What Does a Technical Writer Do?

7 minutes

If you want to work in tech but prefer writing words to code, technical writing could be your dream job. To learn more about what a Technical Writer actually does (and how much writing and/or coding is involved) we asked Mike Jang, a Technical Writer for over 20 years who’s currently a Principal Technical Writer for NGINX at F5. 

What does a Technical Writer do? 

In the simplest terms, a Technical Writer writes instructions (usually called documentation) for users of products. In the context of building and deploying software, documentation is typically for developers, but Systems Administrators, Security Engineers, and DevOps Engineers can all fall under this umbrella too.  

Earlier technical writing typically catered to the end users of products rather than builders and maintainers. But since most consumer apps are designed to be self-explanatory for users, documentation is now usually for developers and other practitioners who create, run, and maintain the underlying software and infrastructure of those apps. Technical writing is different from UX writing, which refers to the words you find within digital products (such as navigation bars, menus, and buttons).  

What does a typical workday look like for a Technical Writer? 

While writing documentation is the most obvious part of a Technical Writer’s job, it’s actually the element you will probably spend the least amount of time on in your day-to-day work. “I write maybe a quarter of my time,” says Mike. The rest of the day is made up of activities like: 

  • Setting up and testing software 
  • Figuring out the process and schedule for releasing a new feature 
  • Identifying and submitting bug reports 

Technical Writers typically write about brand new features that haven’t been documented or released yet, Mike says. Experimenting in this early stage naturally leads to finding bugs and collaborating with development to determine workarounds. While filing bugs sounds like a diversion, Mike says it’s actually a big part of what makes the role rewarding. “When I finally get to the solution, I think, ‘Wow, this actually works! I can’t wait to write about this.’” 

Do you need to be able to code to be a Technical Writer? 

At some companies, Technical Writers will take documentation written by developers and process it into readable language that adheres to an org’s documentation standards and style guide, or write documentation based on interviews with the developers who wrote the code. In those cases, you don’t need to have experience with programming, but Mike is a big advocate for getting hands-on with the product you’re writing about. “Personally, I don’t feel I can write with credibility about something unless I’ve used it myself,” he says.  

There are a few situations where Technical Writers need some coding knowledge: 

Implementing Docs as Code 

Docs as Code, the philosophy that you should be writing documentation using the same tools as with code, is becoming more popular in the tech writing community. Under this model, Technical Writers use code tools like version control and continuous integration to create, process, and publish documentation. This approach helps Technical Writers work in better alignment with development workflows and ensure consistency throughout a product’s documentation.  

“You want to ‘write once, publish everywhere,’” Mike says. “So, you use the same terminology and explanations to describe technical concepts throughout your documentation.” For example, you can set variables to store an explanation, and then pull that variable in wherever you need it in the documentation.  

Getting comfortable with this workflow, terminology, and tools (like GitHub) will help you stand out if you’re starting a career in technical writing. Our Learn Git & GitHub course is a great place to start.  

Collaborating with development 

While Technical Writers aren’t tasked with coding themselves, collaborating with developers is a significant part of the job. In these scenarios, it’s always useful to be ready and willing to dig into the code yourself. “If I try out a new feature and something doesn’t work as expected, I can go to the developers and say, ‘I’ve tried out these steps, this is how it’s supposed to work, but what I’m seeing doesn’t match,’” Mike says. “Now we’re partnering on a solution instead of my request getting thrown into a backlog.” 

Working with code snippets 

It’s common for documentation to include code samples, so it’s handy if you’re able to write or review those yourself, Mike says. “Think of the different single sign-on options you usually have now — you can sign in with Google, with Amazon, and so on,” says Mike. “Those providers include code snippets which you can incorporate into your company’s software, but you need to understand if the defaults work in your case, or you (or your readers) may need to modify their snippets.”  

Not sure where to start when it comes to learning to code? Check out the skill path Code Foundations to get introduced to basic coding concepts that translate across programming languages and domains.  

Do you need to be a strong writer? 

While a lot of Technical Writers happen to have English or Communications degrees, being a polished writer is less important than being a clear thinker and communicator in this role, Mike says. “If someone’s thinking is clear, that comes across in their writing. A strong grasp of language is, I think, going to become less important in the future,” he says. “There are already AI tools that can help you improve the grammar and readability of your work (like Grammarly, or the Hemingway app).” 

Whereas other writing in tech (such as content marketing or copywriting) is for storytelling, persuasion, and engagement, technical writing is about communicating with clarity and accuracy. “You’ll notice distinct differences between marketing style guides and technical writing style guides,” says Mike. “Technical writers never use words like ‘simple’ or ‘easy’!”  

What role is AI playing in technical writing? 

While AI is not about to automate Technical Writers out of their jobs, AI writing tools can help make technical writing more efficient. That is, as long as the tool is secure and doesn’t expose proprietary company data or code (this actually happened at Samsung last year). There are ways around this risk, such as supplementing a large language model with a “small language model” of proprietary information that’s kept secure.  

Like other AI practitioners, Technical Writers have to discern the right time to use AI tools and understand their limitations. “Your company might have a big Confluence page with a lot of proprietary information about how your product works,” says Mike. “An AI tool can process that into a decently written summary which a human can then review and edit — potentially big-time savings for Technical Writers.” 

Do you need a technical writing portfolio? 

Some technical writing job applications will ask for writing samples. “A company might ask you to write a description of how to create a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example,” says Mike. (The sandwich exercise is part of our Code Foundations skill path if you want to try it for yourself!) 

In many cases, you can use an existing sample if you already have some technical writing experience that’s relevant to the industry and role you’re applying for. Don’t panic if you don’t have samples though — you can write something original based on the application requirements. If you’re actively job hunting, it’s worth creating a portfolio site: “Creating a website using any reasonable Docs as Code tool will illustrate not just your writing expertise, but your ability to use technical documentation tools,” says Mike. You can check out Mike’s own professional website, which he built with GitLab and the Hugo static site generator, for example.  

If you’re looking to build your portfolio of technical writing, consider contributing to Codecademy’s Docs

Where to connect with Technical Writers 

Mike recommends a few communities to connect with Technical Writers and others looking to get into the field: the Society for Technical Communication, Write the Docs, and Content + UX are good places to start. These can also be good places to get a sense of current Technical Writer salaries if you’re just starting out (here are some more tips for negotiating entry-level salaries). 

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