Career Growth and Survival for Technical Writers

Lead Writer: Amanda Butler | Peer Reviewer/s: Felicity Brand, Kieran Morgan | Expert Reviewer/s: Saul Carliner | Managing Editor: Kieran Morgan

This chapter is a go-to resource for technical writers at all career stages. It offers guidance on everything from overcoming early-career jitters to making pivotal career decisions. It outlines the various seniority levels and the skills required for each as well as giving an in-depth look at managerial roles. Moreover, it shows how technical writing can be a launchpad to other career opportunities, making it a must-read for anyone seeking to navigate and excel in the field.

Audience Icon Who Should Read This
• Aspiring Technical Writers
• Beginner Technical Writers
• Career Advancers
• Managers of Technical Writers
• Cross-Domain Professionals
Table of Contents: Technical Writing Process
Previous: Chapter 4: Breaking into Technical WritingNext: Chapter 6: Career Flexibility in Technical Writing

1. Introduction

Embarking on a career as a technical writer marks the beginning of a journey filled with opportunities for growth and development. This chapter guides you through the various stages of your career, from the initial phase of settling into your new role to exploring advanced career paths within the technical writing industry.

We begin by addressing the common feelings of imposter syndrome among new technical writers, providing insights and advice from seasoned professionals across different countries and industries. Their experiences will be especially helpful if you’re just starting out in the field.

As you progress in your career, you’ll encounter decisions about your path forward. This chapter discusses the choice between pursuing an individual contributor (IC) track, where you hone your craft independently, and the management track, where you lead and mentor others. We outline the typical levels of seniority in technical writing, from junior to managerial roles, and examine the challenges and rewards at each stage.

Understanding the possibilities inherent in these career tracks is essential, whether you’re a junior writer learning the ropes or a senior writer influencing key decisions. By the end of this chapter, you will have a clearer understanding of how to navigate your career, capitalize on your strengths, and make informed decisions that align with your aspirations.

2. Transitioning to Your First Technical Writing Role

Having outlined the broader landscape of career progression in technical writing, let’s focus on the very beginning of this journey: your first role as a technical writer. Stepping into the professional world, especially in a field as ever-evolving as technical writing, can be both exhilarating and daunting.

2.1. Surviving and Thriving in Your First Technical Writing Role

Okay, so you’ve gotten your first job as a beginner technical writer. Congratulations! Are you feeling impostor syndrome yet? Don’t worry, that’s normal. We’ve all felt that at some stage in our careers. To support you in this initial phase, we’ve compiled practical tips from experienced technical writers who have navigated this path successfully. Their shared wisdom, drawn from various stages of their careers and diverse professional backgrounds, will provide you with valuable insights as you embark on your own journey.

Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Junior Technical Writer with over three years’ experience
Location: Quebec, Canada
Expertise: Process and procedure documentation

“Get a book and start reading! If you’re starting off as a tech writer, before you write anything, read a book that will inform you about what you will need to know in your technical writing process.”
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Technical Writer with three weeks’ experience; 18 months as a Knowledge Management Specialist
Location: Queensland, Australia
Expertise: Process and procedure documentation

“Get a qualification. Do some formal training before you start. I wish I’d had a better understanding of industry standards and ‘what good looks like.’ I think my experience was specific to my team and my industry.”
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Technical Writing Intern with one month’s experience
Location: Pennsylvania, United States
Expertise: Software documentation

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and reach out to more experienced people. I know a lot of people are like me; they’re afraid to bother others, afraid they’ll waste someone’s time. But it’s natural for people to help newcomers, as many received significant help from others early in their careers.”
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Documentation Specialist with six months’ experience
Location: Pennsylvania, United States
Expertise: Software documentation

“When you’re confused, be present, and let the confusion wash over you. You don’t have to make sense of it all at once; it eventually will. Go take a walk or whatever, and let diffuse thinking happen—your brain will make sense of it later.”
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Technical Documentation Manager with 10 years’ experience
Location: Texas, United States
Expertise: Software documentation

“Ask all the questions. Don’t try to act like you know the answer when you don’t. I know culture varies by company and country, but engineers and other SMEs tend to respect people when they admit to not knowing. They’ll eat you alive if you pretend to know and you don’t.”
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Senior Technical Writer with 5 years of formal technical writing experience and 7 years of experience creating documentation under different job titles
Location: Quebec, Canada
Expertise: Software, hardware, process, and procedure documentation

