The technical writers qualification is based on a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary competencies and offers a wide variety of career prospects. The requisite know-how about technical methods of working and production processes, and the ability of more target-oriented media communication have made the profession quite essential in the technology-world of the 21st century.
It is the job of technical writers to make it easier to understand a product. They conceive, prepare and update technical documentation, and play the role of a “mediator” between technology and its users. The outcomes of their work are manuals, mounting and assembly instructions, training materials or online help etc.
Specialists in this sector are called Technical Communicators in the entire international community. Technical Writer, Technical Editor and Technical Author are synonyms.
However, PLEASE NOTE that companies often use different job titles in their advertisements although the job profile they are looking for is similar to that of a technical writer.
Since 2013, the European Association for Technical Communication – tekom Europe e.V. has been providing professional support for this profession. Borne out of tekom Deutschland e.V., (1978) it promotes training and development options, and the professionalization and importance of technical communication within the society. Members’ satisfaction is its first priority.
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The areas of work that fall under technical communication are diversified, essential, and interdisciplinary. The combination of media and technology in particular has made this profession more and more popular among graduates. But what is the actual relevance of technical writers and what exactly do they do?
The society we live in today is influenced by the increasing diversification of technical devices. Modes of operation and application possibilities are becoming more complex and more difficult for the consumer to understand. There is a need for clarification for the devices that are used in the private domain (smartphones, TVs, cars) and – more importantly – for those used in the professional domain (devices, machines, production facilities, software, services). This is where technical writers come in. They create detailed and easy-to-understand info material to ensure safe and effective use. Their documentation is oriented towards all interfaces along the entire life cycle of a product (assembly, commissioning, usage, maintenance, etc.), thereby ensuring seamless usage.
Technical communication manages all the information related to a product. It involves many diversified tasks. A large part of the work done by technical writers involves the creation of technical documentation and related project management. They also develop concepts, take care of quality management and ensure that current laws, norms and standards are complied with. Depending on the product, economic sector, and target group, they have to adapt to circumstances and adjust their work accordingly. This means that they may have to prepare different information for IT specialists as opposed to a private individual and his washing machine. Just as a machine operator requires different information to use his production facilities correctly, technical writers analyze the user-specific need for information and prepare technical documentation based on this requirement.
They also play the role of mediators, where they accomplish a range of communicative activities. They are important interfaces in a company and mediate internally and externally between departments, customers, and manufacturers. They research information on a product and steer discussions constructively, with a particular focus on consumer protection. By analyzing products in detail, they ensure maximum safety in society. This is very important because their work also optimizes the usability of products and information.
Technical writers can create multimedia technical documentation. They have access to a large pool of knowledge of all media channels known to us (print, website, apps, etc.) and can use these extremely effectively in a target-oriented manner. They prepare user information depending on the needs of their target group and make it available in offline and online media. The choice of medium depends on the subsequent usage concept of the user.
With regard to online media, technical writers nowadays focus greatly on innovative media technology. Buzzwords like “smart information” and “digitally networked systems” characterize the zeitgeist of the industry. Technical writers think and act based on user expectations, which increase with the opportunities that digitalization offers. In today’s world, good product information must not only be comprehensible and digitally accessible, it should also modulate correct information about a concrete use case in real time. What does this mean? For example, if a machine is defective, users are unlikely to feel motivated to go through the entire technical documentation to find out the possible causes of the defect. What they need is to be able to find the correct solution to eliminate the defect without much effort. Technical writers therefore aim to provide information in a context-sensitive, personalized, and dynamic manner. They endeavor to provide the best possible user experience.
Multilingualism is also an important aspect of the day-to-day work life of technical writers. Given the fast-paced globalization, technically correct and linguistically accurate translation of user information is becoming more and more important. A good 90 percent of all documentation is already used internationally. Professional translation based on sound technical knowledge is therefore critical for success.
The tasks that constitute technical communication are multifaceted and extensive. However, this does not necessarily imply that technical writers need to become multifunctional wizards.
In practice, they don’t work on all topics equally intensively. That is virtually impossible. They can choose their areas of specialization, then focus and study specific areas that first engage their interest. Depending on the training facility and personal aptitude, they can undergo more in-depth training in specific disciplines. For example, if one chooses linguistics, one will primarily work on compiling and translating texts in future. Programming activities and the application of HTML know-how would play only a minor role or no role at all. Things are different when one chooses a technical field. Here, one focuses on developing comprehensible texts on the basis of complicated technical design plans and designing graphics using CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs for instance.
Requirements and Personal Attitudes
With regard to your competencies, you are encouraged to familiarize yourself with the requirements of technical communication. As a technical writer trainee, you should possess the following:
- Linguistic talent and an affinity for technical issues
- Abstraction ability, analytical thinking, and multi-faceted technical understanding
- A deep understanding of target groups so that complex matters can be communicated appropriately
- An interest in visualization options and multimedia presentations (offline and online)
A willingness to communicate and self-confidence are recommended because one often needs to work and coordinate matters with colleagues and departments. All in all, language skills are very important in this profession. The ability to express oneself well in one's native language is essential. At the same time, foreign language skills are also becoming increasingly important due to the international nature of this profession.
- Analytical thinking
- Technical understanding
- Abstraction capability
- Interested in multimedia presentations
- Interested in innovations (e.g. smart information)
- Aptitude for language
- Motivations for writing
- Ability for convincing arguments
- Aptitude for articulateness
- Aptitude for interpersonal communication
- Empathy for target groups
- Ability to work in a team
- Self-confident appearance
Specialists with work experience often earn the same salaries as engineers. There are slight differences depending on employer and personal qualification. In the case of an employer, it is primarily the location of the corporate office (country and region), size of the company, and the industry (industrial, software, and service companies) that influence the salary. When it comes to individual factors, position, work experience, and, sadly, gender often play an important role.
Those who are satisfied with their job are often also successful in it! Technical documentation proves that success need not always relate to a career in the conventional sense of the term. Your professional development opportunities are as varied as your job profiles. A classic management track—from being a representative to becoming team lead to taking on a leadership position with staff responsibility—is common, but does not need to be at the top of the list of career goals in this profession. In fact, technical communication gives you the opportunity to switch between job roles and develop your competencies from a content-related and technical perspective. This can mean a different job role in the same company, where one moves to the job role of Localization Engineer from being a Quality Manager. Or, it can involve switching to a different sector—from industry to consulting or education. You also have the opportunity to specialize and become an expert, i.e., the first point of contact, for a particular area (e.g., usability). In short, there are many professional springboards available.
Official trips per se are not part and parcel of this profession. However, they can become a part of your daily work life if your position in the company requires it. Official trips are primarily intended for project coordination and professional exchanges.
As with almost all professions, working conditions and working time models vary from employer to employer. However, when it comes to technical communication, one can generally say that a good work-life balance can be maintained. Alumni reports state that some employers even offer the option of working from home. But obviously, this is not a given and needs to be previously agreed on with the respective employer.
An entry into the field of technical communication depends on which career path you come from. There are students, who have the background of a theoretical and subject-specific basic education. Then there are lateral entrants, who have originally studied something else (e.g., machine building or translation) and simply want to study technical communication to expand their knowledge. They can demonstrate work experience and are already familiar with the processes of day-to-day work. However, students too have distinctive advantages. Undergraduate education in technical communication provides a better foundation for necessary linguistic, technical, and methodological skills. Course contents are explicitly designed for the industry and adapted to the constantly changing conditions of our society. Internships, practical semesters, or jobs for student employees also provide them the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge and gain practical experience.