Five steps to becoming a technical writer

A guide from Africa’s first Google Season of Docs technical writer on becoming a technical writer.

Five steps to becoming a technical writer
Edidiong Asikpo (Didicodes)

If you enjoy writing and have a knack for condensing complex information, a career in technical writing might be for you. As a software developer, starting a career in technical writing (by the side) might be a beneficial decision for your career.

It was for Edidiong Asikpo (Didicodes), whose career in technical writing has provided her with opportunities such as being the first African to be accepted into Google Season of Docs to getting several job opportunities to paid writing gigs and many others.  

Technical writing offers a lot of benefits not just for your readers but for you as a technical writer. According to Didicodes, it helps you reinforce your knowledge of the concept you're writing about while demonstrating your technical abilities and talents.

In addition, investing in your technical writing skill as a person in tech significantly improves your knowledge and understanding of the field.  For instance, a React developer who writes technical articles in addition to coding will most likely be more knowledgeable than a React developer who just focuses on coding without writing about it. This is because writing technical articles make you delve deeper into technical concepts in order to truly understand them well enough to explain them to someone else (the readers).

Most beginners in technical writing either didn’t believe they possessed the writing or technical skills they needed to excel. For Didicodes, this was not an exception, "I've generally been a terrible writer and always felt that I couldn't express myself properly with words. There was a time I withheld ideas or responses during certain chats at work and in developer communities because I always felt I wouldn’t be able to communicate my thoughts effectively. "

“In time”, she continued, “I realised it made me lose out on so many opportunities because I wasn't comfortable or confident enough to express myself in words. However, I wanted to be better and improve myself in writing.

So I started with reading books. I've never been a person who enjoyed reading. During my college years, I'll only read to pass exams. But because of my desire to improve, I had to start reading to understand.”

Technical writing helps us understand technology better and thus increases our capacity to adapt to new technology. If you’re interested in this career path and would like to know how to become a technical writer, keep reading.

What is Technical Writing?

Technical writing is the creation of content on a technical subject for a defined audience.

The Society for Technical Communication (STC), refers to technical writing as any form of communication that:

  • Explains a technical concept
  • Is meant for a defined audience
  • Leverages some form of technology

The ultimate goal is to synthesize technical information in the simplest way to either an internal or external audience. The actual content can take many shapes and forms, including instruction manuals/user manuals/user guides, white papers, case studies, API documentation, reports, reviews, web pages, and specifications.

When building a software product, startups employ an in-house or freelance technical writer to create and write documentation and/or technical articles for them to help their existing and potential users easily integrate the product.

Didi asserted that some companies pay as high as $1,000 to write technical articles for them. Check some of them here. According to Glassdoor, an average technical writer earns $67,684 per year.

African Technical writer

What do Technical writers do?

The tasks technical writers perform include

  1. Brainstorming, outlining, and producing technical articles/documentation for a range of users and knowledge levels.
  2. Communicating technical concepts effectively to the proposed readers.
  3. Applying research and evaluation to create articles/documentation that clearly communicate technical concepts.
  4. Analysing target audiences to define the article or documentation’s requirements and planning the content’s presentation, design, and tone.
  5. Designing charts, images, infographics, headings, and lists to increase readability for the technical article or documentation. If your team has a designer, you won’t be required to design yourself.

Skills required to become a technical writer

Like every other tech skill, you don’t need to graduate with a degree in Programming or Linguistics before becoming a technical writer. For example, the technical writers at Google come from various backgrounds, such as software engineers, development operations engineers, journalists, physicists, lawyers, and teachers.

However, these are required skills every top-notch technical writer possesses.

  • Ability to write clearly in your preferred language (English, Spanish, French, etc). The primary language of communication does not need to be your first language, but you should have a good grasp of it. You should be able to write in a clear, direct, and understandable way.
  • Understanding the technical aspect of the topic you intend to write about (e.g., coding, designing, program management, etc.). For instance, if you want to write a technical article on Java, you should be knowledgeable about Java. Of course, you don’t have to know every single thing about Java, but understanding the basics is essential as it will make it easier for you to improve upon your knowledge when researching about the topic of the technical article.
  • Understanding your audience is essential because it helps you create content tailored to them. For instance, Didi said, naming your article “Getting Started with React,” but the content of that article is nothing about getting started with React isn't right.