“Find a mentor. There are a lot of very talented people in this space who love talking about it. Groups such as Write The Docs are filled with individuals who are very happy to share their experience and tips. It’s very important to find a mentor at the beginning of your career to encourage and support you because it can be very difficult at the start.”
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Senior Technical Writer with five years’ experience
Location: Toronto, Canada
Expertise: Software documentation

“Keep a record of everything you’re doing so you can bring it up during your performance reviews—what you did, how you did it, and the outcome. I didn’t do that in my first couple of positions and regretted it. Keep records of your accomplishments—you’ll thank ‘past you’ for doing that.”
Insight Icon Insight
Insider Perspectives: Technical Writer Interviews
When we wrote this book, we interviewed over twenty technical writers at all stages of their careers—from interns with only a month’s experience to senior writers with over thirty-five years, reflecting on long and successful careers. We talked with documentation managers responsible for leading teams across continents and aspiring technical writers wishing to break into the industry. We asked questions about every aspect of their careers—from the tools they use to their advice for newcomers to the profession and what they think the future holds. You’ll see snippets from these interviews used throughout the book, which we’ve collected in Interviews.

3. Career Paths within the Industry

After you’ve successfully applied to a job, gotten hired, and made it through your first year, what’s next? Over time, you’ll learn new skills and take on new responsibilities. As you progress in your career, you’ll eventually need to choose between two career tracks: the individual contributor (IC) track or the management track, or possibly a combination of both.

We’ve identified four fundamental levels of seniority in technical writing: junior (entry-level), technical writer (intermediate), senior (advanced), and manager (people leader).

In different organizations, countries and industries, these roles may go by different names. Some organizations with extensive and mature technical writing departments might have numerous grades and role classifications, and some smaller organizations might simply have one role: technical writer.

We’ve included some general guidelines below as to the typical qualifications and experience for entering these roles. Remember, there’s no hard and fast rule. Don’t think you can’t be a senior technical writer or manager simply because you don’t have many years of experience.

Also, don’t be worried if you do have many years of experience and you’re not a senior writer. Many seasoned technical writers simply prefer to focus on producing great work without the additional mentorship and people leadership roles that a senior job title carries.

Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Technical Documentation Manager with 10 years’ experience
Location: Texas, United States

“These days I see a trend to avoid ‘minimum qualifications,’ ‘years of experience,’ or anything that could gatekeep candidates from roles due to privilege or lack thereof. We’re trying to get people in who can demonstrate that they have the skills they need to do the job rather than a specific qualification, like through coding bootcamps.”

3.1. The Individual Contributor (IC) Track

Many (if not most) technical writers are individual contributors (ICs). This simply means they don’t manage other people, which suits a lot of folks just fine, even those who have many years of experience.

What Does That Mean Icon What Does That Mean?
Individual Contributor (IC)
Individual contributor (IC) is industry jargon for someone who doesn’t manage other people.

The number of levels, or grades, in the individual contributor career path usually depends on the size of the organization. Here’s an example of a typical IC career path:

  1. Junior technical writer
  2. Technical writer
  3. Senior technical writer

Large organizations may have additional roles beyond senior: staff, principal, or lead, for instance. It’s worth your while to check that you understand the seniority of the role correctly.

Note Icon Note
Job Titles at Small Organizations
Start-ups and small organizations often have a single technical writing role. In that case, your title may stay “Technical Writer” throughout your time at the company, even if your role grows and you take on additional responsibilities.

3.1.1. Junior Technical Writer Roles

As a junior technical writer, you should focus on developing your skillset through experience. It’s okay to make mistakes! Your manager and more senior technical writers should be there to review your work before it gets published and give you feedback on how you can improve.

What else should you expect as a junior technical writer?

  • You should receive tasks from your manager that are manageable within your developing skillset, such as for a single product or component, or a simple business process.
  • Your manager or a senior technical writer should familiarize you with your organization’s documentation process, systems and repository, style guide, and templates.
  • Your manager should introduce you to subject matter experts, give you clear guidance for tasks, set expectations around the document review process and timelines, and make themselves or a senior technical writer available to answer your questions.
  • You will contribute to (and may even own) a section of the documentation or a small set of relatively straightforward documents.
  • As you move through the levels, you’ll learn to work more autonomously. You’ll eventually be able to make informed suggestions about how to fix bugs in software products, tweak features to improve their usability, or improve business processes.

