There are many skills technical writers need to develop to become top experts in the field.
And we’re not just talking about writing and programming, but also people and process management skills.
And the more you learn and grow, the more you can advance through the hierarchy of roles available to technical writers.
This article will tell you what those professional roles are and what makes each one different and more complex than the previous one.
Examined chronologically, these roles make up a common career path for technical writers.
Let’s start with an entry-level position: technical writing intern.
Technical Writer Intern
Technical writers are professionals with a unique mix of talents. They need to have a deep understanding of software and programming to adequately explain the product to users.
They also need excellent communication and storytelling skills to present all of this information in a way that’s palatable and easy to understand for their audience.
So if you have a particular interest in technology and some writing skills, you may already be a great candidate for a technical writing internship.
For example, Shrijana Ghimire was a bachelor of computer systems with a penchant for essay writing when she was accepted into Google’s technical writing internship program.
She represents the perfect candidate for a technical writing internship. That’s evident from the way she describes her talents and interests:
“I always had an interest in writing and I had participated in, and won, multiple essay writing competitions during my secondary school years. I also love programming and working on side projects.”
So what are some of the other requirements you’ll need to secure a technical writing internship? Let’s look at a typical job description to find out.
As you can see, it wouldn’t hurt to have some editing skills, both for text and images, as well as some familiarity with the basic markup languages Markdown and HTML.
A good way to practice all of these skills (as well as create some valuable writing samples you can show to prospective employers) is to contribute documentation to open-source applications.
For example, the Gnome Documentation Project is always happy to accept contributions from aspiring technical writers.
Once you successfully land an internship, you can expect to start learning everything there is to know about the industry and contributing to documentation projects under the supervision of more experienced technical writers.
After that, your chances of landing a full-time job as a technical writer will be much higher.
In addition, seeing how you’ve been spending so much time exploring and researching software, you might even see many other possible career paths opening up.
For instance, after her internship at Google, Shrijana Ghimire kept working closely with software developers and today, she holds the position of developer advocate at Eightfold.
To make a long story short, securing a technical writing internship is a great way to kick off your career.
If you have good writing skills and an interest in technology, you’re already halfway there.
See if you can create some good writing samples by participating in open-source documentation projects and start applying for internships for companies that reflect your interests.
Junior Technical Writer
After wrapping up your internship, if you do decide that a career in technical writing is the right fit for you, your next step would be to find a junior position.
These days, pursuing this position is a good career move because this industry has a very positive outlook, according to the US bureau of labor statistics, so there's a lot to look forward to.
At this stage of your career, you can expect to act as an assistant to more experienced technical writers working on documentation.
In practice, that often means doing a lot of research into the product.
You will be finding resources and fact-checking knowledge that technical writers will be using to write documentation for the products your company offers.
For a lot of writers, this will also be their first opportunity to start working with subject matter experts (SMEs).
These are the people with first-hand knowledge about the product your team is documenting, so you’ll be working closely with them throughout your career.
This close collaboration will allow you to practice your soft skills, which are imperative for a technical writer. As Kesi Parker, an experienced technical writer, explains:
“It can sound weird, but soft skills are key in technical writing because you will not only write but communicate with different people, for example, SMEs, developers, illustrators and so on. And they can be busy, they can forget something or they even can dislike you because of some subjective reasons.”
So, as you can probably already understand, the role of a technical writer junior has much more to do with learning than actually doing.
But that’s a good thing.
Doing mountains of research and getting intimately familiar with style guides and documentation rules is a great way to build a solid basis of knowledge that you will later be able to use to write documentation more quickly, efficiently, and accurately.
Our advice is to be patient and absorb as much knowledge as you can during this stage.
There will be ample opportunity to apply what you’ve learned in the next stage of your career as a full-blown technical writer.
Junior technical writers usually need about two years of experience before they can take on the responsibilities of a full-blown technical writer.
That’s because technical writers have more independence in their work, as well as a wider range of tasks they need to handle in their everyday work.
Depending on the company you work for, you’ll be responsible for the creation of several types of documents, including:
- User guides, Tutorials, Troubleshooting guides
- Software documentation such as API and SDK docs
- Requirements documentation
- White papers, case studies, and other documents that support marketing and sales
- Release notes and other maintenance documentation
All of these types of documents are created in collaboration with other experts at the company.
This means that, along with working independently with documentation, the technical writer also spends a lot of time in meetings.
Have a look at a typical day in the working life of a technical writer from LEAP Dev, for example:
Source: LEAP Dev on YouTube
As you can see, their technical writer, Farhana, spends almost half of her day in team meetings to touch upon current projects and sync up all the information and different needs that go into each document she’s working on.
Finally, every technical writer knows their job isn’t finished when a document is uploaded to the knowledge base. There’s also a lot of documentation maintenance that goes into their work.
This is actually the part of the job that many technical writers find to be the most difficult.
Knowledge bases can grow to become quite substantial, and every document within needs to be periodically checked to make sure it’s still valid and up to date.
Luckily, technical writers working with quality documentation software can partially automate this task to make it easier.
For example, if you’re working with Archbee, you can set reminders for each individual document that will alert you that a document may be outdated and needs to be verified.
Here’s how this procedure works:
Source: Archbee on YouTube
All things considered, technical writers have a very diverse and dynamic job.
Along with drafting multiple types of documentation, they also collaborate a lot with other team members, and ensure that their company’s knowledge base is accurate and up to date.
