technical writing relies on “how-to” (and a little bit of spin) to explain why the reader should do something and then get them to do it.

In spite of the differences, though, there are similarities: Both sell. Both emphasize benefits of “buying into” whatever the document is selling. Both have an audience who is (hopefully) going to act because of what they’ve read.

If you think of it in terms of the sales funnel, copywriting helps to move the customer along the sales funnel to the point of (and beyond) the sale. Meanwhile, technical writing helps staff, vendors, and other partners (“internal stakeholders”) to operate in a way that helps the organization achieve its aim (which is usually related to the sales funnel!).

What does this mean for prospective clients? If you need me to do some writing, you don’t have to differentiate. That’s why I call myself a “business writer”. I write for your business, regardless of whether you know what you need or not. But I do differentiate the copywriting and technical writing for those who know what they are looking for and want to know if I can deliver it.

Tame the paper dragon when technical writing

I’ve been working on a huge technical writing project for a client. They expect to start rolling some of my work out to their staff and partners between November 2010 and March 2011. They have thousands of pages of supporting documents that go back at least 4 years. So,  for the next few months, I’m trying to make sense of it all while I turn it into something useful.

I’ve been swimming in a flood of paper: Reading, sorting, and mapping it out. And recently I was asked by three different people, “What’s your process of turning a great big pile of unsorted guidelines, case studies, and marketing documents into a comprehensive, user-friendly, step-by-step document that someone can follow?” I thought it might make an interesting blog post.

So here’s a generalized version of my technical writing process:

  1. One of the first things you need to do is figure out who the end user is going to be and what they are supposed to accomplish as a result of this project. From branch operations to CRM systems to selling a specific product, each technical writing project I’ve worked on had an end user who was supposed to achieve an end state. So find out what it is. It also helps to try and figure out what their motivations are (will they accept the changes or resist them?) because you can shape your work according to their level of alignment with the purposes of the content.
  2. Get a high level view of the project, review the business case, and review some of the material to get a feel for what you’re facing.
  3. Now here’s the secret ingredient and this step will make all the difference for you: Start mapping out an ideal future pathway or methodology that you will be writing to. These are the steps in the process that people will be taking to achieve the end goal. Each step in your work will probably be a major point in the step-by-step instructions you’re writing.
  4. Build out a similar “current” pathway so you can outline how the process is done today and can compare the two.
  5. Now start reading all of that reading material in-depth. Assign a code to each document and then look at your process map (in step 3) and see if you can find a place for the document on that map. If you can, great. If you can’t decide if it a good reference material. Chances are, if it can’t be tied to one of the steps on your process map and if it won’t make a good reference then it should be discarded.
  6. As you build your map, write in the names of people who can help or reference sites to obtain more information.
  7. Below each point, start fleshing out subpoints, steps, or tasks, and arrange them in order within each point.

By now, you should have a big piece of paper (or, more likely, a Word document or several pieces of paper taped together) that captures the information of the entire solution.

File those documents into some kind of order. Put the discards in a discard file (and keep them until the project is published). Put the rest of the documents into coded files that align with the steps in your process map.

And now you can start writing, interviewing, and continuing with research. Of course, all good technical writing is iterative and collaborative so expect to get back to earlier steps and make adjustments as necessary.

[Photo credit: epSos.de]