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Communication: The best words in the best order

Those who prefer organizing ideas to working at the bench should consider a career in technical writing.

The words 'technical writer' evoke an image of someone sitting in a windowless office composing a manual for a DVD player. But the field affords many opportunities not nearly so austere and mundane.

These days, technical writers provide information about products and services not just as instruction manuals, but through websites, e-learning materials, online help modules and FAQ pages, wikis, podcasts and blogs. And they focus on a range of projects — from composing step-by-step protocols for setting up an electron microscope and using the imaging software, to writing scientific manuscripts and regulatory documents. These writers work not in isolation, but as part of teams of researchers, engineers, physicians or computer scientists.


Owing to the diversity of their duties, technical writers often refer to themselves as technical communicators; if they write about drugs or medical devices, they are medical communicators. Their tasks sometimes overlap with those of public-relations officers, authors and other types of writers, but technical communicators are set apart by their focus on presenting factual information about complex subjects as clearly and efficiently as possible.

Many technical communicators say that what they enjoy most about their job are the constant opportunities to learn — they must keep pace with new media and understand the products and services they write about. The field offers a lot of flexibility — from nine-to-five desk jobs to freelancing from home. And the job market is relatively healthy: according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 48,900 posts for technical writers in the United States in 2008, and the number of positions is expected to grow by more than 18% by 2018. The medical-writing market doubled between 2003 and 2008, and is also expected to continue growing. In 2009, Germany had some 80,000 people working in technical communication, according to the technical writers' association tekom in Stuttgart. And the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC), a professional association based in Croydon, UK, says that mobile telecommunications and pharmaceuticals are strong growth areas for technical writers in Britain.

The need to research a range of topics and grasp thorny subjects makes technical communication a great field for people with advanced scientific degrees, from newly minted PhDs to senior postdocs or even established scientists wanting to leave the lab. Of course, they must also have a talent for constructing concise, clear and organized prose.

Technical definition

Unlike science journalism, “technical writing is not about taking something technical and making it nontechnical”, says Paul Ballard, managing director of the technical-communications firm 3di in Woking, UK. “It is about taking something that is complex and making it clear to those who need to use it.” The challenge, explains Ballard, is to understand the subject in depth and to be able to empathize with those who will be using the information — whether they are scientists, physicians, technicians or officers at regulatory agencies. “You have to be able to predict risk areas and any difficulties a user might have, and be able to answer any possible questions efficiently,” he adds.

Debbie Davy, a medical communicator in Toronto, Canada, has done everything from writing manuals for electrocardiography machines to designing software for searching through and analysing medical information gathered by hospitals. “Those reports are normally cumbersome to use and written in obscure language,” says Davy. “I provide the interface for reinterpreting the results.”

Paul Ballard: "If you want to hide in a room and not talk to anyone, it's not a good job for you."

Such tasks often involve a lot of research. “The bulk of what I do is interview the client to determine what they need and then look at what they have produced in the past,” says Davy. She meets stakeholders in the company, including engineers and product developers, to gather information, then pinpoints her target audience and the best way to present the information to them. Technical communicators typically need to work with web-publishing and authoring tools, such as Adobe FrameMaker and the increasingly popular Darwin Information Typing Architecture. “A lot of technical writers get hung up on the tool of the moment,” says Davy. “You have to know [the computer coding language] XML, but anyone can learn that. My value is in the organization of ideas, the identification of the audience and communicating information.”

Day-to-day tasks for scientific technical communicators are typically writing descriptions of instruments, products and databases. Medical communicators write regulatory documents, protocols and procedures, summaries of efficacy and safety studies, and reports of clinical trials. Many writers also find jobs in contract-research organizations (CROs), which do research on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and academic labs. At CROs, technical communicators write up results for publication in journals, white papers and regulatory documents. Another option for medical writers is to develop and write materials for the continuing medical-education courses that physicians and other health-care professionals must take each year.

