How To Become a Technical Writer, for Academics

I completed my PhD in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2017 and am currently working on the Community team (composed of technical writers and technical editors) at the cloud computing company DigitalOcean. I joined the tech industry while I was ABD and completed my dissertation while working full time. Because of the technical work I did during my degree, I was interested in the tech industry in general, but specific roles that may be well-suited to those with academic humanities backgrounds are not necessarily widely known. On my current team, in addition to myself, we have an English PhD, and an adjunct professor, so we are academic-friendly. We are currently hiring for a full-time Associate Technical Editor.

In this post, I would like to share some of what I have learned working as a technical writer and manager in the tech industry to help others understand more about it. To read more about my personal career path, you can read my remarks from the MLA 2018 “Going Public” panel.

What is a technical writer?

Technical writers are typically communicators who facilitate the textual transfer of information between different groups. That is, they tend to work as translators, teachers, and collaborators as part of their daily experience in addition to writing and editing.

Though some goals may be team-specific, most technical writers are working on at least one of two main endeavors:

  • Writing documentation to facilitate transitions between those who have certain information now and those who need that information later (e.g. due to new members joining a development team, to help future selves retain the information of present selves, or due to employee turnover).
  • Writing tutorials or documentation on deeply technical tools or processes for those who are learning or those who have less specific knowledge but need to have a high-level understanding of something.

My own experience is in the tech industry, so I will speak mostly to this field, but there are technical writers in many sectors.

What do technical writers do?

Within the tech industry, technical writers and editors often work with software developers on technical documentation projects. Writers can support internal communication, external developer integrations, or end user tutorials. They may also work on more marketing-adjacent materials like blog posts or educational materials. Sometimes, software developers are technical writers as well, and work on code documentation as part of their workflow. Every technical writing position will be somewhat different.

In my role at DigitalOcean, the work I have done as a technical writer and as a manager of technical writing teams has been diverse. Most of what I have worked on have been public-facing technical tutorials that help the broader developer community set up Linux servers and learn new software development languages. I have also worked on material on the company’s product offering to help end users.

How can you use skills you’ve developed in academia as a technical writer?

For those who have a masters or PhD degree, technical writing can be a great fit due to skills you have developed as part of your program and professional development. Among the things you have learned, the following will likely be the most useful:

  • Writing and editing — As a technical writer, your writing and editing skills will be utilized on an almost-daily basis. In technical writing, clarity is key and learning to write technical documentation and tutorials often supports the other writing you may do that is academic or creative in nature.
  • Research — In the tech field, new technologies are being developed constantly, so you will continuously be researching new tools and best practices. Sometimes, you’ll be defining best practices based on resources already available. Though this will not look quite like archival research, you will be keeping your research skills sharp in a technical writing role.
  • Teaching — Being able to teach effectively is an incredibly valuable skill throughout many industry careers. In technical writing, you’ll be using your teaching practice to write tutorials and documentation for people who have less of a grasp on the technology than you do. Adopting the beginner’s mindset and being empathetic with novice users can help strike the best tone when doing technical writing. If you’re a technical editor as opposed to a writer, you will likely be helping to mentor others. If you become a manager of technical writing teams, you’ll be coaching others over time as well.
  • Collaboration — Though some of the work you do as a technical writer or editor will be an individual endeavor, there are many moments where you will collaborate to align writing goals, work with other teams for product documentation or go-to-market initiatives, and perform peer review. In academia, similar collaboration experiences may have come through organizing conference panels, offering peer review, aligning goals for undergraduate students with professors and administrators, and maybe co-writing some articles.
  • Ability (and drive) to learn quickly — Researchers and teachers often need to understand diverse topics rather quickly, and in so doing learn how to learn effectively. Understanding the most valuable aspects of a new tool or concept while filtering out unnecessary information can keep your technical writing work relevant. If you have less of a technical background, being able to get a solid understanding of an organization’s solutions to users’ problems while interviewing and onboarding can help you get up to speed.

Technical writer at computer

What if you don’t think of yourself as technical?

Though some roles and organizations will require a technical writing candidate with deep and specific technical knowledge, keep in mind that strong writing and editing abilities are quite rare in technical fields. Often, technical writing teams find that it is less challenging to teach a great writer technical skills rather than teach writing to a person with the desired technical skills since teaching writing requires more resources. Because of this, you may find a position that will have less strict requirements on the technical skills and support you in the development of your skills in the technical domain you will be working in.

That said, the words “technology” and “technical” will mean different things to different fields and people. Writing alone is a technical skill, but “technical writing” often means that the writer is communicating something that is scientific or technology-based.

Technical writing is not the only role that may be a good fit for academics within the tech industry, because skills like teaching and research can be exceptionally valuable. If there are job postings you see that may be a good fit, you should try to find people in your primary and secondary networks with similar job titles or in the organizations you’re thinking about applying to so that you can request an informational interview. Don’t worry, people are generally happy to tell you about the work they do. This will give you a better understanding of what “technical” means for the role or company.

Technical collaboration

How to build a technical writing portfolio

For technical writing and editing roles, it can be helpful to have some technical writing samples in addition to published academic work and blog posts (these all demonstrate that you are a strong writer and researcher).

Aim to have at least one piece that is a technical writing sample. If you have more than one, you may want to add them as public blog posts on a personal website, a university-affiliated website (e.g. CUNY students and alum can use Academic Commons), on HASTAC if relevant, or using a free blog tool like Medium. If you’ll only have one sample, you can add it to to a Google Doc or as a GitHub Gist and share the link in your cover letter or on online application forms.

Some formats of pieces you may like to include could be:

  • An educational tutorial like those found on the Programming Historian, which are written for a humanities audience
  • A user guide for a non-technical user of a technical tool you know well (e.g. Mallet, Voyant Tools)
  • Teaching resources you may have done to explain how to use a tool like WordPress to undergraduates
  • If you have done programming and have a public repository, add a file and comments to code and share the whole repo link

To learn more about technical writing, you can check out the Write the Docs community, which includes Meetups, a Slack group, and video archives of conference presentations.

Technical writer

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