How to Become A Technical Writer: Skills, Jobs & Portfolios
Coding and engineering skills are valuable on the job market, that’s for sure. But knowing the technology and being able to write about it clearly is a rare combination. Which makes it invaluable. That’s exactly what technical writers bring to the table —and they’re rewarded for it handsomely.
It’s not necessarily the easiest field to jump into, but if you’re interested in trying, we’ve got you covered. Today we’ll tell you all you need to know about how to become a technical writer: what skills, education, and experience you’ll need & how you can create a technical writing portfolio from scratch.
What is technical writing?
First things first, let’s review what technical writing is and how it differs from other forms of writing, such as copywriting or content writing.
To put it very simply, technical writing is the art of translating complex technical subjects into easy-to-understand pieces of writing. You can imagine the technical writer and the text they create as mediators. They’re mediators between the experts and the science/technology —and others that need to use and understand it without having the background knowledge and expertise.
What makes becoming a technical writer not so easy is that they need to have at least some level of expertise. Without that, they wouldn’t be able to understand the jargon and logic of the materials, and information they have to process for their projects.
But don’t worry, if you’re not a top expert in a complex field, that doesn’t mean you can’t become a technical writer. Having a basic understanding, an affinity and a strong interest is good enough to start. Why?
Because as a technical writer, you’ll have plenty of resources and information to start with. You won’t only have written materials to study, but you’ll be able to… well, expected to talk to and interview the true experts to get all the details right.
They’ll also be there to review the text when you’re done to make sure everything is correct. So as long as you have a basic understanding, you’re up for learning lots, and are interested in the field you decided to work in, you’ll most probably be good to go.
Job prospects and requirements for becoming a technical writer
As the nature of writing is different from other niches, so is the career path and the usual requirements. In this section, we’ll talk about how much you can earn in this field and what the usual requirements are for technical writer jobs.
Is technical writing a good career? How much do technical writers earn?
A lot of people ask if becoming a technical writer is a good choice, if it’s a good career. As we all have different priorities and preferences when it comes to ideal jobs and good careers, the answer is: it depends.
But one of the objective factors by which people often judge certain jobs and fields is the earning potential. How much does a technical writer earn? We looked up the stats so we can give you some actual numbers from all over the world.
- In the US, the median technical writer salary is $74,650 based on the report of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- In the UK, technical writers earn £55,000 according to Reed.co.uk
- For Australia, we found somewhat different numbers from different sources, but we’d say the median technical writer salary is around $80,000-110,000 (based on the stats published by talent.com and Payscale)
Technical writer job requirements (based on job descriptions)
In preparation for this article, we analyzed dozens of job posts to get a better idea of what companies expect from their future technical writer colleagues. We were especially interested in their requirements for education and experience, as questions like “How many years of education do I need to become a technical writer?” or “Can I become a technical writer with no experience?” seem to be really common.
Education requirements for technical writers
Let’s start with education. Out of all the job posts we went through, 40% didn’t have any degree requirements, while the other 60% all asked for a Bachelor’s degree.
But what kind of Bachelor’s degree do I need to get hired as a technical writer, you might ask. And that’s the interesting part.
- 30% of those job posts asked for a degree in English, communication, writing, marketing, or something similar along those lines
- 30% of the posts asked for a degree in a science field or IT, usually related to their company’s industry
- 20% of the job posts wrote a Bachelor’s degree in either of the fields/categories above would do
- 20% didn’t specify at all, just simply marked the level of education.
Interestingly, that shows that there are usually two ways for how one gets into technical writing.
Some people study science and technology —and realize they have an affinity for writing, or that they’re exceptionally good at explaining the complex concepts they work with. Others base their career on the arts of communication and writing. And with interest in a specific technical field and a little bit of expertise, they combine the two to become technical writers.
Work experience requirements for technical writer positions
The experience companies expect based on their job postings varies much more than the education. We found that:
- Sometimes presenting a convincing portfolio is enough —as long as you can convince them of your skills, lots of companies don’t care about the number of years you’ve worked as a technical writer
- Oftentimes they ask for experience with certain things (software, programming language, industry), not necessarily experience in a certain position. This proves yet again that skills and expertise (and their convincing presentation) can easily substitute the required years.
- Asking for 3-5 years of experience was the most common we’ve seen, but for senior positions, the requirement was almost always 5+ years. So if you have less than 3 years of experience, you’ll have to either put together a killer portfolio or apply for junior positions.
Where to find technical writer jobs
The answer to that question depends on whether you’re looking for clients as a freelance technical writer, or you want to find a spot as an in-house employee.
For freelance technical writers, the most important step in getting new gigs is having a convincing and professional website and portfolio. Here people can find you by themselves through search, but they can also be directed via referrals, social media, or freelance job sites. It’s also a great idea to do some networking in Facebook groups and LinkedIn, where you can find new clients and get to know other writers in the field.
For in-house positions, you’ll just have to search “technical writer” on any of the big job posting sites like LinkedIn, Indeed, or Glassdoor. Technical writers are very much in demand these days, so it won’t be difficult to find a lot of options to choose from.
