While virtually every career requires good communication skills, those who truly excel at these skills may want to explore technical communication as a career path.
While both science journalists and technical writers create information about technical topics, the intended audiences differ. Science journalists take complex technical information and make is accessible for a lay audience (i.e. an audience that has no special or expert knowledge), while technical writers create documents to be read by other technical people. Technical editors work with the authors to make sure the subject, style, and level of detail are appropriate for the intended audience.
Although written communication skills are needed in every industry and work sector, technical writers are concentrated in information technology, scientific, and technical companies. Significant amounts of information are now being delivered electronically, which often involves integrating text, graphics, animation, and databases. A very small percentage of technical communicators are illustrators who create images to go along with the explanatory text or translators who convert documents into other languages.
Some examples include:
- Writing about new technological developments for popular science magazines
- Creating briefing documents for a congressperson regarding current issues
- Identifying and soliciting authors, commissioning publications, enforcing deadlines, assigning reviewers, editing for style and format, and managing the publication process
- Editing and assembling grant proposals, journal articles, technical reports, instruction manuals, and other scientific documents
- Developing press releases and marketing materials for technical products, programs, and services
- Creating standard operating procedures and help documents for industry
Technical communicators should have at least a bachelor’s degree in a science or engineering discipline. Undergraduate courses in science writing and journalism are helpful, and some employers prefer a degree in journalism, English, or communications. A graduate degree is usually not necessary, though it may lend you credibility with some types of employers.
The more experience you can get with writing and editing, the better. Write articles and blogs, edit organization newsletters, and volunteer to write job manuals, program announcements, lab instructions, reports, and so on. Keep copies of everything you work on and create a professional portfolio of pieces you have written, as well as before and after versions of documents you have edited.
Technical communicators spend the vast majority of their time alone in an office, but they occasionally travel to laboratories, conferences, production plants, or other places where scientists work. Some technical writers/editors work odd hours to coordinate with subject matter experts in other time zones or to meet publication deadlines, and sometimes there is flexibility in how and where the work can be done.
It is important for technical communicators to stay up-to-date on major scientific and technical developments by reading press releases, articles, and original research papers. They may attend science and technology conferences to report on discoveries presented there, and they may interview scientists and engineers in person or by telephone, email, or video conference. They usually conduct their own searches for background information and have to quickly learn enough about a new field to explain it to others.
Many technical writers are self-employed, providing services for private companies, government agencies, and/or professional societies on specific projects. Freelancers run their own small businesses, and employment with a particular client ends when the project is completed. They often balance multiple clients simultaneously.
- More Tips from the Trenches: Successful Project Summaries
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- Write Well and Prosper—Science Writing Tips
- Fundamentals of Effective Scientific Writing—Manuscripts and Grants
- Effective Technical Writing—Tips and Strategies Every Scientist Should Know
Writing and editing are very versatile skills that are needed in every industry and every type of business, so moving between companies is possible. Leaving the chemistry bench for a career in communications is a decision that must be considered carefully, since in most cases it means not going back. Once you leave research, your technical skills and knowledge very quickly get out of date. Instrumentation changes, new methods are developed, and typically, but once you’ve been away from the bench longer than a year it is very hard to get hired back. .
Advancement in technical communication generally means taking responsibility for bigger pieces of more complex projects, supervising other writers, and overseeing company-wide documentation policies and procedures. Many technical communicators freelance at the end of their careers as a way to maintain some income while gradually transitioning to retirement.
Future Employment Trends
Employment in technical communication is driven by the growth of technology firms and is expected to grow about as fast as other occupations. Competition for freelance work is now global, and this low barrier to entry rates has driven rates down significantly. In addition, here is fierce competition among freelance technical writers/editors as print media continue to face strong pressure from online publications. However, the increase in scientists for whom English is a second language has opened up opportunities for technical editors to assist them. Technical communication is gaining greater acceptance as a profession and moving into fields such as data processing, hosting, and other services.
Is This Career a Good Fit for You?
If you enjoy discussing science and explaining it to others more than actually doing the science, technical communication may be the career path for you.
Writers create content from scratch, while editors take content created by others and perfect it for a specific audience and delivery method (print, online, video, etc.)
Science writers must be imaginative and understand the implications of scientific discoveries. They must learn quickly and capitalize on their basic science education to rapidly master the basics of various technical fields and communicate effectively with scientists and engineers. People in this field must have exceptional time-management skills, be highly detail-oriented and organized, and be self-motivated. Good verbal communication skills are essential when conducting interviews. Having good business skills is a requirement for freelancers because they are running their own small business.
Employment in technical communication is driven by the growth of technology firms and is expected to grow about as fast as other occupations.
- Bachelor's degree is usually required
- Experience with a technical subject is important
- Median annual wage for technical writers: $65,500 (2012)
- Median annual wage for editors (including technical editors): $53,880 (2012)
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