So…what does a technical writer actually do?

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When I started college, I was dead-set on becoming an accountant. I loved the logical nature of writing, rewriting, and trying to find the perfect, most concise way to get my point across. Because of this, I thought the logic of debits and credits and the puzzle-like nature of the tax code meant accounting would be a perfect career fit. 

But after a summer interning at a tax firm, I realized that while I liked my accounting coursework a lot, the day-to-day work wasn’t a good fit . So I returned to something I knew I liked: writing. During my junior year of college, I applied for marketing, copywriting, and technical writing internships. I ended up accepting a technical writing position with a startup in San Jose, California.

The catch? At that point, I had only the haziest idea what technical writing even was. I know I’m not the only one who’s felt this way — so I decided to answer three questions I previously had, and today often get, about this work: 

What do tech writers actually do?

Over the course of my internship and the almost three years I’ve been at Google, I’ve realized that yes, technical writing is, at its most basic, “writing technical stuff.” At Google, there are technical writers who write the help content you read when you’re having trouble logging into your Gmail account. Other technical writers write documentation for external engineers who use Google products to build things like Android apps. Still other technical writers write internal documentation and other educational content about various Google products and infrastructure systems.

What specifically do you write about at Google?

I’m a technical writer for Google Search, where my teammates and I produce internal documentation about Search features and infrastructure for Google engineers. I learn about how interesting new technologies and pieces of infrastructure fit together to find the right information for users who search for things like “How tall is a giraffe?” or “Game of Thrones episodes.” Once I have a thorough understanding of how things work, I write about them and get thoughtful, detailed reviews of my writing from  engineers and other technical writers. The  goal of this documentation work is a clearer, faster, and more user-focused development process. 

I enjoy distilling information into a compact, understandable form that’s useful to the Google engineers. I like the actual act of writing, and I like the (ideal!) result – more accessible information and a better workflow for developers. 

How do people become technical writers?

I started at Google right after I graduated from college. I ended up double majoring in Accounting and English and completed the coursework for a minor in Computer Science – that’s all a long way of saying I was indecisive, and it ended up working out for me!

Most of the technical writers I know at Google and elsewhere didn’t get a formal degree in technical writing (though some did!). Some used to be software engineers or teachers, while others came from academia, journalism, or a wide range of other fields. I’ve realized there’s really no “traditional” academic or work background that’s necessary to be a technical writer. What’s important is that you can write clearly, interpret code, and learn about tricky technical concepts through a combination of independent research and asking questions. 

If you want to learn more becoming a technical writer at Google, visit developers.google.com/tech-writing/becoming.

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