Background: I've been a technical writer for about 10 years, mostly writing software manuals.
What's your background that relates to said tech writing?
I have two streams that relate to technical writing. (1) Writing and (2) Computers. With regards to writing, I don't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. However, most of my pre-tech-writing background in writing was through coursework... as well as tech writing projects I would fit into whatever computer job I was holding at the time.
With regards to computers, I didn't initially realize that working in computers could mean writing. I worked as a computer operator, programmer, helpdesk support, and trainer (although by the time I was doing training, I was also doing writing).
Note that not all technical writing is about software.... or it could be about software for a specialized industry. For example, I currently work for a division of my company that creates software for use in hospitals. In this case, a clinical background is more useful for some of the writing than a computer background.
How did you get into it?
You would think that when I was planning on being a writer (when I started university, I thought I'd become a journalist) and when my father suggested that I might get into computers (because I found programming fun), that I would immediately put the two interests together. But it didn't occur to me that there was any other computer career besides programmer.
I hated being a programmer. Even by the time I was graduating from University I realized I didn't want to be a programmer. Then I fell into a computer support position. Well, I had worked that sort of job before (at university), but I didn't realize it could be a full-time job. I loved working support. But my first boss was a Technical Writer, and when I realized what that meant, the lightbulb finally clicked.
In all my jobs I always did some technical writing. And when there was an opening for a technical writer/trainer at that company (actually, a University), I jumped. And then when I left to drop the slash, and become a technical writer, I jumped around a lot saying "I'm a writer, I'm a writer".
Are there special courses you took?
I never took Technical Writing courses. Because except when I was working at a university, I never realized the field existed. I took a lot of courses in Computer Science, because I thought I was going to become a programmer. That's helped me for writing the more technical manuals and other documents meant for an I.T. audience.
In highschool I took every writing course available, and spent two summers at universities doing more writing. But I don't think I ever put those courses on my resume. They just helped me with my writing.
What sorts of things do you think help you most with the job?
When writing about software in a software company, keep in mind that you start writing before the product is finished. And there is no manual until you write it. If you're lucky, this isn't the first version of the product, so you can start to learn about the product from the existing manuals.
It definitely helps to be curious, to want to explore and figure things out. You're bringing order out of chaos, and writing about every detail that can be found in the system.
Writing a software manual is not like writing a novel. First off, most people are not going to read the manual cover-to-cover. Most people won't even look at the manual unless they get stuck and need to look something up. Unlike fiction, in a software manual, repetitive structure is good. It makes it easier for someone in a hurry to locate the information. And you can be too personally invested in the manual... the company is the author of the manual, and if your boss or reviewers want changes, don't feel hurt.
- My article for Digital Eve (then Webggrls) on Breaking into Technical Writing
- Society for Technical Communication (STC)
- The Toronto Chapter of the STC.
Anything else you want to know? Feel free to ask in a comment.