For a successful career as a technical author you need a real feel for words and a good command of grammar, some practical work experience helps too

Technical authors help to communicate technical information about products and services 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 or online help incorporated into software and operating guides.

As a technical author you will have to 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, using video, illustrations and graphics.

Technical authors work for a range of industries including:

  • automation;
  • avionics;
  • chemical;
  • defence;
  • finance;
  • government;
  • manufacturing;
  • medical and pharmaceutical supplies;
  • nuclear energy;
  • quality assurance;
  • IT and telecommunications;
  • transport and utilities.

The role of a technical author can also be referred to as a technical writer or communicator; information designer or developer; content strategist; publication manager, and more.

Responsibilities

Working as a technical author, you’ll assess the audience and the nature of the documentation required by:

  • attending planning/briefing meetings;
  • collaborating with developers and managers to clarify technical issues;
  • liaising with subject matter experts and sales and marketing specialists;
  • working with translators, printers and service providers.

A large part of your job will be spent researching and gathering the information required, including:

  • understanding the technology and applications for which documentation is to be prepared;
  • gathering and analysing the information needs of the user.

Then comes the challenge of presenting the information, which includes:

  • organising information according to the user's needs;
  • writing and editing;
  • commissioning, coordinating or preparing illustrations;
  • indexing and cataloguing material;
  • copy-editing.

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

  • Starting salaries for junior technical author positions are in the range of £18,000, although this can vary depending on location and sector.
  • With experience, technical authors can earn up to £50,000.

Those in a publications manager role or with specific expertise that's in demand may earn more.

Freelancers and contractors may have hourly rates of around £18 to £30 but with substantial experience could charge up to £50 an hour.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are usually 9am to 5pm, but often include regular extra hours, usually to meet deadlines. Hours could be more flexible if working as a freelancer or contractor.

Part-time work and working from home are both possible, as are career breaks once you've got solid experience.

What to expect

  • Work is primarily office based, although you'll often have to visit clients and spend time in the field to carry out research.
  • You may work in teams, but some organisations employ only one technical author. You may also work in a team with other professionals such as graphic designers, user experience designers, software developers, testers, etc.
  • 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 areavailable across the UK but may be more centred in large cities.
  • Travel within a working day and overnight absence from home is occasionally required.

Qualifications

A degree is often required for this job but it is possible to enter the career without one if you have the right skills. Some science and technology degrees contain modules that cover technical communication, but other subjects that are useful include:

  • communications;
  • English;
  • IT;
  • journalism.

Knowledge 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, Adobe Acrobat, Illustrator and Paint Shop Pro, as well as specific software such as:

  • SGML, XML, HTML and CSS;
  • FrameMaker;
  • Java Architecture;
  • JavaScript or VBScript;
  • MadCap Flare;
  • XSL.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not needed although it can be helpful to have one if your first degree is not in a related subject. Masters in technical communication are available as well as qualifications in technical writing. Examples of relevant undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses are available at ISTC: Learning and Skills.

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

Work experience

It is 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 have 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 will also be useful.

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

Employers

Increasingly complex applications, systems and products are being developed, which results in a greater need for people to write user guides, instruction manuals and training materials in a variety of sectors. 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 potential 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 there are a variety of external courses that can be taken.

The ISTC accredits certain courses that are relevant to the profession. These cover various topics that relate to technical authorship. A list of courses along with the relevant training providers is available at ISTC: Learning and Skills.

It is also possible for you to take a Masters in technical communication or another topic relevant to your field of work. Most employers will be supportive of this and may give you time off for classes and potentially help with funding.

The ISTC runs a mentoring scheme for its junior members, which is useful when first starting out in the career. You are paired up with a more senior member who is able to provide advice and guidance in relation to the career.

It is important for technical authors to undertake continuing professional development (CPD), which can be done in a variety of ways. For example, membership of the ISTC may be helpful to your career as it runs events and conferences, produces trade publications and gives access to advice from experts. All of this can count towards CPD, and ISTC members can get a CPD framework which helps to demonstrate the skills that are being developed.

To be a member of the ISTC you must have an acceptable qualification and at least 5 years’ experience or more experience and responsibility if you have no qualification. With substantial experience in senior technical communication roles, you could then become a Fellow.

Career prospects

It is likely that you will move from being a junior technical author to a senior technical author. You may progress from there to project leader or editor, or a manager in a related area such as information management, project management, training, quality assurance or customer service.

It may be necessary for you to move between organisations to achieve career progression, especially as the numbers employed in any one organisation tend to be low. You may also wish to change the area in which you work slightly. For example, you could move from writing manuals to magazines or from being based in the finance sector to the pharmaceutical sector.

It is possible for you to become a freelancer or consultant once you have built up experience and good contacts. 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 or journalist.