What is a technical writer?

The definition of a technical writer has changed a lot since its inception, so how is the role defined now?

First the earth cooled…

In the beginning, the role of a technical writer typically was to write documentation for a hardware of software product. This was the stuff that came in a physically-printed manual or one of those shrink-wrapped training binders. Back in the day, Microsoft Word came in a big box with many installation diskettes and a printed manual. One could curl up at night with the manual and drift off to sleep peacefully while learning things you’d probably forget later. This documentation often explained how the product worked or provided a step-by-step tutorial of a process or procedure.

Later, online help systems replaced printed manuals and emptied bookshelves across the nation. Technical writers switched from telling users how the product works to telling users how to use the product. Simply said, they became masters of meeting needs of end users.

The technical writers of today…

Fast forward to 2018 and the role of a technical writer is barely visible to its humble beginnings. While that type of position is still available, technical writers now have multiple paths to take. Although each company defines the following roles differently, I’ve provided a generalized definition.

  • “Classic” Technical Writer – Learn how the product works, then document it for others. Key tools are FrameMaker, RoboHelp, MadCap Flare, and others. Your knowledge of tools will greatly expand your options.
  • Business Analyst – With all that research and analyzing, technical writers make excellent business analysts. One could describe him or herself as a writer first, then quick-learner of anything second. But in a business analyst role, the priorities are reversed. First you research a business need, then you write about it for others. Finally, influencing solution design and implementation to fit that need. That is, instead of telling others how a finished product works, you define how the product will work. Easy transition to this role and if you like research, you’ll love being a business analyst.
  • Information Architect – This role is fairly new and banks on a technical writer’s expertise in managing documentation. There is so much information flowing out there that companies need people to oversee the flow and provide a vision for development. This role is more like a product manager and requires persuasion and persistence. You’ll spend a lot of time in meetings with stakeholders.
  • Content Strategist – Another fairly new role, companies need help determining what documentation is required for their products. As companies decrease time-to-market, documentation will often be written by development teams or others, and your role will be to figure out what can be done and reconcile that to end-user needs. This is another managerial-type role that will engage you at all levels of the organization. Plus, you have to be especially strong at organizing solutions.
  • API Technical Writer – This one is more difficult to generalize as every company is different. Essentially, you’ll be managing the inflow of APIs, putting them together, then making them legible to the end user. Having a basic knowledge of software code is essential in this role. Some software engineers will give you code samples, but others will expect you to write them yourself. Nevertheless, managing people and editing are key skills. Some API writers have said that day-to-day activities can be repetitive.
  • Content Writer – Content writers are more of the classic definition of a technical writer. You research stuff and write about it for others. Content writers often populate blogs or wikis. This can also extend into copywriting, especially if you have a knack for talking something up. Plus, content writers are often in-demand on a project basis while working at home. You might use WordPress or Confluence in this role.
  • Documentation Manager – This particular role has a number of definitions, so it’s also difficult to generalize. However, it usually relies more on project management skills and less on writing, although you’ll still be expected to write on occasion. Similar to a content strategist or information architect, you’ll be expected to manage the flow of documentation. The actual technical writing might be outsourced and you’ll manage that process, too. And, in some cases, you might even manage the localization of documentation into multiple languages. You’ll have many projects occurring simultaneously and need to be stellar at time management.
  • Techie Technical Writer – I’ve only seen this role titled “technical writer,” but I call it a “techie technical writer.” This is a technical writer that is expected to code software. Sounds a lot like software engineering/developer, but the opportunity is still available. If code is your thing, you’ll like this job.
  • SOP Writer – I see more and more of these positions available, and it’s an easy transition for a classic technical writer. Companies need policies and procedures written and updated… often. The key difference in this role is in the product you’ll use to write: Microsoft Word being the most frequent choice. In some cases, you’ll assemble teams to figure out these policies and procedures, in other cases, that work has been done and you’ll just use the notes. In either case, you’ll work quite a bit with people and need strong interpersonal skills to succeed.
  • Markup Technical Writer – As the tools to write have increased in complexity, technical writers are often hired by skillset. The move to DITA and markup for content reuse surged in popularity, not only from technical writers themselves, but also from development teams dictating tools for writers to use.  This has resulted in a need for people who know how to use these tools, such as MadCap Flare. If you are strong at a particular tool, you’ll find a role for you.
  • Instructional Designer – I might be going out on a limb, but I believe technical writers make great instruction designers. That advantage here is that you often get to move into video. Large companies are finding great success in certifications and short learning courses, and a technical writer will be right at home developing those solutions. Think Trailhead by Salesforce. If you describe yourself as creative, you’ll be right at home as an instructional designer.

In conclusion…

As I was writing this list, I’ve come up with half a dozen more roles that would fit a classic technical writer. But, heck, it could be outdated by the end of the year. The point is, however, that there are numerous options out there for a technical writer. Furthermore, you can develop your own competitive edge by developing a career plan for yourself. Get involved and start getting the training you need to be a sought-after writer.


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