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Job Description: Technical Author

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Technical authors produce technical information such as instructions to help users get to grips with all kinds of technology. The material they write is designed to allow their audience to use a particular gadget or understand a subject.

Technical authors need enough knowledge to understand their subject thoroughly. However, when writing they must bear in mind the perspective of their readers, who may be encountering the subject for the first time.

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Job Description, Salaries and Benefits

Technical authors produce technical information such as instructions to help users get to grips with all kinds of technology. The material they write is designed to allow their audience to use a particular gadget or understand a subject.

They may produce material for the mass-market, such as instructions for computer software or flat-pack furniture. Other guidance is aimed at more specialised groups, for example reports on the results of clinical trials. Daily tasks may include:

  • meeting colleagues to discuss technology and authoring requirements
  • deciding how best to organise and present the document
  • commissioning any photographs or illustrations required
  • writing the material clearly and concisely, making sure it can be easily understood
  • editing, proofreading and indexing
  • testing the written material with users.

Working hours are usually Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. However, technical authors may be required to work longer hours to finish projects on time. The work is normally office-based, although some technical authors work from home.

Salaries may range from around £18,000 to £50,000 or more a year.

A technical author must have:

  • a clear and concise writing style
  • a flair for turning technical subjects and jargon into easily understood text
  • the ability to absorb information quickly
  • an analytical mind and an inquisitive nature
  • a curiosity about how things work.

There are between 5,000 and 10,000 technical authors working in the UK. They are employed in-house by organisations in many sectors, including IT and telecommunications, medicine, defence, manufacturing, finance and government. Some authors work for technical publishing companies. Others are self-employed.

Some technical authors have scientific or technical backgrounds. Others move into technical writing after gaining experience in journalism. Excellent English is essential, together with some kind of specialist knowledge. Some authors have a degree or diploma. Adult entry is common.

Most training is on the job. Several training providers offer courses to equip technical authors with essential skills. The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators lists approved courses. Sheffield Hallam University's Masters Degree in Technical Communication is aimed at technical communicators seeking a qualification.

Technical authors may progress to head up an authoring team or move into general management. With experience, they may become freelance or set up their own consultancy firm. It may be possible to move into science journalism or publishing.

What is the work like?

They may produce material for a mass-market audience, such as instructions for:

  • installing or using a software application
  • assembling a piece of flat-pack furniture
  • using a car component, burglar alarm or mobile telephone.

Other guidance is aimed at more specialised groups, for example:

  • reports on the results of clinical trials, for a medical audience
  • guidance on aerospace or defence systems, written for the people who will operate them.

The authored document may take many forms - from a simple leaflet to a multi-volume manual. Increasingly, technical authors prepare material for other formats, such as CD-ROM, video and websites.

Daily tasks may include:

  • meeting colleagues to discuss technology and authoring requirements
  • deciding how best to organise and present the document
  • commissioning any photographs or illustrations required
  • writing the material clearly and concisely, making sure it can be easily understood by the target audience
  • editing, proofreading and indexing
  • testing the written material with users.

To ensure they understand the subject thoroughly, technical authors must work closely with colleagues such as engineers or developers. They may also liaise with printers, translators and other suppliers to prepare the finished document.

In some organisations, technical authors work as part of a writing team. Other employers have only one in-house author. They may use design and publishing software, or other specialist software for creating online help systems.

Salaries may start at around £18,000 a year.

Hours and Environment

Working hours are usually Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. However, technical authors may be required to work longer hours to get projects finished on time. It is possible to work part time.

The work is normally office-based. Some technical authors work from home. There may be some travel to meet clients.

Salary and Other Benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.

  • Salaries may start at around £18,000 a year.
  • With experience, earnings may rise to around £35,000.
  • Technical authors with experience in specialised areas, or with management responsibilities, may earn £50,000 or more.

Skills and Personal Qualities

A technical author must have:

  • a clear and concise writing style
  • a flair for turning technical subjects and jargon into easily understood text
  • the ability to absorb information quickly
  • an analytical mind and an inquisitive nature
  • IT skills
  • interviewing skills
  • an eye for detail, and a thorough and methodical approach
  • the ability to deliver to deadline
  • a well-organised approach, to juggle different projects
  • team-working skills
  • an awareness of graphic design, and the processes involved in print and online publishing.

Interests

It is important for technical authors to have:

  • a curiosity about how things work
  • a wide-ranging interest in their specialist area.

Getting in

There are between 5,000 and 10,000 technical authors working in the UK. They are employed in-house by organisations in many sectors, including:

  • IT and telecommunications
  • medicine
  • defence
  • manufacturing
  • finance
  • government.

Some authors work for technical publishing companies. Others are self-employed, working on a project basis.

Jobs are available throughout the UK. There are more opportunities in areas with concentrations of high-tech companies, for example the Thames Valley and Cambridge, and aerospace and defence industries, for example Bristol and the South West as a whole.

Vacancies are found in specialist publications and on the internet. The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) lists job openings. Many vacancies are handled by specialist recruitment agencies.

Entry for young people

There is no set way into this type of work. Some technical authors have scientific or technical backgrounds. Others move into technical writing after gaining experience in journalism.

Excellent English is essential, together with some kind of specialist knowledge.

Some authors have a degree or diploma. Degree courses in media studies, communication studies or journalism often include an element of technical writing. However, candidates may have qualifications in other subjects, for example engineering, computer science or life sciences.

For most degrees, the minimum requirements are usually two A levels/three H grades and five GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications.

Portsmouth University offers a Masters Degree in Technical Communication. The course can be studied full time over a year, or part time over two years. Applicants normally need a degree, which can be in any subject, although applications are considered from practising technical authors without degree-level qualifications.

The ISTC offers an open-learning course in Communication of Technical Information.

Entry for adults

Adult entry is common. Technical authors are frequently people whose extensive experience in their subject area helps to equip them for the role. The ISTC open-learning course is a suitable way for mature entrants to qualify.

Training

Most training is on the job.

Several training providers offer short and tailor-made courses to equip technical authors with essential skills, including in the software packages used to produce documents and online material. The ISTC lists approved courses.

Technical authors may also choose to study Sheffield Hallam University's Masters Degree in Technical Communication. The course is aimed at experienced technical communicators seeking a qualification. It is studied by distance learning, typically over three years.

Getting on

Technical authors may need to change employers to advance their careers, as the numbers employed in a single organisation may be small.

In larger organisations, they may progress to head up an authoring team. Progression to general management is possible.

After gaining experience, many technical authors become freelance or set up their own consultancy firm.

It may be possible to move into science journalism or publishing.

Further Information

Further Reading

  • Working in computers & IT - Connexions
  • Working in English - VT Lifeskills

Magazines

  • Communicator (ISTC)
  • Computing
  • New Scientist

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