In one of the courses I teach at BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology), I received an email from a very keen participant asking how to prepare for the course (Technical Editing and Grammar course – 1008). Inspired by such enthusiasm (this is what makes September great!), I decided to take it further and include information for anyone interested in improving their core skills as a technical writer.
Get a Quality Style Guide – Consider ordering the Chicago Manual of Style (I have both an online and hard copy version). It’s an excellent investment for anyone interested in high-quality English-language writing.
Learn MS Word – Research the Track Changes feature in MS Word. There are other software programs technical writers need for writing, but MS Word is still the most common. As a technical writer, you’re expected to use Word at an advanced level.
Learn hard copy markup – It may seem archaic, but hard copy markup makes you indispensable when editing and developing large documents).
Learn the Most Common Grammar Errors – In my course, we learn the ten-top grammar errors. Don’t feel you have to know all grammar errors (that’s what a good style guide is for), but your credibility as a writer is increased exponentially if you know the core ones. To find out the ten-top grammar errors, take my course.
Write, write, write! – to get your foot in the door, take every opportunity you can to write and edit even if it means working for free. Ensure you ask low paying (or non paying) clients to let you keep a copy of the before and finished versions, so you can use them to market yourself.
I get asked more frequently about how to make inroads into the field of technical writing and my response generally comes down to three key points:
- Get educated: Many technical schools and universities have technical writing programs. They often offer their courses on an iterative basis (i.e., you don’t have to commit to the entire program; you can just take a course or two to try it out). Apart from the training you’ll get, formal training is also a great way to network and immerse yourself in the milieu of technical writing.
- Get Informed: Check out the job boards and read the requirements for various jobs in technical writing. If you find the requirements daunting—don’t be discouraged. Many job descriptions are little more than wish lists, but they’ll give you an idea about the kind of skills you’ll need to succeed and the range of industries that need technical writers.
Tip – rather than searching for “technical writer” over a large date range, I view all posted jobs in, say, the last three days. Positions that require technical writing skills are frequently posted under other names than “technical writer”.
- Get involved: Find opportunities to write—don’t wait for a paying job. You may want to volunteer with some non profit or other group as a writer just to get experience. Everyone needs good writing and if you can provide it, you’ll start to acquire samples of work (ensure that any freebie work you do comes with the understanding that you’ll use finished writing as samples of your work).
I volunteer as a writer for the Vancouver Observer (an online magazine) and it is definitely helpful for keeping my writing skills honed as well as for networking.
Some notable Vancouver job boards: