Not too many years ago, I would have said, “Sure, if they’re bright, hard working, and are fluent in written English. For anyone like that, technical writing is a great career!” Today, I would say, “It depends a great deal on what you mean by a ‘technical writer.’”
So what changed? The market’s definition of a “commodity” technical writer. When I use the word “commodity” in this sense, I’m referring to the garden-variety technical writer. In technical writing, just like in every other profession, there is a picture of what a typical person should be able to do, and for how much compensation. Of course, there’s another implication to being perceived as a commodity. If you have no added value beyond the typical member of your profession, there is only one way you can compete, and that’s on price. You become no different from a pork belly or a bar of gold.
Being a commodity technical writer today is vastly different from what it used to be in the dot-com boom years. Back then (as I implied at the beginning), if you were bright, hard working, and were fluent in written English, the only other thing you needed to become a commodity writer was proficiency with a couple of packaged desktop publishing software tools. You could then find a well-paying job without too much difficulty. Now that such writers can work virtually, most of these commodity jobs have moved outside the
But even in today’s market, technical writers exist and even thrive. Just not the ones who allow themselves to be commoditized.
The first thing a successful tech writer needs today is true technical proficiency. Look at the description of the commodity writer in earlier paragraphs, and you’ll see that it makes no mention of technical training. A great many people trying to work as technical writers are liberal arts majors with no technical background at all. Such writers can still perform well if they are adept at learning technical things quickly, but even in these cases it’s more difficult to sell themselves.
Another important thing that tech writers have to do to avoid the commodity trap is to stay away from the consumer market: no manufacturer will invest in good writers to create manuals for DVD players, TVs, microwaves, or anything similar. In that market, customers simply aren’t willing to pay more for better document quality.
Finally, remember that technical proficiency, along with skill at writing clearly AND good organizational ability, is a rare combination. Very few technical writers have all three, and that small group will never become a commodity.