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What does a technical writer do? By Edwin Battistella for the OUP blog

What does a technical writer do?

When people think about careers in writing, they may focus on writing novels or films, imagining themselves as the next Stephen King or Sofia Coppola. They may aspire be a poet like Tracy K. Smith or Ada Limón. They may lean toward non-fiction, aiming to become an author like Jill Lepore or Louis Menand. But for steady work, there is nothing like technical writing for science, medicine, manufacturing, finance, retail, and other specialized fields.  

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 55,000 technical writing jobs in the US, projected to hit 59,000 by 2031. And while there are advanced certifications available in specialty fields and even master’s degrees in technical communication, technical writing is a career path open to writers with undergraduate degrees in English, communication, linguistics, and related fields. It usually helps though to have some experience in design, business, science, or technology.

What do technical writers do?

Technical writers prepare instruction manuals, guides, technical articles, descriptions, posts, and documents for all manner of processes, products, and procedures. One student of mine working as an intern said that her first task was to write instructions for packing jars of peanut butter in shipping boxes. Another developed a safety manual for a supermarket’s deli kitchen. A third got assigned to explain procedures for using water softeners and filtration systems. And I once worked for a time documenting an automated query system for real estate listings.

When I’ve invited career technical writers to visit my classes, they’ve shared some of the work they do at any given time. They’ve written clinical evaluation reports and protocols in the medical field and instructions for financial and business systems and software. They have written explanations of how environmental data is collected and analyzed and procedures for compliance with federal and state regulations. One rewrote hospital incident reports to make sure they were understandable to staff and insurers. Another developed a design proposal for an event venue. The writing itself is tremendously varied. 

A writer friend once told me, “A lot of writing is not writing,” meaning that there was more to it than words on paper. That’s certainly true for technical writing. Research and consultation are large parts of the technical writer’s work. Figuring out the needs of the users takes time, curiosity, and perseverance. Technical writers consult with designers, developers, managers, technical staff, and end-users to understand the products or processes involved. They may be responsible for recommending the most appropriate medium and design for materials and for ensuring that content is uniform across various modes of delivery.

Some technical writers may also be responsible for collecting and analyzing user feedback and usage patterns. And they may work as technical editors for projects developed collaboratively or drafted by others: scientists, clinicians, programmers, and engineers may not be familiar with writing for the general public or for their end-users.

At times, technical writers can also find themselves doing some feature writing in addition to the technical bread and butter. A writer might profile staff members explaining their work and write newsletter, blog, or magazine copy to tell the backstory of a new discovery, promote an innovative product, or explain a live-saving procedure.   

Our fiction-writer colleagues like to remind us that “all writing is creative writing.” If you enjoy research and can write clearly, technical writing may be the place to put your creativity to work.

Featured image by Amy Hirschi via Unsplash (public domain)

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