Photo by Nick Fletcher.
The whole field of technical writing, or professional writing, seems to have expanded like a giant infinite balloon in the last decade. Where previously it was a specialty, now it’s an entire field complete with sub-specializations.
How cool is that?!
I told the story just the other day that when I graduated from high school, I knew I was off to college to major in English. It had always been my best subject, I love reading but I love writing more, and it was just the obvious choice. Except…I also asked for money instead of gifts because I was determined to buy my own computer. Other than some desktop publishing, I couldn’t envision what the two had in common, but I was connecting them somehow.
Had I only known then that I would spend my career as a technical writer, I probably would have gotten a much earlier start. I focused on essays and creative nonfiction, which I later taught until I discovered what I solidly believe is the best professional writing graduate program anywhere – at Carnegie Mellon. Indeed, the robotics and engineering monolith hosts an impressive writing program for students looking at Literary and Cultural Studies, Professional & Technical Writing, and Rhetoric. I opted for the last of the three and am happy with my choice, even though I landed a career in Prof & Tech.
Evangelizing this field is easy for me, even as it becomes more complicated. I can see clearly now that taking an Apple IIGS to college was the harbinger that I would eventually be a software writer. I work now for a major software company and love what I do.
But wait – there’s more. (Please say that in an infomercial voice. You won’t be sorry.)
I wrote proposals for federal-level contracts for a while. I taught Human-Computer Interaction. I edited science articles. The breadth of writing is not unique to me, and it was very helpful.
Because the company I work for delivers software solutions for medical clinical trials. Eureka! Again, that college freshman had zero idea that she could combine a love of writing, and interest in computers, and a genuine interest in science. Back then, the marriage of all three seemed impossible.
As a technical writer starting out, it’s perhaps not so important to “find focus” in a given industry. However, once you decide you indeed want to produce professional documentation, specializing in an interest is helpful. There are so many areas to choose from that it’s nearly impossible to NOT find one that is interesting as well as challenging. I would not, for example, find deep satisfaction in writing installation manuals for gas pipelines. But someone does. Someone enjoys that very much. I participated in a review panel for a writing competition and my assigned document was an infant incubator (baby warmer) user manual to be read by nurses. I found the content to be expertly delivered, and yet I had no actual interest in what the device does or how to use it. Give me something about gene therapy research and predictive modeling? I am IN!
Some writers find that they are fascinated by banking, taxes, estate planning and so on – welcome to tech writing for loads and loads of financial applications from Turbo Tax to Betterment. The field is growing so rapidly that every investment tool, firm, and product needs a skilled writer. For those who find dollars and cents and amortization and net worth interesting it’s a huge category, and you can specialize in all sorts of ways. Someone who digs marketing but doesn’t want to be a marketer will find a spot in a real estate app, a travel tool, or even music software like iTunes. They all need documentation. Every. Single. One.
What about the folks who say the documentation is superfluous? While it may be true that an app like iTunes or Netflix is so intuitive that it doesn’t need user doc, the moment a user is stymied and needs an answer, that documentation is one thousand percent necessary.
I often talked with my students about the wide variety of uses for their writing skills, many of which would leave plenty of time for creating poetry, fiction, and the like. Heck, even I write memoir in my spare time.
But it’s Sci-tech, Med-tech, and Bio-tech that butter my bread. If you find any area that interests you, I can guarantee there’s a technical document somewhere for you to write and edit, and it’s all about that field.