There are two main ways to become a technical writer. The most traditional way has been on-the-job training. However, the ideal situation in which one can learn to become a technical writer is to major in technical communications in college. In this manner you will not only learn to master the mechanics and techniques of writing, but you will be well-grounded in science and technology. Although not every college and university offers such a curriculum, there are a number of schools throughout the country that do, so enrollment will not present a problem. Later in this chapter you'll find a list of colleges and universities where you can major in technical writing.
Most technical writers are graduates of four-year programs and have earned bachelor's degrees. Some have master's degrees gained through specialized course work beyond their undergraduate study. However, a growing number of technical writers have come out of two-year and community colleges.
We would not want to give you the idea that you can't become a technical writer directly upon high school graduation. But recent reports issued by the Society for Technical Communication show that the level of education for writers has risen considerably over the past two decades. Whether right or wrong, most employers believe that someone fresh out of high school wouldn't have acquired the skills or experience necessary without further training to be successful at technical writing.
The Background You'll Need
What constitutes good training? We have selected the views of two professionals who have had enough experience in the field to realize the educational needs of the prospective technical writer. Fred W. Holder, who has written a great deal about communication, expresses his views this way:
Ideally, a candidate should have a bachelor's degree in engineering (in the particular specialty with which you're dealing) and a master's degree in English, journalism, or another field requiring a sound background in written communication.... I've found that people with sixty to ninety credit hours of college work covering English, journalism, mathematics through calculus, physics, chemistry, and a wide range of other subjects make excellent technical writers.
Marguerite F. D'Amico, of the Western Electric Company, expresses her views on the subject this way:
There are three essential requirements for those involved in translating and presenting technical ideas: a solid foundation in the basic sciences and some understanding of how they relate to technology; an understanding of how to organize and present concepts clearly, logically, and graphically; and a sensitivity to the standards and needs of those receiving and supplying the information.
What does it all add up to? It simply means that technical writers will need more and more formal education as time goes on. In discussing technical writing education, some general principles apply.
Differences Between Technical Writing and Technical Editing
There is a differentiation in most companies between technical writing and technical editing. Editing requires a person who is adept at improving the composition end of writing-correcting grammar and punctuation, style, and construction of sentences and paragraphs. Technical writing, on the other hand, encompasses the whole process. It takes in editing, of course, but it extends to original writing as well as the rewriting of other people's manuscripts. The writer must have a firm grasp of the technical material to cope with this kind of assignment.
For the rather restricted job of technical editing, it is generally agreed that the person who is trained in English composition will do well. A prospective technical editor also should possess, of course, an affinity for technological subjects and familiarity with engineering and scientific terms.
For the writer who must deal in-depth with technical subjects, a firm foundation in science and engineering is essential.
For both the technical writer and the technical editor, some knowledge of and aptitude for working with computers and word processors of one kind or another are essential. This includes methods of transmitting information with the aid of computers, information storage and retrieval systems, and various reproduction devices.