For a successful career as a technical author you'll need to be a fast learner, with excellent communication skills and the ability to convey factual information clearly and concisely

Technical authors communicate specialist information about how products and services work and how they can be applied or used in a way that's easy to understand. The information may be presented in the form of user guides for software applications, reference and instruction manuals for appliances, training guides, instructional videos or online help incorporated into software and operating guides.

As a technical author, you'll establish an understanding of the product or applications and then design and write documentation to explain it to users. You may also provide this information in various other forms including software demos and interactive tutorials, wikis, blogs and podcasts, using video, illustrations and graphics.

Technical authors work for a range of industries, including:

  • aerospace
  • automotive
  • banking and finance
  • construction
  • consumer products
  • defence
  • education
  • energy
  • engineering
  • government
  • IT and telecommunications
  • manufacturing
  • marketing
  • medicine and pharmaceutical
  • research and development
  • science.

Jobs may also be advertised under the titles technical writer or communicator, information designer or developer, content strategist or publication manager.

Responsibilities

As a technical author, you'll assess the audience and the nature of the documentation, and will need to:

  • attend planning/briefing meetings
  • collaborate with developers and managers to clarify any technical issues
  • interview subject matter experts and sales and marketing specialists
  • work with translators, printers and service providers.

A large part of your job will be spent researching and gathering the information required. You'll need to:

  • use the product or service in question to understand the technology and applications for which documentation is being prepared
  • gather and analyse the information needs of the user.

Then comes the challenge of presenting the information. For this, you'll:

  • organise information according to your user's needs
  • write and edit text
  • commission, coordinate or prepare illustrations
  • use a variety of software applications to present the information
  • index and catalogue material.

Related administration may involve:

  • working on and managing multiple projects simultaneously
  • creating work schedules
  • marketing - publicising services and skills to potential clients
  • keeping up to date with developments and trends in the industry and attending training courses.

Salary

  • Your starting salary as a technical author will be around £18,000 to £25,000.
  • With experience, you can earn in the region of £25,000 to £45,000.
  • Once you have significant experience, this could increase to in excess of £60,000.
  • Freelancers and contractors may have hourly rates of around £18 to £40, but with substantial experience you could charge up to £50 an hour. At the highest levels, you may be able to charge more than this.

Your salary will vary depending on the sector, location, size of the organisation you work for and your previous experience.

Additional benefits can include a pension, private healthcare, share options scheme and gym membership. You may also receive a company, team or personal performance bonus.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are usually 9am to 5pm, but may include extra hours to meet deadlines.

Part-time and flexible working is available, and in some cases you'll be able to work from home.

What to expect

  • Work is primarily office based, although you'll often visit clients and spend time in the field to carry out research.
  • You may work in teams, although smaller organisations may employ only one technical author. You may also work in a team with other professionals such as graphic designers, user experience designers, software developers and testers.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is common after gaining experience, and can pay more. Contracts vary from a few days to several months and technical authors typically work on several projects at once.
  • Jobs are available across the UK but may be more easily found in large cities.
  • Travel within a working day and overnight absence from home are occasionally required. There are some opportunities for overseas work.

Qualifications

Employers look for a mix of communication and subject specific skills. Although you don't always need a degree, the following subjects are particularly relevant:

  • sciences
  • engineering
  • technology
  • languages.

Courses in technical communication and publishing software and technologies are useful for developing practical skills. Training specifically in technical/commercial authorship is also available. For example, the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) accredits a range of training courses, including an introductory course for those interested in a career as a technical author.

Experience of a range of software packages is advantageous and so any degree that provides this will also be useful. It's particularly helpful if you have experience of working with publications software such as Word, Excel, Adobe Acrobat and Illustrator. You will also work on specific software packages and authoring tools, which will vary depending on the nature of the work you're doing. Check job adverts to get a feel for the technical skills required.

