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Getting Started with Technical Writing

kahawaiikailana profile image Kailana Kahawaii ・4 min read

I’ve connected with many professional and aspiring technical writers over the months and have received a lot of advice. This guide is meant to answer some of the most frequently asked questions I’ve encountered in networking.

Please note, this article is specifically targeted towards software technical writing.

What is technical writing?

How-to guides, documentation, white papers, and a myriad of other informative writings are considered technical writing. Technical writing can also appear in other writing-heavy professions, such as UX, instructional design and marketing writing.

How do I start?

Do you have a goal in mind for starting technical writing? If you simply want to get better at it, there’s many online resources. Some of my favorite free resources include idratherbewriting.com and the Google technical writing guide. If there’s a field you’re interested in, consider writing articles and posting them to Dev.to and other article hosting sites. If you have a specific company you want to apply for become familiar with their docs. Perhaps test out their software if it’s available then write about it.

What's something that mostly all technical writers agree with?

Besides understanding their subject and audience, many technical writers agree that their writing should be inclusive. That means staying away from metaphors that may be confusing for other cultures, and avoiding offensive language and terms.

What do I need to know before getting into technical writing?

A strong command of the English grammar (or whichever language you’re writing in) is important. My big mistake when I first started was thinking I had to know everything about everything before writing. In fact, it’s better to focus on a specific part of the software or program you’re writing about. That focus will help you immensely.

Is there a specific degree I need to get to become a technical writer?

Most of the job ads I’ve seen require a Bachelor’s degree. Indeed corroborates this. Some of the most popular majors include Engineering, Computer Science, and English. There are also specific technical writing programs and credentials one can obtain. That being said, I’ve spoken to technical writers whose experience has usurped degrees and majors.

Besides writing, how can I enhance my technical writing?

Learning how to use documentation software can be important. Some teams also look for the ability to create diagrams or code samples. Also, some of the most listed languages and software include XML, JSON, Github, and HTML.

What’s something many technical writers are learning right now?

Github is very popular right now. I attended a webinar about Github basics this past summer. From those coming from a software engineering background, the good news is that you probably know all of the Github basics.

In addition, API documentation is exploding in popularity. Working with Postman, and knowing how to understand JSON, can be very important when pursuing these types of jobs.

Is there free software I can use to practice API documentation?

I’ve used Stoplight.io to practice API documentation. Swagger is another popular tool. Keep in mind these resources are free to start.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten about technical writing?

Joining the community Write the Docs has been an invaluable learning experience. I’ve met with so many professionals and I’ve learned their perspectives and views on the profession. In addition, I’ve been able to attend workshops and other webinars that I wouldn’t even have known about if I hadn’t joined this community.

I have a take home project for technical writing. How should I prepare?

If the company has docs, read them. If not, try to understand as much about their reader base as possible before sitting down to write. Writing to the audience is something many hiring managers are looking for and you want to demonstrate you know that audience well. There’s a big difference between writing to an engineering audience vs. a non-technical audience. Knowing how to adjust your writing is an important skill that will take you far.

How do you find the motivation to start writing?

When I was just getting started, I generally wrote about things I was passionate about. I also wrote about ideas that I didn’t see much documentation for (like dynamically controlled forms). In addition, a lot of the writing I do on Dev.to helps me to reinforce the skills I’ve learned. That’s not to say that pinpointing these sources will work 100%, but I’ve found that other technical writers have used these three methods when just starting out and building a portfolio.

How do I build a portfolio?

Identify the type of role you want to pursue, then write articles, documentation, and other samples to show your expertise in those areas. Try to include samples that speak to both technical and non-technical audiences. If there isn't a specific role you're going for, try to fill up your portfolio with samples you can see yourself writing on a frequent basis. In addition, if your writing was featured, or has many views, point that out in your portfolio or resume.

Summary

Technical writing is as much a skillset as it is a career. Perhaps the best piece of advice I can offer when pursing both the skill and career is to join a community and just start writing.

Happy writing!

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