According to the Society for Technical Communication (STC), based in Fairfax, Virginia, the median salary for technical writers (both freelance and employed full time) across all industries in the United States in 2008 was US$61,620. A salary survey conducted in 2007 by the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) in Rockville, Maryland, shows that median salaries for US medical writers with a master's degree were $77,339 for female employees and $86,240 for male employees. Freelancers earned a median of $85,406 for women and $107,444 for men. For those with a PhD, employees' figures were $91,797 for women and $101,872 for men; and female freelancers got $114,692, and men got $131,143. The ISTC says that junior technical-communicator positions in the United Kingdom have a starting salary of about £20,000 (US$32,000) a year, and experienced practitioners earn about £40,000. Freelance rates may be up to £50 an hour.

The write fit?

Some technical communicators are former engineers, life scientists or computer scientists. “Many of the people we hire come in having been an engineer and having found that they like the writing aspect of their job a lot more than actually being an engineer. That applies to a lot of scientific fields,” says Ballard. About 50% of AMWA members have science or health-care degrees, including biology, pharmacy, medicine, public health and nursing; some 30% earned their highest degrees in non-science subjects, including English, journalism, communication and technical writing.

Many companies and organizations put a premium on technical communicators with advanced degrees in relevant subjects. “Subject-matter expertise and knowledge of the audience are priceless,” says Andrew Davis, a recruiter at Content Rules, a content-development company in Santa Clara, California. Davis has hired technical communicators for laboratory-equipment developers and suppliers such as Life Technologies in Carlsbad, California; Affymetrix in Santa Clara; and BD Biosciences, based in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. “Those companies would not consider a candidate without a master's or PhD,” says Davis. Technical communicators' tasks at such firms range from writing online manuals for analytical tools for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries to composing instructions for using molecular-analysis databases, he says.

A science degree signals to employers that the applicant can understand complex scientific materials, think critically, gather and synthesize lots of data, and analyse and interpret information, Davis notes. But the most important skill is communicating effectively, both in writing and verbally. Most fledgling technical writers build on communication skills that they started to hone as part of their research training.

Technical communicators need to be able to work independently, but the job is not solitary. “If you want to hide in a room and not talk to anyone, it's not a good job for you,” says Ballard. “Good technical authors have to communicate with people face to face or on Skype chats.” Flexibility is also key. Most technical writers start off working in their areas of expertise but have to take on projects outside that field, depending on what is most in demand.

Breaking in

Many companies are willing to hire novice technical communicators who have a PhD in the right field, but employers want to see evidence of good writing skills. “Anything you have already written can be used, such as a newsletter or a website, and it does not have to be published,” says Lori Alexander, president of Editorial Rx, a medical-writing company in Orange Park, Florida, and editor of the AMWA Journal. Applicants can also use research abstracts or articles as writing samples.

Societies including the STC, AMWA and ISTC organize conferences and workshops for people interested in technical communication. “The most important thing is to network,” says Alexander. It might pay to take some courses in technical or medical communication. “These help demonstrate to an employer that you are committed to becoming a writer,” says Ballard.

Julie Gelderloos earned a PhD in cellular and developmental biology before becoming a medical writer based in Boulder, Colorado. While working, she earned AMWA certification by attending courses on writing skills, ethics, statistics, pharmacology, epidemiology and the business aspects of freelancing. “I still regularly attend AMWA conferences and learning sessions to keep up with changes in the field and to network,” she says. Although these courses helped Gelderloos to hone her skills, she says that most of her training was acquired on the job.

For those seeking more in-depth training, several universities offer certificates and master's degrees in technical communication (see 'Degrees in technical writing'). Such qualifications are “definitely a bonus when applying for a job”, says Gelderloos.

But ultimately, Gelderloos says, most employers look for writing experience first. And when hiring junior writers herself, Gelderloos made a point of finding candidates with some experience in medical writing.

Technical-communication programmes can, however, serve as a pathway to internships at companies, which can be invaluable for gaining experience in the field. They also provide a quick way to find out whether the profession is a good fit for the aspirant.

Experience in the lab will provide clues to this. “If you find you like doing the writing rather than the science aspect, you like interpreting the data rather than generating them, and you are the person everyone goes to because they need something written,” says Alexander, “this might be a good career for you.”

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Bonetta, L. Communication: The best words in the best order. Nature 475, 255–257 (2011).

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