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Introduction To Technical Writing For Coders: A Beginner’s Guide

What Is Technical Writing?

A technical writer is someone who writes technical documentation. This could include user manuals, online support articles, or internal docs for coders/API developers.

Documentation is a necessary evil for most projects. From Adobe software to web frameworks and even home appliances, technical docs are necessary, and technical writers make them happen.

Very few people know about technical writing, but it’s a fairly substantial career field. Some fear it could be ruined from automation, but the skillset of a good technical writer typically works better than AI. So it seems tech writing is here to stay, at least for the time being.

The best part is that many technical writers earn a good living. PayScale has the average around $50k-$70k per year working for any of the larger tech companies.

And it’s not even crazy to reach six figures in technical writing if you can provide quality documentation for a specific niche like technology, engineering, or medicine.

In this post, I’d like to cover the basics of technical writing from the perspective of web/software documentation. It’s a great field for anyone who is detailed and enjoys technology but may not love writing code.

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Most technical writers must follow a specific series of guidelines from a style guide. This limits the writing style, but also makes the job easier and more rigid.

If you’ve ever built an open source project, then you know how annoying it can be to maintain the documentation. But good documentation is a necessity in a world where anyone can pick up Angular or React and start learning.

Thankfully, this is where the technical writer is born!

Necessary Skills

Obviously a great technical writer needs to understand proper English. But this doesn’t mean memorizing every grammar rule or obtaining a master’s degree in English.

You just need an understanding of how to explain something clearly and simply.

Technical writers have many jobs. They might type up intro guides or release notes, or they might write full-length user manuals on assembly or technology. This could range from a simple desk fan to a complex household item, like a garbage disposal or sump pump.

You don’t need to be a master of any particular field (although it helps). You just need to know how to convey ideas clearly in writing.

Note: it is also a huge benefit to have some experience in a technical field. Tech writers are big in software and web development, but they’re needed in almost every single area, from biomed to government services.

The portfolio site of Matthew Setter is a nice example of a developer+tech writer.

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Many people learn software programming or web development because it pays well. Many also do it because they love writing code.

But I’d imagine that a decent portion of programmers don’t love the work.

If you don’t feel a love for coding, you can still enjoy a career in technical writing for the software/webdev industry. If you already have some experience with frameworks or libraries, then you’ll know what great documentation looks like.

But the job of a technical writer entails a lot of software. Adobe Acrobat, FrameMaker, XPath, oXygen XML Editor and other XML/XSLT software.

XML & XSLT are must-know languages for technical writing. If you already have experience with HTML/CSS, then you can pick them up quickly.

Check out this list of software to get started on your journey.

The key is to be flexible and willing to learn whatever software is currently in demand. Great coders usually learn versatility is always a valuable skill, especially in relation to multiple programming languages.

Resources To Start Learning

There is no single correct way to become a technical writer. Some people send applications until they get their first job. Others transition from programming to writing. Or maybe you know someone who can help you land that first gig.

But in order to start learning tech writing, you actually only need one thing: Google.

You can find tons of “getting started” posts all throughout Google with a simple query.

However, you’ll learn the most by actually doing the work. Even after reading dozens of articles, you’ll still have lots of questions.

That’s where I recommend a community like Reddit’s /r/TechnicalWriting.

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It’s a fairly small yet active community with about 1,500 users. This is a nice place to learn by asking questions and browsing older threads.

You can find tons of other forums online to connect with tech writers and ask beginner questions. Here’s a small list to get you started:

So is there a specific path to break in as a tech writer?

You could go to college and try networking from there. But a college degree is absolutely not required to work as a technical writer for software or web development.

Just like programming, nobody cares how you get good. Companies just want to hire someone who can do the job.

One problem is that few technical writers get recognition for their work. Many projects will be under NDA, and you won't get a byline for technical writing.

The best strategy to get in is to network and build relationships. Apply for positions left and right, and try to have some writing samples if you can.

If you’re still looking for more info, check out these related posts targeted at beginners.

Moving Forward

If you’re looking to build a portfolio, I have one huge tip: start by writing free docs for GitHub repos!

Web developers and programmers constantly release new projects on GitHub. Most of these are made to be public for anyone to use. Documentation is never fun to write. If you volunteer to help a large project, you may get some recognition and build a small tech writing portfolio, too.

This is one of those career fields that designers & developers rarely think about. But it is large enough to make a living, and it can blend nicely with the freelance lifestyle.

So, if you love writing and love technology, then technical writing might be a well-suited path to follow.

Jake is a freelance writer, designer, and illustrator. He currently writes articles on user experience design for web & mobile. You can see more work on his portfolio site and follow his tweets @jakerocheleau.

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