Qualifications to become a technical writer: skills & education
The number of years of education and experience is one thing to check off the list —but you won’t get anywhere without heaving and presenting the skills companies are looking for. Let’s quickly review what these skills are and where you could gain some through technical writing courses and certifications online.
The skills you’ll need to become a technical writer
Similarly to education, the skills they expect new technical writer colleagues to have can be split into two categories: communication and research-related, and technical/IT skills.
Based on the job posts we analyzed, here are some of the most common skills required for technical writer jobs:
- Communication, especially communication with specialists, developers, and engineers.
- Doing interviews, both internally within the company, and externally with clients
- Research and analysis for processing the starting material and getting a deep understanding of the topic
- Attention to detail, as mistakes in the finished product can have very serious consequences
- Grammar and editing to guarantee a flawless text in the end, as technical writers usually don’t get editors to work with
- Design and formatting, often including experience with Adobe Creative Suite, as oftentimes it’s not just the writing but the whole of the presentation that also falls on the technical writer
- Experience with agile systems, as the developers/engineers the technical writer works with often operate in agile environments
- Teamwork, to be able to smoothly and efficiently work with experts, project managers, engineers, designers, and more
- Coding and other IT-related skills such as knowing HTML, Markdown, or Git
Other skills we saw pop up a few times were: experience with content management systems (CMS), the ability to process complex datasheets, and following specific style guides.
Education: technical writing courses & certifications
Although having technical writing certifications is not something that’s often mentioned in job posts, it’d definitely be an advantage. Especially if you’re new to the field and would like to become a technical writer now, completing a specialized course would be a great place to start.
It’ll teach you specific skills you’ll need, help you get some pieces for a technical writing portfolio, and give you a technical writing-specific certificate you can add to your CV and LinkedIn profile.
To help you get started, we collected some courses you can take online to get certified from the comfort of your own home.
The 7 best online technical writing courses and certifications
1. Certificate in Professional Technical Communication – University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire
This online certificate program by the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire Continuing Education will not only help you improve your writing style and teach you all you need to know about reports, proposals, manuals, and more… But will also guide you in creating “a well-versed portfolio of professional documents”, improving your chances of getting hired.
2. Professional Certificate of Competency in Specification and Technical Writing – Engineering Institute of Technology (AU)
This three-month online course was designed primarily for engineers, who’d like to improve their research skills and learn how to prepare and write technical documents. It takes you through the whole research, preparation, and writing process step-by-step, covering everything from editing, through readability, to structure, illustrations, and more.
3. Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC) Foundation – Society for Technical Communication
STC, which gathers writers, editors, managers, and engineers to a professional association, is well-known in the technical writing community, and their certifications are widely accepted. This course covers the foundations of technical communication, leading you through 9 key areas with an exam at the end.
4. One Week Technical Writer Certification – Technical Writer HQ
With over 50 online lessons, the one-week certification course of Technical Writer HQ will teach you the fundamentals and lead you through the whole process of technical writing. They cover things like setting scope, structuring sentences, using tools, managing knowledge bases, and everything in between.
5. Technical Writing – Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Coursera
This technical writer course from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology takes about 20 hours to complete and will teach you how to write multiple different types of technical documents. They also touch on research, structure, and style of writing.
As with all courses on Coursera, you can enroll for free if you’re just in it for the skills and knowledge —or you can pay the full price to get a certificate at the end.
6. Technical Writing: Documentation on Software Projects – Pluralsight
The Pluralsight technical writing course by software developer and technical trainer Amber Israelsen takes about 4 hours to complete and will teach you all you need to know about software project documentation. Similar to the Engineering Institute of Technology course, this was also designed for developers and engineers, to teach them how to write about their work in a clear and easy-to-understand way.
Udemy hosts multiple technical writing courses, but this is one of the most popular ones with almost 3,500 students. It focuses on writing quickly, effectively, and accurately, and introduces a writing system you can adapt if you’d like. You can learn how to create a realistic writing schedule, do research, write to an audience, and more —in just 5.5 hours.
How to get experience to get hired as a technical writer
As you could see from our analysis at the beginning, it’s not easy to get a technical writer job with no experience. But how do you get experience if nobody gives you a chance?
Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who struggles with that. We’re here to give you tips on how you can get some experience to help you find a job and officially become a technical writer.
1. Get coursework done and build a portfolio
As we mentioned already, a lot of times the experience companies need is not necessarily an X number of years officially spent in a technical writer position. But rather it’s having written pieces that prove your skills and knowledge, presented in a writing portfolio.
Completing a technical writing course and all the assignments and coursework is a great way to do that. It will not only sharpen your skills but will give you pieces reviewed by your instructors that you know are good enough to represent your work.
2. Contribute to open-source projects
One way of getting experience that we specifically recommend to technical writers is contributing to open-source projects as a writer. There are some really amazing open source initiatives out there —but what most people don’t think about is that they also need writers. Because no matter how amazing a piece of software is, without the proper documentation, working on it and using it becomes much more difficult.
So they’re usually looking for volunteers to join the project and create all the needed documentation. It’s good for the project and great for the writer, as it means credible, real-life technical writing experience, and projects for your portfolio.
