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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Your how-to guide to technical writing

By Lauren Breslin
Special to The Toronto Sun

For aspiring creative writers who need to pay the bills, or for technology professionals with great English skills, the fast-growing field of technical writing may be an option for you.

Most people associate technical writing with the instruction manuals that come with computers and software. Rarely do we recognize that the field of technical writing applies to any kind of functional documentation, like the sheet that explains how to assemble a new barbecue, or the documents that guide you through a loan application.

Technical writing is one of the fastest growing professions in the 21st century, and with new technologies always on the go, there is a whole new demand for people who can communicate effectively.

Technical writers enable the successful implementation of products, technologies and services in a variety of industries and at many levels. Broken down into three main categories, technical writing is writing that show non-technical readers how to use or do something; writing manuals for a technical audience, and writing marketing materials and corporate communications for and within technical fields.

According to professor Neil Randall of the University of Waterloo's rhetoric and professional writing program, anyone looking to break into the profession "needs extremely strong writing skills, and a very strong sense of how to design information in multiple media."

What can someone expect to learn in a typical technical writing course? "They learn how to write software documentation," Randall says, "with projects ranging from working in a team to produce a lengthy chapter about specific software features, to constructing online tutorials that take users of the software through specific tasks."
Marketing writer Michelle Maclean advises those interested in technical writing to maintain a portfolio and stay on top of trends in the field.

Post-secondary programs are designed to prepare students with the skills they need to write documentation for a host of disciplines, including industry, government, technology and science, to name a few.

"They also learn how to work with and design style sheets," Randall adds, "and how to glean technical information from the minds of programmers and engineers."

Most employers look for people who can communicate effectively in standard Canadian English about a technical or semi-technical subject. Knowledge and experience with desktop publishing, programming, electronics, engineering and computer science are also big pluses.

"Show potential employers that you're comfortable with HTML, that you're familiar with various platforms and that you know the tools of the trade," advises Michelle Maclean, a graduate of the Waterloo program, and a marketing writer for the Open Text Corporation in Waterloo.

"It's also crucial to create a portfolio," she says, "and to stay up-to-date with the latest technical writing trends by becoming an active member of the Society for Technical Communication."

Big and small businesses alike are now assigning a whole new value to effective knowledge transfer for both customers and in-house employees. Carol Lawless has been a technical writer for over 10 years, and now leads the technical writing team for Sun Life Financial Canada.

"As a user advocate, I continually speak for the reader or the user of the documentation," Lawless says. "I keep his or her needs in mind to make sure that the documentation addresses those needs. As a translator, I translate -- not from language to language -- but from 'techno-speak' into plain English."

Unlike other professions, the work products of technical writers rarely stand by themselves. Data sheets, reference manuals and design guides simply do not have their own stand-alone markets, but rather, are designed to support stand-alone products.

Lawless and her team document the systems that support Sun Life's daily operations. "Since the information is coming at the speed of light, it's vital that we publish quickly."

As more companies recognize the wisdom of investing in technical writers, there are expanding opportunities for technology-savvy people with a command of the English language. But remember, although a technical background helps, it's not essential.

"It pretty much comes down to personality," Maclean says. "You must be a people-person to be a tech writer, because you're working with developers, product managers, editors, customers and your own team of writers."

(Reach freelancer Lauren Breslin at

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