Technical Writing, An Alternative Career for Engineering Graduates


Abhijit Dutta
Concept EducationsSo much effort and painstaking hard work to get into an engineering college and survive thereafter through the semesters. Some ask, why? Well, the honest answer would be “to land a decent to good job which will automatically bring in money and social stature”. This more often than not is a sufficient answer to most and they stop questioning further. But those who are already there ( engineering undergrads) often introspect with things like “is software testing, integrated circuit design, machine parts design or chemical plant design all that I would be doing. Isn’t there something less mainstream still very lucrative that I can do?”

Well there are a lot of options for alternative careers for an engineering undergrad. One of them is TECHNICAL WRITING. I am sure most of you haven’t put a thought to it and don’t know about it much. Let me try to explain what technical writing is all about, and why you should consider this as a career option

All you need to start a career in Technical Writing is an ability to grasp complex technical topics (which you should have, as an engineering student) and good English. People still know so little about technical writing that they miss out on the lucrative job opportunities this profession provides.
As organizations, marketers and manufacturers have started recognizing the need and importance of technical documentation, the demand for technical writers with all kinds of experience levels have gone up. The demand for technical writers, and consequently the pay packages, are now at par with (or even better than) that of the Software Development or Testing professionals.

Technical Writers are known by different names in different organizations; such as technical communicators, software documentation experts, or information developers.

A technical writer must have two important characteristics:

-Strong technical background – That’s obvious, considering that a technical writer must understand complex technical concepts, applications, or services to be able to document them. For example, OSS/BSS systems, genomic-analysis application, or even web-services for airline reservation systems.

-An Engineering student has an edge over aspirants with different academic background in this regard, as they already have good exposure to technology.

-Writing skills – A technical writer must have excellent command over written English. And that is plain business English, understandable by a global audience. So you are not expected to write in ornate or literary style, but in a simple concise one.

-Also, you must be able to edit your own and other’s work to ensure simplicity, conciseness, and usefulness of the technical documentation. There are clearly-defined standards like Microsoft’s Manual of style for Technical Publications and The Chicago manual of style to help you learn how to write and edit a technical documentation.

-And of course, you must enjoy writing!
The typical job responsibility of a technical writer is writing software documentation; although technical writing can also involve hardware documentation and training program development. Some real-world examples of software/hardware documentation are:

-Context-sensitive help for a desktop applications (accessed by pressing F1), basically the help menu of any software application.

-Administration Guide for a server.
-FAQ pages for a social-networking website.
-Online help for an image editing software.
-User manual for a cell phone, digital camera or any other electronic device.
-Troubleshooting manual for ATM machines, gaming consoles, studio equipments.
-and the list goes on…

To write software documentation or a device manual, a technical writer first needs to study the corresponding software or the concerned device, and find out who are the intended audience for the documentation. The technical writer does so by interacting with the software (if possible) or using the device as much as possible, study function designs and developer documentation/manufacturing documentation, and interview Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

Then, the technical writer defines the overall structure of the documentation, and writes down what he/she learned in that structure. This documentation is then sent for review to the technical and editorial teams for review. If the technical and editorial teams approve the documentation, the documentation is published in desired format.

The most challenging part of this process is: understanding the technical jargon and translating it in documentation understandable and usable by the target audience. This also involves judging and including what the target audience must know to work the application, and excluding what is irrelevant to them. Again, your exposure to technical studies helps you understand what goes behind-the-scenes, and how it impacts the software or hardware behavior the target audience sees.

It definitely is a challenging job and some training surely helps. Various institutes are providing short-term diplomas/certificates in technical writing these days. However, most of such training programs focus only on documentation tools; for example, RoboHelp, frame maker, Visio etc.

When choosing a training program, you should select one that focuses on technical writing concepts and standards. Given your technical background, you will find the documentation tools much easier to learn. And if your technical writing concepts are good, organizations are willing to hire and train you in the specific tools they use.

If you want to start a career in technical writing after or during your engineering college studies, you can start preparing yourself by studying Microsoft manual of style for technical publications and The Chicago manual of style. Also, you can learn using the editing and reviewing features your word processor (for example, MS Word, OpenOffice Writer etc.) provides. You may also become member of the “Technical writers of India” or “Technical writers in Pune” groups to learn about new technical writing concepts, techniques, and job opportunities.