The mistake you are making here is that your title is beginner friendly, but your content is not beginner friendly. So that means you didn’t analyse your audience properly.

The article will not be beneficial to beginners drawn to the article because of the headline. Knowing your audience helps you ask the right questions, use the right terms, and give your article or documentation the right name.

  • Develop your research skill: Technical writers are not a bunch of know it all. But they are people who are willing to find answers to any problem they have. The ability to carry out research will serve you well as a technical writer because you’ll have to keep learning new things every day.
  • Develop your unique voice: Your unique voice is your personal style, nuance, and way of communicating. It’s what makes you stand out from every other writer. The way you communicate might be exactly what your reader needs to understand a concept, so don’t lose your individuality.

Actionable steps to becoming a technical writer

There are a few conditions that you must meet, skills you must acquire, and additional steps that you need to take to build a successful career for yourself. If you’re an aspiring technical writer, here are five things you can do to kick-start your dream career:

  1. Take a course in Technical Writing

Taking a course on technical writing helps you figure out how it is done. It guides you on properly naming your technical content, writing introductions correctly, structuring your content in an easily understandable way, and so much more!

Technical writing courses give you a framework on the dos and don'ts of technical writing. It is essential to take a course  because you will learn what it takes to become a better technical writer.

2. Start writing

During her formative days in technical writing, Didicodes bumped into a quote that said, “You learn to write by writing, and by reading and thinking about how writers have created their characters and invented their stories. If you are not a reader, don't even think about being a writer”.  - Jean M. Auel.

She said, “the quote made me realise that even though I read all the books in the world and took all the technical writing courses, the only way I was going to improve my writing skill was to actually start writing.”

Writing simply might sound like some talent a person either possesses or not. But, in reality, it’s about hard work and practice. By reading quality texts more, analysing your word choice, figuring out your text structures, and consistently writing — you will be well on your way to improving your writing skills.

3. Understand the technical side

Your technical skill as a technical writer refers to your technical knowledge of the subject of interest. Surely, a technical writer should have a good understanding to be able to describe complex things.

The deeper you dive into your field, the better you’ll have a clear understanding of common processes and concepts in the industry. So try to have a solid understanding of the basics. Another trick is to always track and follow the latest news and trends in your industry.

4. Build a portfolio

A technical writing portfolio is a collection of samples of your own writing—basically, it shows what you can do. Having your portfolio ready gives you a chance to show your potential hiring managers the range of your writing abilities, thought processes, and other useful skills. You can create your portfolio on Dev.to, GitHub, Hashnode, or on your personal blog.

5. Build your professional network

Join a professional association for technical writers, and attend networking events, and network with other technical writers. As you build your network, find opportunities to practice your skills and boost your reputation as a qualified technical writer.

Use your network connections and association contacts to find open-source projects to contribute to. Also, volunteer or create a trade-off with a professional acquaintance who needs a software manual designed and printed.

Resources to start a career in technical writing

  1. Technical Writing Process for Beginners by Skillshare
  2. Technical Writing: Documentation on Software Projects by Pluralsight
  3. Technical Writing: Quick Start Guides by LinkedIn
  4. Professional Technical Writing: Advance Your Writing Skills by Udemy
  5. Technical Writing Courses by Google
  6. A technical-writing-template by Bolaji Ayodeji
  7. Technical Writing: What and How? by Edidiong Asikpo
  8. Everything Technical Writing by Linda Ikechukwu

Technical Writing Books

  1. “Technical Writing Process” by Kieran Morgan
  2. “The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing” by Krista Van Laan
  3. “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction” by William Zinsser
  4. “Technical Writing For Dummies” by Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

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