A Specifications Writer Career: Pros and Cons
Specifications writers document complex technical processes, create construction manuals and write assembly instructions. Consider the following pros and cons to see if a career as a specifications writer might be right for you.
|PROS of a Specifications Writer Career|
|Can work in a variety of fields (engineering, architecture, construction, consulting)*|
|Strong writing skills and technical knowledge can lead to good job opportunities*|
|Advancement opportunities exist (management positions, long-term contracts and higher-paying projects)*|
|Work can be done virtually anywhere (home, office or job site)*|
|CONS of a Specifications Writer Career|
|Tough competition is expected for new writers and freelancers*|
|Quickly learning large amounts of technical information can be stressful*|
|Project needs often require odd hours (including evenings and weekends)*|
|Work is usually done on a per-project basis (which may result in multiple projects or a temporary lack of assignments)*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Specifications writers - generally referred to by the broader classification of technical writers - are responsible for creating and revising all types of end-user documentation, including how-to manuals, assembly instructions and online procedures. Specifications writers, in particular, often write for construction-related architectural or engineering projects. Using excellent writing abilities, they must make complex concepts more understandable. On the downside, these writers must quickly learn large amounts of highly technical information and find ways to explain it clearly under tight deadlines, which can be very stressful.
Although tight deadlines can be stressful and some projects require odd working hours, specifications writers can do their work from just about anywhere, including an office, a job site or even from home. They also use a variety of multimedia tools and programs to design projects, and those with a high level of Web and multimedia experience can advance quickly in the field, becoming managers or supervisors at technical writing departments or landing long-term contracts for work.
Job Growth and Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that this field would grow 15% between 2012 and 2022, which was faster than average (www.bls.gov). Job prospects were expected to be favorable overall, especially for workers with relevant experience and computer skills. New writers and freelancers may face competition, however, as they work to establish their technical writing reputations.
Salaried technical writers generally have a more steady and reliable income than freelancers and contract workers, according to the BLS. As of May 2014, the BLS reported that technical writers had a mean annual wage of $71,950.
Education and Skills
A bachelor's degree is required for most entry-level specifications writing positions. Earning a degree in communications, journalism or English can be especially beneficial. Courses in these degree areas can help you sharpen your writing skills, so you can better communicate challenging concepts in clear and comprehensible ways. Knowledge of desktop publishing, Web design and computer graphics can also help you get ahead in modern specifications writing environments, where multimedia documentation is quickly becoming the industry standard.
Since specifications writers usually deal with construction-related projects, knowledge of architectural and engineering concepts and terminologies is vital. You may also need to be versed in federal, state or local building code regulations. Knowledge of environmentally-friendly building methods might also be required for certain specifications projects.
Job Postings from Real Employers
Most companies do not specifically advertise for specifications writers, opting instead for the more common technical writer classification. Many employers seek writers with experience in the field and firsthand knowledge of frequently-used software programs. Below are some real technical writing job opportunities that were posted in February and May 2012.
- A public agency in New Jersey seeks a technical specifications writer for temporary work on school building projects. Applicants must be state residents and have 5-10 years of specifications writing experience. Familiarity with state codes and building commission policies is also requested.
- A Houston, Texas, firm needs senior technical writers with bachelor's degrees, experience with manufacturing instructions and knowledge of Microsoft Word, PhotoShop, Viso and Illustrator. Knowledge of the oil industry and experience with CAD and video editing software are additional preferred qualifications.
- A company in Maryland requires a senior professional technical writer to research, write, edit and proofread manuals, procedures and specifications documents in non-technical language. Ideal candidates have a bachelor's degree, at least four years of technical writing experience and strong knowledge of desktop publishing, word processing and online documentation software.
- A Delaware company is seeking a technical writer who can assist in writing, editing and maintaining routine technical documentation and other publications. The ideal candidate can also assist with project development and online help systems.
How to Make Your Skills Stand Out
In addition to earning a bachelor's degree, there are specialized skills you can learn to set you apart from other candidates. Many employers look for experience with Microsoft Office products, Microsoft Visio, Microsoft Project and Adobe Illustrator, which are all programs that allow specifications writers to create multimedia presentations. For basic document creation, Adobe Acrobat Professional is a standard program. Learning to use these programs with proficiency can make you a more desirable applicant for specifications writing positions. Consider taking software-specific courses or general courses in multimedia development to help hone your skills and abilities in these areas.
To further increase your marketability, you can consider technical writing certifications. Two such certifications are offered by the Certification Testing Service (CTS) and the Society for Technical Communication (STC). CTS offers a Certified Technical Writing Specialist (CTWS) credential that includes an exam and a combination of past education and experience. Technical writers who earn the CTWS certification must abide by standards of conduct and a written code of ethics.
STC awards the Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC) credential, which is based on education and technical writing experience. Testing for this certification demonstrates proficiency in task and experience analysis, information design, process management, information development and information production. Writers who earn the CPTC credential must also abide by a code of ethics and participate in continuing education opportunities.
Other Fields to Consider
Public Relations Specialist
If the highly technical nature of specifications writing does not appeal to you, but you like the idea of writing for a living, you might consider a job in public relations. Professionals in this field need similar communication skills to specifications writing, but it is much more people oriented, which is a good fit for those with a social nature.
The BLS reported that jobs as public relations specialists were expected to grow 23% between 2010 and 2020, but competition was expected to be stiff, especially for entry-level positions. Like specifications writing, public relations work often involves odd or irregular hours, and most positions require at least a bachelor's degree. The BLS stated that the median annual wage for public relations specialists as of May 2011 was about $53,000.
Author or Writer
Another alternative to specifications writing is a more broad career as an author or a writer. According to the BLS, close to 70% of writers were self-employed as of 2010, and many work on a freelance basis. Writers and authors develop all types of written materials, including books, articles, websites and other documents.
A bachelor's degree is generally the minimum requirement for jobs in this field. Work experience, internships and a strong writing portfolio can help writers and authors secure work in this highly competitive occupation. The BLS stated that job growth between 2010 and 2020 was expected to be slower than average at six percent. The median wage for writers as of May 2011 was about $56,000, according to the BLS, although freelance writers can make much less and often have unreliable streams of income.