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Technical Communication FAQ

What’s the difference between technical communication and technical writing?

The terms “technical communication” (TC) and “technical writing” (TW) represent the same field, but TC is the newer and more accurate term. “TC” reflects that the field is about more than just words or text.

What are the most important qualities for succeeding in technical writing?

To succeed in technical communication, being a good writer is obviously important. Other communication abilities—such as strong vocabulary and grammar skills, interviewing experience, and editing—are also useful.

The right mindset is a major asset. Are you organized, thorough, analytical, and detail-oriented? Do you enjoy working with computers? And do you enjoy learning things? If you can answer Yes to these questions, you will likely enjoy technical communication.

What kind of educational background should I have?

Most technical communicators have training or experience either in a technical field, such as engineering, or in communications. Those with a general communications background will find that employers in the Vancouver area now want a technical writing credential as well.

How important are computer skills?

Computer skills for technical writers are essential. TWs need to have numerous software skills, depending on what industry they’re in and what their employer or clients need. As well, TWs need to be comfortable learning new software, because new packages or updates are released frequently.

What software should I know?

That really depends. The key is to go “wide but shallow.” That is, know a bit about many different software packages, ideally in a range of areas (for example, graphics and imaging, web publishing, and so on). As well, being comfortable with learning new software, or being able to teach yourself, is really helpful.

What are typical working conditions?

While writing is a solitary activity, TC is very collaborative and teamwork-oriented. TCs often work with editors, graphic designers, user experience experts, content strategists, and business analysts.

As well, because TCs are often generalists, they have to interview subject matter experts (SMEs) in order to collect the specific information they need.

The writing work is all done on computer, so expect to spend long hours seated at a desk. Eyestrain, back pain, and repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome are some of the challenges technical writers can experience.

Do technical writers work for themselves or for others?

About 60% of technical writers in the Vancouver area work for organizations, while the rest are self-employed.

Like all happily self-employed people, self-employed tech writers like the variety and independence of working for themselves, but dislike the long hours and the financial uncertainty.

Those who work for others like the stability and structure, but can find the work becomes less interesting or they get caught up in office politics.

What do technical writers earn?

In Vancouver in the summer of 2011, the contract rate for a junior technical writer was around $30 to $35/hour, with senior TWs earning $75 to $95/hour, while a permanent employee will make about 1/2 to 2/3 the hourly wage of a contract worker.

Some of the factors that affect the rate include your level of experience, your background, the industry you are working in, and how many other qualified people you are competing against.

What do technical writers like about their jobs? What do they dislike?

Technical writers generally like the variety of their work and the challenge of learning new topics or software. They also tend to like working with other like-minded, bright people in creative environments.

Common downsides of the job are being or feeling isolated, not being valued or understood by others in the organization, and having tight or frequent deadlines.

Overall, however, those who stay with technical communication really like it—one survey has shown that technical writers have about an 85% job satisfaction rate.

What do TWs write?

Technical writers write a wide range of materials, including training materials, online help for software, user guides for consumer products, product specification (“spec”) sheets for sales people, business plans or proposals, and policy and procedure manuals.

These materials may seem very different but they have two things in common—they all explain or describe something, and they are all intended to help the reader solve a problem or complete a task.

What industries do technical writers work in?

Technical writers are needed in every type of industry or organization imaginable, although not all of them hire tech writers on a permanent basis. Common industries to find tech writers in include high tech (including hardware and software development), aerospace, mining, manufacturing, education, health and safety, and construction.

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