To succeed in a technical writing job, the primary job requirement is the ability to research, not just the ability to write. Researching takes roughly two-thirds of the time needed to complete a project; the writing time takes about one-sixth of the time, and editing takes about one-sixth of the time.
Good research skills are critical to legal writing jobs as well. Legal writing jobs range from writing summaries to editing legal briefs to preparing summaries of precedent research, but all require solid research skills.
Next to the research abilities comes the ability to write clearly and cleanly. If you are one of those people who always dreaded writing papers in schools, this is not the career for you. If you have difficulty stringing words together to make them say what you want, no tech writing jobs or legal writing jobs are going to make you enjoy going in to work.
Another important skill is deadline management and time management. Because it is very easy to slack off in a tech writing jobs, you have to be self-motivated and good at managing your time; you need to set quotas of text produced each day in order to complete longer projects, and you need to stick to your quotas, rather than saying ''I'll make it up later.'' ''Later'' eventually comes, the last-minute deadline push wears you out, and your technical writing gig drives you to unhappiness.
In the field of technical writing, there are subspecialties—different kinds of technical writing jobs. The most common kinds of tech writing jobs are, not surprisingly, for technology companies. Companies that produce machinery or electronics need technical manuals written for them: instruction manuals and assembly instructions. This type of writing requires a set of technical skills.
For example, if you are documenting computer software, you have to have decent computer skills, more than what is needed to run a word processing program. It also requires that you be able to handle usability and end user-testing results; you will need to glean useful information from engineers, most of whom regard you as a necessary evil, at best.
Being a documentation worker for a mechanical process means having some solid working knowledge of how mechanical or electrical engineering works. It may also require that you know how to do some basic CAD (computer-aided drafting)/CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) work to create the illustrations and the pull-apart diagrams that show how these assemblies fit together.
Being a legal-office writer requires technical expertise that varies with the law firm for whom you are working; if the firm is doing patent law, it may be straight-up technical writing coupled with knowing how the forms work in a patent submission. If the firm focuses on intellectual property (IP), then you might be doing technical writing for intellectual property briefs. In this case you will need to know some basics of IP law; the same applies for any of the technical aspects of any legal writing job.
Technical writing positions pay well; they do not pay as well as engineering or law positions pay, but they do pay a solid middle class wage, in the realm of $20–30 per hour as part of a team. Getting started in technical writing usually means getting a degree in technical communication, though degrees in journalism or pre-law (with some credits in a technical field) can help you get a foot in the door.
Many technical staffing firms will do placements for contract technical writers. Contract tech-writing jobs are an interesting case, because you are usually coming in at the end of a product-development cycle. This likely means your first order of business is sorting out the changes that have occurred since the product's design document was created which nobody recorded in the intervening months. This is followed by trying to get information from engineers who are desperate to get the software completely finished before it goes into final production. You have to be good at managing your time and theirs to succeed.
Other useful skills a technical writer may find handy include proficiency with a vector drawing program for making diagrams (Adobe Illustrator is the standard), a page layout program (Quark Xpress, Adobe FrameMaker or Adobe InDesign are the standards), and a pixel editor (Adobe Photoshop). These are all essential skills for people writing technical documentation.
For legal-writing positions, understanding how to use the standard research tools, like Lexis-Nexis, and understanding the basic sets of terminology are important secondary skills. Time spent as a paralegal, legal assistant, or legal secretary can be a great aid in getting a job in legal technical writing. From legal technical writing, you can also move on to patent clerking if you have a scientific or engineering background.
However, whatever your skill set, if you enjoy working with words and helping projects reach their end states with effective, clear documentation and a good sense of how you are helping customers use the product, technical writing is a lucrative and enjoyable career.