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  1. Blog
  2. Career Development
  3. November 13, 2020

What Does a Technical Writer Do?

“We need to distinguish between when you should add more details and when you need to be as short as possible. In most cases, one good picture is much better than a long list of detailed arguments.”

Technical writer surrounded by books working on her computer
Image courtesy of Christina @wocintechchat.com

This article is part of InHerSight's What Do You Do? series. This series explores the working lives of women by job title. Readers can get a glimpse of what it's like to work as an account executive, software developer, restaurant manager, and more.

Technical writers are patient, detail-oriented, process lovers. They’re adept and efficient communicators who know when to write more and when to prune back. They know how to give direction and explain step-by-step processes. Technical writers work across all kinds of industries, from tech and software to manufacturing, energy, defense, and even consumer products. 

We spoke to three women in technical writing about their jobs, how they got there, and what people often misunderstand about the role of a technical writer.


Kimmoy Matthews headshot

Kimmoy Matthews

Senior content strategist and lead technical writer of Tech Copy Expert
In technical writing since 2011

What’s your background and how did you end up in this role? 

Every season my county sends out a catalog with different recreational activities available for kids and adults. I flipped through it one day and was thinking about taking a creative writing class. Right below the creative writing class, I saw that a technical writing course was being offered and it piqued my interest. 

For four Saturdays, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had been doing technical writing all along as part of my engineering job, but I didn’t know it was an actual career. I thought to myself, People actually get paid to write instructions? Sign me up! So, after those four classes, I revamped my resume, put together a portfolio, and decided to switch careers.

What do you do for the business as a technical writer?

For most of my clients, I write copy for web and mobile applications. So, all the text you see on the interface including tabs, buttons, confirmation and error messages, etc., I get to write that. I’ve also written longer forms of copy such as help center articles, software instructions, and website copy to describe how software products and services work. When users and customers understand how to use a business’s products, it increases their retention rate which in turn increases their revenue.

I also share tips on how to get into technical writing on my blog. Recruiters reach out to me regularly with job opportunities so I enjoy helping others learn more about this career path and teaching them how to best prepare for these types of writing roles.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

When I’m not editing instructions or reviewing mobile app design mockups, a typical day for me usually involves figuring out who my target audience is and what problem am I helping my client solve. For example, through the learning and development staffing company TrainingPros, I have been assigned to work with a banking institution as they go through the stages of merging with another financial institution. I have developed project plans and written documentation for their commercial lending software as well as their human resources software to support their staff during this transition. 

What are the three most important parts of your job?

1. Getting to know the reader

It’s important to learn what your audience needs and what you want their next move to be whether it’s clicking a button or completing a form. If you think about what may stop them in their tracks or how they would like to feel when interacting with your work on a website or app, it makes for a better user experience. 

2. Be mindful of the company’s goals

As a technical writer, you’re not just writing for the user, you also have to be mindful of what the business is aiming to achieve and where your role fits in with that mission. Stakeholders ultimately want to develop brand awareness and increase the number of revenue per user. You can help drive which tone, writing style, and communication strategies would work best to achieve that.

3. Words impact the bottom line 

You may think that because you’re not a salesperson that a writing role is not important to a company, but the reality is that when you make your client’s products and services easier to understand, they are more likely to stick around and buy, which directly impacts their revenue.

What skills do you need to be a technical writer?

Many writers assume they have to be an expert in a particular industry or software. The true skill is being able to learn how things work and translate them into layman’s terms. It’s the art of creating an experience for the user and thinking about how you can make this app seem as intuitive and comprehensive as much as possible. 

If you’ve ever seen that viral video of kids teaching their dad how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you’ll get an idea that it’s not so easy for people to follow instructions even for things that come easily to you.

What’s the toughest part of being a technical writer? 

People’s attention span is the toughest part. It can be a little frustrating knowing that the answer to someone’s problem is in an article you wrote but they didn’t read it. So, as a technical writer, you have to not take that personally and identify how you can make it more visible, appealing, or even use a different form of media to help your user. I’ve written video scripts for complicated tasks because nobody wants to read 100-page manuals anymore. And neither do I, so I get it! 

What do you like about your job?

The work I get to do with each client is different. I’ve worked on editing regulations for a travel agency, naming tabs and drop-down menu options for Google’s Ad platform, and writing instructions for a commercial lending software. I’ve learned so much over the years as a technical writer and I enjoy seeing the type of work I create evolve as well especially when it comes to mobile app copy. I get a kick out of applying my skills to different industries and helping companies improve how the user experiences their products and services.

What is a common misconception about your job?

Technical writing is not just a tech-industry role. A website or an app is being built and improved upon every day in the healthcare, finance, e-commerce, communications, etc., sectors. So that means there are technical writers, content strategists, and related roles needed as well.

What would you say to someone who’s interested in being a technical writer?

Start thinking like a technical writer. Give a harder look at the web and mobile applications you use every day and identify ways you can use your words to improve them. Whether it’s the software you use regularly at your current job or the app that you’re glued to on your phone, you can start writing instructions and copy to improve the overall user experience and as a way to build your portfolio as well. Use what you already have access to and get creative with your portfolio content because it’s a must-have for any aspiring technical writer.

Read more: What Does a Public Relations Manager Do?


Olga Usmanova headshot

Olga Usmanova

Senior technical writer at dxFeed

In technical writing since 2009

What’s your background? How did you end up in this role? 

Since my school specialized in math, physics, foreign languages, and literature, I decided to choose an interdisciplinary approach to higher education. That’s how I ended up at Applied Informatics in Arts and Humanities, obtaining and combining knowledge of math, complex systems, language structure, basics of programming, and even 3D modeling. Adhering to the hybrid policy after graduation, I applied for a technical writer vacancy to be at the intersection of technics and human science.