3. Offer to write for nonprofits and local businesses
Another way is reaching out to nonprofits or local businesses, asking if they need any help with their documentation. Depending on your current skills and ability to market yourself from day one, these might be either free or paid jobs. People’s opinions differ on whether you should ever work for free —but we recommend considering it at the very beginning to start filling your portfolio.
4. Rewrite existing technical documentation
As copywriters sometimes rewrite ads for real brands, technical writer candidates can rewrite existing technical documentation. Just take a real piece of material you found and think needs improving, and improve and rewrite it.
It’d be a good idea to also write up a little case study about the process for your portfolio, detailing what the problems were with the original script, and how your changes made it better.
If you’re confident in your work, you can also try to reach out to the company to offer your revised document for them to use. Who knows? They might like it and even give you another assignment. But if not, you can still use it for your portfolio.
How to present technical writing projects & create a technical writing portfolio
We’ve mentioned your technical writing portfolio and getting pieces for it so many times, it’s only fair if we get into how to actually create one. To make it as simple and easy-to-digest as possible, we’ll do so by answering the most common questions that arise about technical writing portfolios.
Do I need a portfolio to become a technical writer?
The answer is: most probably, yes.
If you’re an established technical writer, with a long career at well-known companies, and get referred to somewhere, you might be able to go without one. But even then, having a portfolio would give you a boost against all the other candidates.
But especially if you’re towards the beginning of your technical writer career, having a portfolio is an absolute must. It serves to showcase your skills and prove that no matter your work history, you’re a candidate that’s worth hiring.
What’s the best format for a technical writing portfolio?
We recommend creating a writing portfolio website for this purpose. It’s the most professional way to create a clear and easy-to-navigate space for all your writing samples. All that, while not making anybody feel overwhelmed looking at a single document that’s dozens of pages long.
The other upside is that you can edit and update it anytime —unlike PDFs or PPTs, where once you sent the file, there’s no going back.
And there’s just something so empowering about telling someone to just go to yourname.com to check out your samples, right?
What is the best tool to create a technical writing portfolio website?
While there are many generic website builders out there, your best bet is to choose one that was specifically designed for writers like you. Copyfolio is exactly that, helping writers all around the world to create stunning portfolio websites quickly and easily.
With Copyfolio all it takes is choosing a template and filling the prepared site with your own content. You can choose your color palette and font presets, add your images into mockups (laptops, smartphones, magazines, etc.) with just one click, and buy your own domain right there within the app.
It has all you need to build a good-looking, responsive website, even if you’ve never done this before.
What are the must-haves of a technical writer portfolio?
There are a few things your portfolio should have if you want it to be complete and convincing. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the purpose of the portfolio is to showcase your writing skills and get you hired.
So just like you do so when writing a technical document, you have to consciously write for an audience here too. No matter if it’s a project or your about page, it should be consistent, keeping the goal in mind.
As for the pages and content, here’s what you’ll need:
- A home page with a tagline summarizing who you are and what you do, ideally alongside a photo of yourself
- An about page with more information about yourself and your background (you can include your resume here if you’d like)
- A contact page with ways to reach out to you: your email address, phone number, perhaps your LinkedIn profile as well
- And of course, your writing projects, ideally each on its separate page, in the forms of case studies
How should I present my technical writing projects in my portfolio?
When it comes to presenting technical writing projects, writing case studies is key. As they can be pretty complex and long in nature, reading through a case study instead of the actual finished piece can save lots of time for the reader. And give them better insights too.
They should still get to read a sample of it to see your writing in action, but the finished result won’t tell them a lot of background information they’d actually like to know.
As we discussed above, writing is just one element of a technical writer’s job. There’s a lot of research and analysis that goes into each project, often you’ll do interviews to get answers, you’ll coordinate with multiple people, and you might be the one designing the document itself. It’s a lot, and just seeing the document won’t reveal any of that.
So take the chance and create a separate case study page for each project, where you talk about all that. Tell the readers how you used your skills each step of the way, and only then show them a glimpse of the writing itself. You can do that with a screenshot of a page and/or a link where they can access it fully if they want.
How many projects should I have in my portfolio?
When choosing your projects, the most important rule is to think about the person reviewing your portfolio. It goes without saying that you should only add your very best pieces, but how many of them you should add is not necessarily that straightforward.
From our research and interviews, we found that hiring managers take an average of 5-10 minutes to look through each candidate’s materials. You need to make sure that they’ll be able to go through your most important pieces within that time frame.
It could be just 2-3 longer projects or 5-6 easy-to-overview ones. If you’re not sure how long it’d take to read all your materials, ask a friend or colleague to help you out. Having them read through it will help you get a better idea of what can still be included, and what pieces need to be cut.
Take the first step to become a technical writer, create your portfolio with Copyfolio
After all you’ve read, does this career resonate with you? Do you have the skills and passion to jump right in? Take the very first step and create your technical writing portfolio with Copyfolio. It’s okay if you don’t have a ton of samples yet, you can always add more later!
It takes only two minutes to set up your website, then all you have to do is filling it with content. Take Copyfolio for a spin, get started for free today!