Technical Writers Are in Demand: Do You Have the Right Stuff?

Article excerpt

* Do you think that you can write a user's manual that is better than the manual for the last computer you learned to use?

* Have you received compliments on the design and content of the web site you created?

* Do you want to be part of the thriving information technology industry? (The U.S. Department of Commerce announced in April 1998 that the information technology industry is responsible for more than one quarter of the country's real economic growth in the last five years.) If you answered yes to any of the above questions, a technical writing career may be in your future.

What Do Technical Writers Do?

Technical writers explain things. They translate complex information and ideas into content that can be easily understood by a particular audience from the general public to technically trained people. Technical writers create environmental impact statements, web sites, magazine articles, proposals, instructions for taking medicine, training manuals for pilots, repair manuals for blood analyzers, instructions for using VCRs, online help for computer software, assembly instructions, newsletters, on-screen instructions for using your bank's ATM machine, specifications, user's guides for telephone answering machines, instructions for making microwaved popcorn, computer manuals, and many other types of documentation. Technical writers work in every industry, from automobiles to computers to finance to health care. At one time, technical writers were primarily wordsmiths. Austin Brown began his technical writing career in Alaska in 1961, before the computer and the photocopier were commonplace. "Writers used a pencil or an ink pen and wrote words on paper," he recalls. "The paper was handed to a typist who used a typewriter to type the words. Documents were printed using a method called offset lithography. The word processing and desktop publishing software applications that we use today weren't introduced until the early 1980s."

In 1988, Brown retired from his position as head of the Technical Publications Branch of the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Virginia. Brown is now semi-retired and a communications consultant in Hawaii. Today he and his colleagues use not only words, but also illustrations, photographs, video, and computer-based multimedia. Now more than ever, technical writing is a craft that combines science, technology, and the humanities. Today's technical writers are also called information architects, analysts, technologists, developers, designers, and engineers; web masters; technical communicators and editors; procedure writers; and documentation specialists. Whatever they are called, their objective is the same as always: to convey scientific and technical information concisely, accurately, and clearly.

Why Are Technical Writers in Demand?

Demand for technical writers is expected to continue to increase as technology continues to become more and more a part of our lives. Popular consumer magazines identified technical writing as a hot career as early as 1983 (Ebony) and as recently as 1996 (Working Woman and Black Enterprise). According to the 1998-99 Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of writers and editors is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations (that is, increase 21 to 35 percent) through the year 2006. The handbook also says that through the year 2006, opportunities will be good for technical writers because of the more limited number of writers who can handle technical material. The handbook says that online publications and services, which are relatively new, will continue to grow and require an increased number of writers and editors.

The number and variety of technical communication opportunities have enabled Angela Taylor, now a technical writer for IBM in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, to thrive as a technical communications writing contractor for the last 16 years. …