Are you fed up with your job and considering a career change? Would you prefer to work from home rather than trudging to the office every morning? Would you like to earn $30 to $40 an hour? Say, yes, the highly burgeoning profession of technical writing could just be the right one for you.
“Technical writing absolutely is a hot job these days and there are a lot of positions available,” says Cheryl McNeil, owner of Graphik Connexions, a technical writing business located in East Windsor. “Just look at the top job sites on the web such as CareerBuilder.com or Monster.com, and you’ll see all the jobs out there and all the industries in which technical writers can work.”
McNeil teaches a two-session technical writing course at Mercer County Community College on Fridays, February 17 and 24, at 9 a.m. Cost: $75. Call 609-586-9446 for more information or visit www.mccc.edu.
“Technical writers create manuals and user guides by taking highly technical information and boiling it down in a very precise manner so that it can be easily understood by lay persons or specialists,” says McNeil. Technical writers primarily focus on interpreting new software applications, new computer programs, or even highly sophisticated policies and procedures manuals for corporations and businesses.
While the concept of technical writing may be intimidating to some, McNeil makes her course very student-friendly. “You don’t need to be brilliant for a career in technical writing,” she says. “People of normal intelligence can do very well.” The course is presented in a step-by-step format, which teaches students how to organize information, create graphical aids in MicroSoft Word, and add them to documents.
McNeil says that technical writing requires a systematic approach to a systematic subject. Before writing anything it is important to determine just what the knowledge-level of the audience and the exact purpose of the document.
“If you are writing for an audience that is already highly knowledgeable then it is appropriate to use highly technical terminology,” says McNeil. “On the other hand, if you are writing for an audience that is lower level or with no knowledge at all of the subject matter, you want to use layman’s terms and break down the terminology to make it simpler for them to read and understand.”
The use of graphical aids is another important aspect of the job. She talks about page balance, which involves having a visual sense of the page, by balancing the use of text, graphics, and white space on the page. This skill, she says, is vital.
“Research has shown that people do not spend the time to read whole paragraphs of information,” says McNeil. “That means that the best way for a technical writer to get the point across is by using a lot of headers, a lot of bulletin lists, and graphics. There has to be a balance on the page.” The graphical aids used include diagrams that visually display the process, flow charts, arrows, and drawing tools.
In McNeil’s course all students are given an assignment of creating an instructional manual at home between the first and second class. “We separate the sessions because there is a writing assignment due the following week,” says McNeil. “This gives the students something to practice and think about. I give them a topic such as how to bake a cake and the students actually put together a document with step-by-step instructions and graphics. Some of them look really good.”
While there is no prerequisite for the course, McNeil says that many of her students are professionals working as business analysts or administrative workers hoping to become technical writers. There are also some students who already work as technical writers and are just taking a refresher course.
But McNeil says that students with little or no experience can also learn a great deal from taking the course. “Last time I taught the course I had some students with no experience at all, but who really wanted to get into the field,” she says. “They were able to follow along very easily and did very well.”
Technical writers must use language as a precision tool and McNeil recommends that students overcome any writing deficiencies they may have before embarking on a career. “They really need to know how to handle language well,” she says. “At the end of the course I suggest texts to help those who have weaknesses in writing, grammar, or spelling to iron out their weaknesses.”
Although technical writers are in demand, starting out can be difficult. McNeil says that the best way for a fledgling technical writer to break into the job market is to use whatever experience he already has as a springboard. “A technical writer who is interested in getting a job writing about accounting software applications should really have some background in accounting,” she says. “I recommend that students look at their backgrounds and decide from there what technical writing position may be best for them.”
McNeil began her career as a technical writer after working in IT. This offered her a way into the profession, and she still writes technical materials for that industry. “I always write about software applications,” she says. “I can go into any company, learn about the software applications that they work on, and go from there.”
Born and raised in the southern part of New Jersey, McNeil earned her bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University and her master’s from Capella University in Minnesota. A single mother with one daughter, McNeil started Graphik Connexions in 1998.
McNeil says that technical writing is a good profession for single mothers because over 50 percent of employers allow their writers to work from home. “That is something that I address in the class,” she says. “I help students come up with just how to bring this up with their boss. If you are looking to become a technical writer you just might be able to telecommute.”
McNeil says that the typical career path of the technical writer includes starting out with small projects and then gradually moving up to more complicated and sophisticated projects. In the process technical writers often work in a specific department within a corporation and receive promotions within that same department. McNeil adds that earning big money is something that may not happen right away. But with persistence, fledgling technical writers will see their careers advance. “You know how the job market is,” she says. “Sometimes a company will want someone with 10 years experience. But on the other hand there are companies who will want to work with a beginner.”
For even those with little technical experience, McNeil says that technical writing can still be a good career choice. “If you are a go-getter and you find a small software development company or an IT consultant company and you get your foot in the door, you can learn about computers and hardware and software and then work your way up. If you get a year’s experience under your belt, you can definitely get a technical writer’s position.”