Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I want to be a technical writer

A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend from college. We met after almost 15 years, and did what such meetings usually end up in - reminiscing over coffee. Some time during the course of our conversation, the friend remarked,
My sister has decided to take up a full time career in technical writing. She is good in English and was a science student in her postgrad. What does she need to do?
The following paragraphs contain what I recollect of my answer to my friend's query.
She could probably start applying for jobs (Naukri, Monster etc. are good sites, and so are TW-dedicated sites such as TWIN). At this point of time, the "good" companies may not want to hire a fresher, but after a year's experience, changing jobs should not be a problem. Some of the prospective employers may ask for writing samples - your sister could consider writing any or some of the following:
  • A How-to describing a small feature in some software she is familiar with; for example, How to create pivot tables in MS Excel. This serves as a sample for a user manual.
  • A How-to describing the install procedure of some software that she's used; for example, How to download and install the OpenOffice suite. This serves as a sample for an install guide.
  • A How-to describing the steps for doing something she may be doing regularly; for example, how to clean the spark plug of a motor cycle. This, again, could be a sample for a user manual.
  • A white paper for a business scenario (for example, whether or not Company X should enter into the business of virtual worlds). This, besides being a sample white paper, doubles up as a sample for other marketing collateral that tech writers are sometimes asked to create. And also showcases skills such as the ability to research, sift out useful data, analyse them, and organise the stuff into a coherent argument.
Some prospective employers may ask for knowledge of "tools". I hate this question, but there's a world out there (at least in the circles I've moved in, which is India) that worships tools. I suggest that your sister make herself familiar with at least the following tools (they are freeware), and then say that she can learn other similar tools because she already knows the basics...

  • Authoring tool: OpenOffice Writer (is similar to MS Word)
  • Help compilation tool: MS HTML Help Workshop (is similar to Adobe's RoboHelp)
  • Image editing tools: The PrtScr button on the keyboard plus MS Paint. MS Paint is not a freeware, but it comes bundled with the Windows OS...
This list still leaves out FrameMaker (about which interviewers will love to ask, just to scare you), but one can always say "I don't know". Alternatively, one can download a 30-day trial version of FrameMaker and play around a bit.
Some of the other things that one may be asked about in interviews are: structured authoring, DITA, XML. Your sister can read up on these things (Wikipedia is a good place to start).
Additionally, I found these to be useful:
  • Wandering around at, looking for "help wanted" for documentation, and volunteeriing. This is non-paid work but it showcases several things; such as your ability to interact with a remote developer, your ability to understand a piece of software as it develops and write about it, your interest in and commitment to the TW profession, etc.
  • Reading Peter Grainge's site:
  • Joining TW mailing lists such as the TWIN mailing list and TechWrl.


Pitlo said...


Anne said...


I so agree with
"Some prospective employers may ask for knowledge of "tools". I hate this question, but there's a world out there (at least in the circles I've moved in, which is India) that worships tools."

I just don't get the fascination these people have with tools, while the emphasis should be on quality of content.

Is the kind of hammer used, more important than the design of the sculpture or the skill of the sculptor? Beats me! :)