Become a Technical Writer, Degree or Not

Among the most common questions of those looking to become a technical writer are: What type of schooling or training do I need? Is a certificate good enough? Do I need a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree?

Technical writing (or, technical communication) programs are offered at junior colleges, universities, trade schools, on-line (distant learning), and other institutions. Technical writing degrees can range from certificates to a Master’s degree. (Yes, I’ve also found Doctorate programs for technical writers.) There are many programs that allow people to learn the skills necessary to enter this competitive field.

However, before jumping in and spending a lot of money towards a university degree or technical school, here are a few things to consider.

Let’s begin with the bad news

Many people with degrees are out of work and are having a difficult job finding employment. Some are displaced due to the bad economy, or simply haven’t had a chance to enter the work force yet after graduation. It’s especially disheartening for those that have spent thousands (or ten of thousands) of dollars for a diploma, have outstanding student loans, and no work prospects [1].

The reality is that companies are trying to cut costs and hire those that they can pay less. Why should a company hire someone with a Master’s degree when they can pay someone who has a Bachelor’s? Job agencies have a large pool of qualified people to choose from, and it’s their job to get the best for the least amount of pay.

Do I need a degree?

Looking at the previous section, one might think that a degree is a detriment. Sure, it might signal to the interviewer that you’ll expect higher pay commensurate with your higher degree. But that’s an issue left for when you negotiate your salary.

Are degrees irrelevant?

Does a person need a diploma to become a technical writer?

It helps. Higher degrees tend to open more doors. But a degree isn’t necessary to get started as a technical writer.

Degrees are expected in specialized and advanced fields. But if you’ve just graduated from high school or a four year university program, it’s understood that you may lack on-the-job skills and experience. Companies do hire inexperienced people if they show potential and initiative.

Things aren’t that bad if you’re prepared

For those entering this field, the first priority will simply be to find a job as a tech writer. During the hiring process, you must demonstrate that you’re capable of doing what needs to be done. Therein lies the problem.

Many students come out of colleges and universities without practical skills, which is a major reason they’re overlooked during the hiring process. Although today’s graduates are more tech savvy than their older counterparts, companies have been known to revert back to hiring older workers for their experience [2]. And for those moving into technical writing from another technical profession, their background knowledge in technology gives them an edge over others.

When filling out that job application, creating a resume, or before a job interview, ask yourself: Do you have practical skills that required organized thinking in technology? Have you diagnosed and repaired electrical equipment? Maybe you enjoy working on cars. Did you write for a school newspaper, run your own website, a blog, a newsletter? Depending on the subject matter you’ll be expected to write, your spare-time activities can work in your favor. Degree or not, it helps a lot if you can bring something to the table during the hiring process.

Degree or not, chances are you’ll need new skills if you’re changing careers. Software skills, for example, is a must in technical writing. If you feel the need to learn more, be prudent and don’t rush into anything. Give thought to what skills you’ll need and do your research before spending money. The good news is that there are a lot of things you can learn on your own at little or no cost.

Below are some ideas for learning on the cheap. The list is by no means comprehensive, yet should be an adequate introduction.

For those with weak writing skills

Writing well is necessary to communicating well in print. Consider enrolling into an accredited junior college for English or writing classes if you feel you lack proficiency in writing. Take one of their placement tests to see where your strengths and weaknesses are. JC’s are aimed at their local communities and are far less expensive than universities. A case for taking classes at a college is that, if you decide to continue towards a degree, you’re already in the system gaining credits.

Writing code

Not all technical writing is aimed at consumers. Job postings for technical writers might include “code development” or something similar. If writing code is your interest, there are many on-line sources that are free. Codeacademy, Mozilla Developer Network (MDN), and W3Schools come to mind.

Desktop publish (DTP)/page layout tools

InDesign and FrameMaker are commonly found in the work place. They have highly sophisticated features that are valued when used with complex, larger manuals. They’re a bit pricey, but I’m merely giving a heads up to what companies might use. Most people are familiar with MS Word, and that too has a price. However, there are open source alternatives for basic word processing (as a substitute for MS Word) that are cross-platform: Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and WPS Office (formerly Kingsoft Office).

Graphic tools

Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are commonly found in the workplace. However, similar open source graphic tools are Gimp (bitmap), Inkscape (vector), and Pinta, which include many of the same features: filters, layers, paths, and many more effects.
Note: In a larger company you’ll usually work with graphic artists that will do the more complicated imaging, but it’s good to know at least the basics.

Talk to other technical writers

Last, but certainly not least, talk to people already working as one. Ask them how they became tech writers, how long it took to get a job, and what is expected of people entering this field. There’s no better way to learn than from someone who’s been there. It also gives you a chance to network with people in this profession.

Video editing

Blender has a high learning curve, yet is an interesting tool to learn especially if you’re into 3D. For basic video editing, there’s Shotcut.

[1] Highly Educated, Unemployed and Tumbling Down the Ladder
[2] The Suddenly Hot Job Market for Workers Over 50

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