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How to Become a Technical Writer Quickly with an Online Certificate

How to become a technical writer

Do you like to communicate? Are you good at breaking things down into clear steps? Can you explain how to set up a new computer to your grandparents or a small child? Do you love to learn new things and share them with others? Do you have some technical knowledge and the ability to write concise summaries?

If any of the above statements describe you, then you might want to consider becoming a technical writer. Not only do technical writers earn more than journalists or editors, but the need for their services is growing, not shrinking. Plus, you don’t need to be a computer whiz to do this job—there are many different types of technical writing, such as describing how to use a coffee maker to consumers, writing financial reports for corporate oversight, or walking factory technicians through the steps to use a new piece of machinery. Some love of the technical is required, but not all technical writers work in computer technology—there are medical, manufacturing, business, insurance, finance, and many more industries where technical writers are in demand.

How to Become a Technical Writer: Step by Step

Step 1: Get some basic education
For most employers, having a bachelor's degree is best, but you may be fine with an associate's degree. You should consider majoring in either a communications-related subject like English, or a technical subject like engineering or computer science.

Step 2: Get some technical writer training
Take a course or a certificate that will give you specialized training in the principles of technical writing. If you have taken courses in your degree program that cover technical writing, that may be sufficient.

Step 3: Build your portfolio & consider certification
Put together samples of your best writing to show off your technical writing skills. A technical writing portfolio does not need to be huge, but should showcase your skills on different types of projects. Some also embark on technical writing certifications, although these are not nationally standardized or required.

Step 4: Apply for jobs
Find technical writer job descriptions that match your skills. As you apply for technical writing jobs, entry level position employers will consider your writing samples and your technical writer education credentials.

Step 5: Develop a professional network
Consider joining professional associations, go to industry events, get further technical writer training, and keep up with trends in the profession.

What is Technical Writing?

The purpose of technical writing is to instruct, explain, simplify, or provide guidance on a particular topic. Some common types of technical writing include user manuals for software or other technology, online help guides, technical sales proposals, standard operating procedures (also known as SOP), employee manuals, scientific papers, financial reports, and white papers, just to name a few. These documents must clearly communicate the information to the people who will read it.

Technical writing skills include not only being able to understand the technology that you are writing about, but in being able to break that down into an easily digestible format for the target audience. If you are writing instructions for computer engineers, you can assume they know certain things, while if you are explaining how to use a social media site to the general public, you need to make sure that anyone can follow your instructions.

Technical Writer Education: Best Online Programs

If you want to become a technical writer, the first step is to get a college degree, preferably a bachelor’s degree. It can be good to get your degree in English, journalism, communications, or another writing-related subject. Alternately, you can go for a degree in a scientific or technical topic like chemistry, biology, mathematics, finance, computer science, IT, engineering or any other topic that you find fascinating. If you already have an undergraduate degree in a different subject, you can augment that with some specific courses or even a certificate in technical writing—you don’t need to get another degree.

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Since many technical writer job descriptions include work on the web or with computers, having a basic understanding of web development or coding is useful. No matter what type of industry you plan to work in, at some point in your career, you will probably be describing some topics that relate to using computers. Plan on learning these skills either on your own, during your degree program, or by taking a class or two to familiarize yourself with these topics.

For some types of technical writing, a graduate degree may be required. These would include advanced scientific subjects within medicine, engineering, or other scientific domains. You may not choose to get a graduate degree just to become a technical writer, but you may have gotten into a scientific field but decided later you didn’t want to become, for instance, a researcher. Instead, you may be able to transfer your advanced knowledge into a great career as a technical writer.

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Is a Technical Writing Certificate Enough?

It is possible to become a technical writer without experience. However, in these scenarios, you will need something to prove you know what you’re doing. The solution? Consider getting a certificate. It is the quickest way to get a credential and some practice so that you can build a basic technical writing portfolio to show potential employers.

Certificate programs are great because they are typically much shorter than a degree, and you can add them on to any type of undergraduate degree. Plus, they are often very easy to take online, from wherever you live.

Basic technical writing certificates can give you a badge and the general knowledge of technical writing guidelines, and are often taken after an undergraduate degree. There are also specialized graduate certificates in science writing, medical writing, or other topics within the field. These are most useful for those who wish to work in very specialized and advanced areas that build on knowledge they already have from a degree or work experience. Some business schools also have a special certificate in technical writing that may cover topics such as finance, annual reporting requirements, or how to use data analytics.

Certificate programs are quite often fully online, and are usually approximately 12-15 credits of work. Depending on your schedule, you can complete a program easily within less than a year. Online programs also have the advantage that you can study around your other work, school, or family commitments.

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Technical Writing Degree or Certificate: Which Should I Choose?

Some schools offer a bachelor’s or master’s degree in technical writing or technical communication. But is it necessary to have one of these degrees to become a technical writer?

The answer is no, you don’t need a degree in technical writing to become a technical writer.

However, it can’t hurt if you know that technical writing is your goal. But because there is such strong demand for technical writing that choosing a formal degree program for your goals is an easier way for most people to jump into this profession.

View our list of the most affordable technical writing degrees online (all all levels!) so you can make the best decision for your bank account and your career!

Are Technical Writing Certifications Worth It?

There are many different types of technical writing education, but the most common is the certificate program. What is great about a certificate is that it gives potential employers proof that you successfully passed a series of courses in the topic.