You don't need a pre-entry postgraduate qualification to work as technical author, but it can be useful, especially if your first degree isn't in a related subject. Masters in technical communication are available, as well as qualifications in technical writing. Search for postgraduate courses in technical communication.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • a feel for words and a good command of grammar and vocabulary
  • the ability to express instructions clearly and briefly in simple language
  • a concern for verbal consistency and an appreciation of tone and style
  • good documentation skills and the ability to produce visually attractive instructions
  • interpersonal and communication skills to effectively gather information
  • an ability to grasp and structure large amounts of information and anticipate the reader's knowledge gaps
  • an enquiring mind with attention to detail
  • editorial judgement
  • accuracy and a methodical approach to work
  • the ability to work to tight schedules
  • excellent planning and organisational skills
  • analytical and questioning skills to get information from experts
  • the ability to work successfully as part of a multidisciplinary team
  • a good understanding of computers and other communication tools.

Work experience

It's useful to have practical experience that relates to the job. This could be experience of writing guides or user manuals, either for companies as part of work experience or placements, or ones you've created for use in a portfolio. It could also include other writing assignments that show your ability to communicate with the reader.

Any experience that shows skills in related areas such as science and technology is also useful.

Competition for jobs is moderate, although trainee vacancies may be difficult to find. The availability of opportunities depends upon the sector and location. It's helpful to join professional associations such as ISTC, which has a student membership category, allowing you to access advice and guidance.

Employers

As increasingly complex applications, systems and products are developed, more skilled people are needed to write user guides, instruction manuals and training materials in a variety of sectors. For example, you could work in:

  • aerospace
  • banking and finance
  • defence
  • IT and telecommunications
  • medicine
  • pharmaceuticals
  • retail.

Some companies employ technical authors in-house. These are often in the larger computing, telecommunications, engineering and defence industries. Other employers include:

  • technical publishing companies
  • finance institutions
  • research organisations
  • the Civil Service.

There are also specialist technical communication companies employing technical authors to work for a variety of clients.

Look for job vacancies at:

Job vacancies are advertised in the membership forums of the ISTC.

Vacancies are also handled by specialist recruitment agencies.

Professional development

A lot of the training is carried out on the job but you can also take external training courses. The ISTC, for example, accredits a range of technical authorship courses. For a list of courses and training providers, see ISTC: Learning and Skills.

The ISTC also runs a mentoring scheme for its junior members, which is useful when first starting your career. On the scheme, you're paired up with a more senior member who is able to provide advice and guidance in relation to the career.

You'll need to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) throughout your career in order to keep up to date with developments in the profession and with changes in the software packages used to create manuals and guides. Membership of the ISTC can be useful as they run a range of events and conferences, produce trade publications and provide access to advice from experts. They also provide advice on the type of activities that count towards CPD.

As you develop your skills and experience, you may be eligible to become a Member of the ISTC and, eventually, a Fellow. For details on the different levels available as you develop professionally, see ISTC: Grades of Membership.

You can also do further study in technical communication at Masters level. Many employers will be happy to support you and may give you time off for classes or even help with funding.

Career prospects

Career progression typically begins at junior technical author level up to the position of senior technical author. You may progress from there to project leader or editor. With more experience, you can go on to managing teams or becoming more involved in related areas such as usability, interface design, customer experience, training and quality assurance.

You may have to move between organisations to achieve career progression, especially if you're working for a small company with only one technical author. However, you'll have flexibility to work across different sectors, for example finance and pharmaceutical, or to use your specialist knowledge for different publications, such as writing manuals or magazines. It may even be possible to use your science and communication skills to provide instruction for specialist scientific equipment.

With experience, and once you've built up a network of contacts, there are opportunities to become a freelancer or consultant. This work tends to be project based and may lead to a higher salary or freedom to choose assignments.

As you progress you may want to move into a different area of work and could consider roles such as business analyst, usability specialist, information architect, medical writer, researcher or journalist.