Technical writers come in two types: ones with scientific backgrounds and ones with writing backgrounds. Starting out, both types are at a disadvantage in delivering well-written technical materials. The former’s writing may not have style or communicate well and the latter’s writing may talk-down to the reader or lack scientific underpinnings.
They aren’t technical writers yet. That title comes with experience. True technical writers have a fundamental understanding of science and an ability to convey information in an effective way to a scientific audience.
When I started technical writing, my experience was as an advertising copywriter. I knew that I needed a better understanding of biotechnology (the industry I was writing about), but how could I get that understanding without going back to school?
I got a job with the marketing communications department of the biotechnology company.
This is a great way to get a scientific education in any scientific field. Marketing writers create ads, brochures, catalog copy and direct mail campaigns. The emphasis isn’t so much on the science but the selling.
That doesn’t mean you don’t need to know the science behind the products. Marketing writers meet with technical experts to get a basic understanding of the products or procedures being marketing.
Outside of the basic marketing meetings, I also took time to watch the products in use in the laboratory. Then I would meet with the marketing director for the product with questions about details that might not wind up in the copy, but would further my understanding of how customers used the products and for what purposes.
As you gain more industry-specific knowledge, you will be trusted to work on materials that require a greater scientific understanding such as sell sheets, articles and manuals. These materials require meetings with scientific experts and marketing managers, but the discussions follow a more-scientific style.
Throughout all of this, you should take advantage of learning opportunities that come your way. This might be taking classes offered by your company or simply studying the comments made by technical experts on your copy.
I soon learned to talk to technical experts in a manner they could relate to and I gained an understanding of how the products worked and could ask better questions about them.
When I decided to strike out on my own as a freelancer, I had two years of technical writing experience under my belt and lots of samples that I could use to demonstrate my ability. More importantly, I had lots of contacts with people I had met who worked with other companies and former employees of the company I was leaving.
My first freelance work was with biotechnology companies because that is where my scientific knowledge was based. However, when someone I knew went to work with a technical journal, she hired me to be a freelance copyeditor. This turned out to be another learning experience for me. To do the copyediting, I had to read the articles and I was soon gaining a wider understanding of molecular biology. This allowed me to work as a freelance editor with some technical experts to help them prepare their articles.
I believe that most writers can become effective technical writers if they are curious. The key is wanting to understand new things and being willing to ask questions. It may take some people a little longer to gain an understanding, but as long as you are interested and show that interest, most technical experts will respond to that interest with patience and a willingness to explain things to you.
James Rada is an award-winning writer who lives in Gettysburg, Pa. His newest book is No North, No South…: The Grand Reunion at the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. You can find out more about his books and articles at jamesrada.com.