However, don’t confuse a university or college level certificate with an online certification. There is no one standard certification required at the state or national level for you to get jobs in this profession. Instead, online certification programs offer another accelerated way to learn the ropes and possibly specialize in a particular field within technical writing.

Compare these options carefully with accredited collegiate level certificate programs. There are many certification trainings offered online that are not affiliated with a college or university, and while these may be useful, proceed with caution as they may not be recognized as much as one from a known and accredited university. Plus, many higher education institutions offer their own certifications when students complete their programs successfully.

The are professional associations that offer certification for technical writing. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) offers three different levels of certification: Foundation, Practitioner, and Expert. These all require passing an exam, but having taken a training course before you start is a very good idea.

For those interested in medicine, the American Medical Writers Association offers a certification, but writers are only eligible to sit for the exam after two years of paid experience in medical communications. The National Association of Science Writers is a great organization to be affiliated with, but they don’t have a certificate program.

Similarly, the American Grant Writers Association is perfect for those who specialize in grant writing, but doesn’t offer a credential other than membership. Other professional associations may help you in finding jobs, networking, and keeping up on industry trends, and joining them may prove your dedication to professionalism, but it doesn’t confer a certificate.

The bottom line is that you don’t absolutely need a certificate to be a technical writer, but it can be helpful in the right situation. If you want to get into this career, finding the best technical writing certification program from an accredited college or university is typically a more reliable option to provide you with skills and a credential to get your career off the ground.

How Much Do Technical Writers Make?

Many people who choose this profession do so to gain a technical writer’s salary, which has a median of $74,650, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This breaks down to $35.89 per hour, which is higher than the rate for other types of writers, editors, or public relations specialists. For people who love to write and want to earn the higher technical writer hourly rate, a little extra training in the form of a certificate course may be a very cost-effective way to launch a career.

Not only is a technical writer’s salary better than other types of writer and editors, but the job outlook is much brighter. While technical writing jobs are projected to increase by 7% over the next ten years, which is much faster than average, both writers and editors jobs are predicted to decline over that same time period. This just speaks to the strong demand for writing about technical topics in our globally connected and technologically advanced world. Those with the skills to communicate this information will see both a solid technical writer hourly rate and a wealth of job opportunities.

Technical writing jobs, entry level or advanced, can be found in every state, but there are higher numbers of them in California, Texas, the states in the Northeast, and Washington. Jobs are most concentrated in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, New Mexico, and Massachusetts. The top paying jobs for technical writers are in California, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.

How to Get a Technical Writing Job with No Experience

If you want to become a technical writer, but you have no experience, then taking a certificate course is one great way to get into the profession. Because the purpose of technical writing is to clearly and concisely communicate information, if you are a good communicator, then you have the most basic skill you need to work as a technical writer. On top of that, if you have any technical experience or interests, from auto mechanics to computer gaming, you may have the underlying aptitude that could make you a success in this career.

Some people start their careers as a research assistant or another entry-level job where they end up learning the ropes of technical communication and decide to specialize in this topic. Other people may transition from another type of job because they realize that they are good at breaking down the steps to a process or explaining complicated information in a simple way. People young and old may try this profession, and for those who have a background working in a technical field, this can be a great way to take a step back while also still earning a good living. For the young and digitally proficient, technical writing can offer a career with many possibilities and specialties for a lifetime of challenging work and good pay.

Is Technical Writing Hard?

Some technical writing is hard, but some of it can be easy for those with a knack for both communicating and learning new skills. If you are the type of person who easily picks up a new type of software or puts together a piece of furniture, then you may find this work a snap. But some of the more advanced technical writing guidelines will make even the most educated of technical writers think hard to come up with a way to convey this information in simple terms that the readers will understand.

Considering the audience is a key issue for technical writers. Some will be writing for a very advanced audience of scientists, so there is a base level of knowledge expected. Others may be writing for such a broad general audience that they need to make sure they are using the simplest language and most concise delivery to get the message across to many different people with varying levels of experience. No matter what type of technical writer you are, you will need to think about who is reading your writing and how to make it the most effective in getting your message across.

There are so many different kinds of technical writing that there is bound to be one that is perfect for your interests. If you have experience in business, you may wish to do technical proposal writing, business plans, or annual reports. With scientific knowledge, you could write grant proposals, journal articles, and reports. For those who love to put things together, there are many industries that need how-to manuals for products or operating procedures for equipment. For those who love the internet, user experience (UX) writers create the text that is provided throughout the software or online platforms, and this is an in-demand skill. With any type of computer knowledge, you can work with software start-ups, multi-national companies, or even small businesses to write instructions or guides for all things digital. For those with medical interests, writing for pharmaceutical companies to apply for drug approvals, create consumer literature, and break down information for the sales team can be a great way to put it to use.

The basic rule of writing is to “write what you know,” but often, in technical writing, it is a new discovery or new product that you are writing about. So you just need to be a quick study and able to pick up the concepts and processes with ease. But general knowledge of the area you write in is useful, so it is best to start from a subject or industry that you are at least familiar with. That said, with a technical writing certificate and a sharp mind, you may find yourself in a totally new field where you will quickly learn the ropes so that your great communication skills will help the company explain their product to a consumer audience. You never know.

Become a Technical Writer with Online Education

Technical writing is an integral part of our technological world. Our societies operate off of very complex devices and technologies, and not every person will understand them in depth. This is where technical writers can come along and break these concepts down into digestible language so that everyone can function in this advanced world. If you are a communicator and you want to help keep the world spinning, then consider a career move to become a technical writer.

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