Senior Technical Writer
At the point when you’ll be transitioning into a senior technical writing position, you’re very likely to see your responsibilities branching out into a more managerial role.
Of course, you’ll still be working on researching, drafting, and maintaining documentation.
However, in a senior role, the documentation falling under your jurisdiction will be a lot more complex.
Let’s take a look at a job advertisement for a senior position to learn more about how this position is different from a mid-level technical writer’s:
That’s an impressive list of requirements.
Senior technical writers need to not only be very experienced at their primary task, writing documentation, but also a whole host of other functions and tools, such as graphic design, content authoring, CMS, and documentation software.
At this level, it’s also expected of the technical writer to have some programming skills.
That’s because they need to create complex documentation and review the work of other technical writers writing about the company’s products.
They’re often responsible for giving the final okay before documentation is uploaded to the public knowledge base.
The other part of a senior’s job is, as we said, more managerial. Your job will be to organize the work of other less experienced writers on the team. In addition, you’ll have a role in the recruitment and hiring decisions when it’s time to bring new writers to the team.
This is true for most companies that employ technical writing teams, no matter how big or small.
For instance, at GitLab, the DevOps software provider with more than 1,600 employees, senior technical writers have both operational and managerial responsibilities.
This may seem like a lot to take on, but the job does have its perks.
For example, senior technical writers can expect a higher-than-average salary to reflect their responsibilities, with the upper echelon reaching more than $100k.
All in all, technical writers at this level divide their time between documentation processes and leadership responsibilities.
The documents they’re writing are top-tier with regard to complexity, and they have some say in how the work is organized and how teams are built.
This is a lot of responsibility for one role, but in this case, the compensation most often reflects the type of work senior technical writers do.
Technical Documentation Editor
In technical writing, the role of a documentation editor doesn’t come after the senior writer.
Instead, you can consider it as a parallel position that carries as much responsibility as the senior writer position but is a little different in character.
So, while the senior technical writer is responsible for ensuring the content in technical documentation is perfectly accurate and up-to-date, the documentation editor is more involved with the format of the documentation.
Since we’ve examined the requirements for a senior technical writer in the last section, let’s see what sort of qualifications editors need to have for the job.
Reading this description and the accompanying list of requirements, it should be becoming clear that editors do a lot more than just proofread documentation.
They also ensure that the documentation they’re inspecting is completely in-line with the company’s preferences when it comes to style.
In other words, that the documentation is compliant with the company’s chosen style guide.
In the job ad above, AP and Chicago Styles are mentioned, but software developers that publish documentation also follow technical writing style guides, like Microsoft’s or Google’s manuals of style that detail how every technical document should be written.
By consolidating technical documentation in accordance with the house style, editors provide consistency and ensure that every document is formatted and written according to the same set of rules.
There are several elements to this:
- Ensuring that the documentation is written in the same brand voice and sounds the same across the knowledge base.
- That the agreed-upon rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, numbering, and capitalization are applied consistently.
- That every document type follows the same format (for example, that every user guide starts with a list of requirements).
- That the naming conventions the company has decided on are applied everywhere.
This may seem trivial, but a consistent, stylistically immaculate knowledge base inspires confidence in your brand and communicates to users that your documentation has authority and can be trusted.
Documentation editors are some of the most pedantic and detail-oriented people you’ll ever work with.
If these are the characteristics you also exhibit as a professional, and if you value the format even more than the content in technical documentation, this editorial career path might be a great fit for you.
Head of Technical Content
At the top level of technical writing, you won’t be involved with crafting documentation as much as you were before.
The head of technical content role is almost purely managerial and ensures that the work of creating and distributing technical documentation is going as smoothly as possible.
To put it differently, the head of technical content is in charge of the entire document development life cycle and is charged with organizing each phase.
This can be a very demanding role in a company with multiple documentation projects underway.
The head of technical content needs to be able to efficiently prioritize work so that every document is planned, created, reviewed, and distributed on time and with the least possible amount of errors along the way.
In this position, you’ll also need to be very familiar with every team member’s strengths, weaknesses, and unique talents so that you can effectively distribute work according to your team's skillsets and play to their strengths.
Taking all of this into consideration, it makes sense that not every company employs a head of technical content.
Only larger companies with a high volume of documentation projects actually need this type of managerial role to efficiently organize the work processes.
This includes companies that offer complex software solutions and have a steep learning curve that requires users to spend a lot of time with the documentation.
Quix, a real-time stream processing platform, is such a company.
Quix offers a complex product which is supported by a large archive of documentation, including user guides, a large glossary of terms, tutorials, troubleshooting guides, API and SDK documentation.
Therefore, it makes sense that this company would hire a head of technical content to make sure all of this documentation is written and distributed on time and to the highest possible standard of accuracy.
In Quix’s case, that role is held by Kiersten Thamm, an experienced technical writer who holds a PhD.
To sum up, the head of technical content is a demanding role that can usually be found in larger companies that handle a large volume of documentation.
This is the highest position a technical writer can hold and it’s almost purely managerial in character.
As a technical writer, you have a long road ahead of you.
Each stage of your career will require you to become more and more involved with documentation projects and have a deeper understanding of the product you’re documenting.
In addition to that, each promotion carries with it a host of new responsibilities that are more managerial in nature, meaning you’ll also need to develop your soft skills to become a great leader.
This is what makes technical writing such an exciting field to work in.
You’re always working on developing your skills and acquiring new knowledge, meaning there’s seldom ever a dull moment in a technical writer’s career.