Got the write stuff? … Become a technical author.
Technical authors design, write and publish information, technical leaflets, safety manuals and other information used in today’s commercial, industrial and defence markets, including internal publications. By using their knowledge and experience they are able to present information in a form that is easily understood by the end user. Many come from a technician engineering background and can be found working throughout manufacturing industry, financial institutions, software companies and government agencies. In many fields, technical publications have progressed from hard copy via CD-ROM to the internet, with sites that can be constantly updated and accessed from all over the world. Increasingly, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are assuming responsibility for wholelife maintenance, so constantly updated information is provided to all parties to a contract. Increasingly, too, documentation on globally released products requires translation into different languages, interpretation into different cultures, and to be customised in terms of menus and functions.
Related skills gained in the Services
Military equipment requires documentation at various levels – from the operator to the person carrying out maintenance. However, there are also manuals on tactics and training, doctrine and policy, and all manner of educational literature, that also require technical authorship. So there are a number of people practised in the art of explaining complex ideas in a simple form. Speaking other language, and having lived in other countries and cultures may also be advantages that are not apparent at first. A number of people will have worked with equipment that is the same as or similar to that requiring manuals and other documentation.
TRANSLATE YOUR SKILLS
Some useful personal characteristics include:
- a feel for words
- a concern for verbal consistency
- an appreciation of tone and style
- an awareness of logical development and assumptions
- a command of grammar and vocabulary
- an enquiring mind
- attention to detail
- the ability to grasp and structure large amounts of information
- clear thinking
- a feel for the learning process
- ability to anticipate readers’ knowledge gaps
- awareness of the conceptual framework into which the knowledge must fit
- skill at explaining things on paper
- interpersonal skills
- editorial judgement.
The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) has developed national occupational standards (NOS) to cover all aspects of preparing technical publications, from start to finish and on an ongoing, developmental basis. To view the NOS, visit the ISTC’s website (see ‘Useful info’). Training courses, generally with commercial providers, are available for subjects like copywriting, designing information for the web and technical authorship. Most training can be taken through distance learning, during which the same material that is in a four-week resettlement course could be covered in 18 months or less. A resettlement attachment could include work in a technical authoring company to gain experience of the job and the environment.
Technical authors may be employed directly by manufacturers or by specialist technical publications companies. The work may be full-time, part-time or operating as a contractor, while some agencies provide staff to work on a client’s premises on a contract basis. Some people work freelance, so they are entirely responsible for finding the work and take all the rewards, but if you are thinking of going down this route, you are advised to obtain several years’ employed experience first.
A key requirement is an ability to understand the product and convey the information in simple, unambiguous English. There will usually be someone in the team who will guide newcomers through the early days as they become familiar with document specifications and software.
Industries that are heavy users of technical authors include IT, aviation and engineering. They will often employ people who have specific background knowledge in that industry and have added formal technical authorship training to it. No one, however, should be deterred from a career in technical authoring just because they lack formal qualifications.
What can you earn?
As a very rough guide, starting salaries can be around £18,000 a year, while experienced technical authors can earn £40,000-plus. However, there are no standard pay scales and salaries vary widely according to experience, qualifications and type of employer. Freelance technical authors charge by the hour or on a project-by-project basis.