What do you do for the business as a technical writer?

First, I maintain customer documentation for our APIs, services, and solutions and keep it up to date along with an internal knowledge base. Together with the support team, we are continuously optimizing our work and developing various solutions to achieve this. Documentation as a code, mutual integrations, automatic generation of documentation—we use all of this to effectively provide detailed information about our services.

Second, I communicate with our sales department and try to help with everyday tasks related to texts—from small urgent tasks (Like, how can I describe this to our customer?) to presentations.

Third, a marketing department uses technical overviews as a basis for brochures, newsletters, videos, and articles. So I provide the team with the required materials. 

Fourth, I coordinate website updates and language translations.

Lastly, I check specifications and updates for all protocols that we communicate with and notify corresponding teams.

Read more: 10 Companies with Awesome Programs for Veterans

What does a typical workday look like for you?

Slack, email, Telegram—I check them all first thing in the morning. I use these tools frequently  throughout the day because some tasks may be urgent and a quick reply may help colleagues to continue their work. Someone can request a link, ask for a comment on the texts, for a new white paper, and if using Slack on a mobile device, it helps to keep track of current activities. 

There is a backlog of documents that are waiting their turn—so when I am not working on something new with a deadline yesterday, I pull out such tasks and update old specifications or create new ones from scratch.

And I keep a regular notebook at my fingertips, so I can write down all current tasks. Of course, we have several tracking tools, including Trello and Jira, but writing things down by hand helps me to settle my mind and feel like I have my finger on the pulse on what’s going on.

What are the three most important parts of your job?

I believe that a technical writer should have an ability to understand languages of other professions (programmers, sales, managers, support), should share the business idea of the company, and should be the communication channel for other departments.

What skills do you need to be a technical writer?

Flexibility of mind: The products are always changing, the business needs are changing, the world is changing—we need to fit in. 

Passion for texts: There is plenty of reading, so practicing writing in different styles also helps with the first skill.

Not being boring: Even complicated instructions should not contain mind-bending expressions. And a funny text may be destroyed by tediousness. Don’t be boring.

What’s the toughest part of being a technical writer? 

We may think that people do not read texts. Actually they do, but you need to create the environment to catch their eye and make them interested in further reading. The structure of the website and of the knowledge base, visuals—all this you need to participate in and discuss with designers and stakeholders. 

What do you like about your job?

The same things that I’ve described as the “toughest part”: The necessity to coordinate your work with other departments, to remember that texts are not the main point, and to work with different types of formats. Today it is a specification, tomorrow a presentation and a Twitter line.

What is a common misconception about your job?

Technical writers do not always create tons of words. Sometimes it’s not about the texts. We need to distinguish between when you should add more details and when you need to be as short as possible. In most cases, one good picture is much better than a long list of detailed arguments.

What would you say to someone who’s interested in being a technical writer?

Choose the field you would love to work in. Or if it is a new field for you, learn it, love it, and discover it beyond your everyday routine. Learning new things about the company projects will help to think out of the box and to create new ideas, processes, and notions, regardless of what rules the company has—strict and clear or flexible and changing.

Read more: Bored at Work? Here’s How to Make the Most of Your Time


Tien Mimi Nguyen headshot

Tien “Mimi” Nguyen

Technical writer at Sentry.io

In technical writing since 2018

What’s your background? How did you end up in this role? 

I have a background in software engineering and creative writing. I decided to combine my engineering and writing skills and become a technical writer. It’s an excellent fit for me because I get to continue learning about software engineering and still write daily.

What do you do for the business as a technical writer?

I write customer-facing documentation for new feature launches, update existing content for accuracy, and maintain documentation consistency. Consistency could be enforcing style guide rules, providing guidance with where to put a new doc, or helping with a page's structure.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

A typical workday depends on quarterly goals. Goals are often broken into two paths: creating documentation for new features or improving existing content accuracy. 

If the current goal is new documentation creation, my day starts with checking in with any stakeholders such as engineers, product managers, and marketing. Then, I use those conversations and resources to write new content for our customers. If the current goal is improving existing content, I comb through sections of documentation for inaccuracies and opportunities for restructuring the content for better readability and consumption.

What are the three most important parts of your job?

I’d say my current top three are effective communication with teammates and with customers, creating a collaborative environment that scales, and catching inconsistencies. The creation or updating of docs often reveals confusing aspects of a feature or misalignment in how different departments communicate about a feature. 

What skills do you need to be a technical writer?

A technical writer needs excellent writing skills, organization skills, and a strong collaborative spirit.

What’s the toughest part of being a technical writer? 

Communication, in general, is hard. Words are easy to misinterpret, forget, or even fail to hold a reader’s attention. A technical writer must write precise, concise, and memorable words.

What do you like about your job?

I love words, and software engineering fascinates me. Being a technical writer allows me to play with syntax, learn new technologies, and meaningfully impact a customer’s experience.

What’s something people might be surprised to find is part of your job? 

People might be surprised to know that a part of my job is connecting teammates from different departments to all agree on a plan. I’m occasionally the center of cross-departmental objectives.

What would you say to someone who’s interested in being a technical writer?

If you like words and engineering, consider being a technical writer.

Read more: Are You ‘The Only’ at Work? Here’s How to Broaden Your Network

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Photo of Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

Emily was previously on staff at InHerSight, where she researched and wrote about data that described women in the workplace, specifically societal barriers to advancement, and workplace rights. Her bylines include Fast Company and The Glossary Co.

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