The difference between a junior writer and a senior writer is not how well you write or even how long you’ve been in the industry. The difference is how independent you are, the depth of your expertise and product or organizational knowledge, and how much you influence others in the course of your work.

3.1.2. Senior Technical Writer Roles

As a senior technical writer, you will be expected to be a master of your craft with a deep understanding not just of technical writing principles, but of the technology of your industry and your organization’s unique products and processes.

What else should you expect as a senior technical writer?

  • You should work with your manager and subject matter experts to set your own tasks and priorities, negotiate with them to set realistic deadlines, and proactively let folks know if things change, for example,if it’s looking like that deadline you set is now out of reach.
  • You should be comfortable making recommendations to improve technical writing processes, the company style guide, definitions of terminology within the organization’s dictionary, and anything you think may negatively affect the user experience in products you’re documenting.
  • You will use your knowledge to mentor and coach junior writers, giving them feedback and peer reviews on their work before it’s published, answering their questions about their craft, guiding them so they understand what’s expected, and upskilling them on the organization’s systems, products, and processes.

As a senior writer, you will have the opportunity to “choose your own adventure”—even beyond technical writing. You may choose to go deep and learn everything about a product or technology and become an expert yourself, opening up opportunities to advance your career in fields such as product management. Or you may “go guru” and build your reputation and qualifications as an expert technical writer—perhaps even embracing a role such as an educator, passing on to others your advanced mastery of the craft.

For other examples of career paths, see Career Ladders for Documentation on, and another example is the Technical Writer and Technical Writing Management levels in

3.2. The Management Track

Some technical writers manage teams of writers. These folks are usually called technical documentation managers, though they can also be called documentation leads or lead technical writers. Even more senior technical writing roles exist, where you will be expected to manage other managers, such as technical communications director and head of technical communication, all the way up to vice president, technical publications.

Don’t think of the management track as a promotion over the IC track or a recognition of superior technical writing skills. It’s a distinct career path with its own set of soft and hard skills that combine elements of industry and organizational knowledge, people leadership, strategy, project management, and process management. In fact, some people who aren’t the strongest writers might be terrific managers—the two are very different skillsets.

As a manager of other writers, you’ll most likely find you’ll do less writing, but it will help your credibility and make it easier to empathize with your technical writing team if you set aside time to do some writing.

That being said, expect to focus most of your time on developing your leadership skills. Being a great leader means giving your writers the support they need to consistently produce high-quality documentation in a timely manner and building your team’s processes so that turning out excellent documentation and meeting deadlines is as frictionless as possible for your team.

What else should you expect as a technical documentation manager?

  • Assign tasks to writers of all seniority levels on the team and help writers prioritize their tasks.
  • Track progress to ensure everyone is on schedule and any delays are promptly communicated.
  • Provide different levels of supervision depending on the complexity of the assignment.
  • Set expectations about each person’s role on the team, responsibilities, and deliverables.
  • Help remove obstacles that are blocking the writing team from creating good documentation.
  • Resolve interpersonal issues between the writers, or between writers and their stakeholders.
  • Assess the performance of team members, recognize and celebrate achievements, and address performance issues.
  • Interview and hire new technical writers.

4. Careers after Technical Writing

Few folks spend their entire career at the same organization. Fortunately, the core soft and hard skills of technical writing are very transportable—that is, they’re similar regardless of the organization or industry. As you gain experience in your craft, you should find it relatively easy to move into technical writing roles in other organizations or industries.

Technical writing can be a fantastic springboard into other careers. Technical writers who have worked in an organization or industry for a while often build up extensive specialized knowledge about products, processes, industry-specific laws and regulations, and so on. This wealth of knowledge can make it a relatively simple affair for technical writers with a good reputation to move into roles such as the following:

  • Design or user experience (UX)
  • Product management
  • Project management
  • Marketing
  • Quality assurance (QA)
  • Development, engineering, or research and development (R&D)
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Technical Writer with 4 years’ experience
Location: Manchester, United Kingdom
Expertise: Software documentation

“Try and get expert knowledge in the product. It doesn’t matter how great you are in AsciiDoc or Git, you’re not measured to that; you’re measured to how well you know the product. When you need quick turnarounds, or if you’re working with someone who doesn’t have time for you, if you’ve spent your spare time understanding the product you become a pretty safe person in the team and very valuable in the business. You also open up opportunities for yourself in the business to move into other roles if you want.”
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