What on earth is a technical writer?
Got a PhD but don’t know what to do with it? Wondering what life is like outside the ivory tower? In this series, we speak to individuals who have completed their doctoral training and subsequently transitioned from academic research to a variety of roles in industry. We asked them about what prompted their move, and how their scientific training has helped further their careers. Any opinions in this article are personal and do not reflect those of the interviewees’ employers.
This week we spoke to Dr. Daphne Ng, a technical writer at Vela Diagnostics who was a research fellow in a former life, to find out how and what prompted her to swap the micropipette for the pen.
Obviously, it wasn’t for fame or fortune.
BCS: First up, tell us more about yourself.
Daphne: I am a microbiologist by training and graduated with a B.Sc. in Life Sciences and a Ph.D. from the National University of Singapore. I have an unhealthy fascination with tiny organisms and wanted to be a scientist when I was 15 years old. Before becoming a technical writer, I was a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
BCS: So, what exactly does a technical writer do?
Daphne: Behind every piece of writing is a writer. A technical writer, as the name implies, writes technical documents. As the technical writer at Vela Diagnostics, I write, edit and maintain technical documents such as user manuals, product inserts, material safety and data sheets (MSDS) and factsheets. I also write technical articles, product descriptions and press releases for the company website, blog and industry magazines.
Additionally, as the resident wordsmith, I craft, create and manage content for the company’s social media platforms as well as edit collateral such as marketing flyers and landing pages.
BCS: If you could use three words to describe your job, what would they be?
Daphne: Detailed, systematic, creative
BCS: What’s a typical workday like?
Daphne: You mean besides spending inordinate amounts of time doing what I enjoy, which is writing? A large part of being a technical writer is understanding what you will be writing about, so I meet my colleagues from various departments to know more about the assays, software, and equipment. The information that goes into user manuals, product inserts and MSDS comes from various departments (Research and Development, Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs, Legal etc.) so I work with everyone in the company. Information reaches me in all forms (test reports, emails, word of mouth etc.) so I read a lot and make sure that I capture all the details. I often think of myself as a conduit for information!
After gathering the details, my job as a technical writer is to make sure that these pieces of information are accurately represented in the user manuals, product inserts and MSDS that customers will be using. These have to also be neatly organized, written in an easy to understand manner and meet regulatory requirements at the same time. It’s not an easy feat!
I also do a lot of document formatting so I have probably learnt more about Microsoft Word and its quirks as a technical writer than I ever did at any point in time, even when I was formatting my own theses!
BCS: What kind of writing experience did you have prior to your current role?
Daphne: Prior to swapping the micropipette for the keyboard/pen, I was a research fellow. In fact, I was a researcher for 10 years, including PhD.
Besides manuscript, grant and report writing, I started writing and pitching science articles as a hobby when I was a research fellow. My writing has been published in several science magazines and online platforms.
BCS: Did those experiences lead you to pursue scientific/technical writing as a career?
Daphne: I have always enjoyed writing, even before I decided to become a scientist. People also tell me that I write well. So I knew it was something that I was reasonably good at. Subsequently, I won second prize and merit prize at the Asian Scientist Writing Prize in 2017 and 2019 respectively.
I am drawn to scientific/technical writing as it lies at the intersection of what I love – science and writing. I started to seriously consider scientific/technical writing as a career when my article won second prize at the Asian Scientist Writing Prize in 2017. That provided the affirmation to pursue scientific/technical writing as a career and the rest, as they say, is history!
BCS: What was the biggest challenge/change when transitioning from being a research fellow to a technical writer?
Daphne: Writing is an exercise in empathy, and I would say that I do a lot more understanding these days as a technical writer. As the scribe whose job is to write about products, I find myself asking questions about the simplest details to make sure that I understand whatever it is I am writing about correctly. I am grateful to my colleagues for entertaining all my questions, big and small!
BCS: Does one need to have a PhD to be a technical writer? How has your PhD training been beneficial to your work?
Daphne: You will need a solid understanding of the technical knowledge in the field to be a technical writer. That understanding comes from experience, usually from the PhD or from working in the area. Having a PhD definitely helps me do my job better as I am familiar with the technology, having used it as a researcher. This in-depth understanding also helps me to spot and correct errors during editing. This is crucial as the technical writer is usually one of the last gatekeepers of a company’s information before it goes to customers!
BCS: What other types of science-related writing roles are there? Are these roles generally well paid?
Daphne: Science-related writing roles include technical, scientific and medical writing. These involve writing technical, regulatory and scientific content, either as an in-house writer, on a freelance basis, or in an agency. Most content creation roles such as marketing and corporate communications in biotech and life sciences companies also require some degree of writing about the science.
While we often joke about being starving writers, I believe that most science/technical/medical writers, especially when they have established themselves, earn enough to afford a (somewhat) comfortable lifestyle. Personally, I think it is awesome to be paid to do something you love!
BCS: What advice would you give someone interested in a career in scientific writing?
Daphne: To be a writer, you just have to write. So go forth and write!
Why Asia needs good science writers | World Economic Forum
Three Years A (Professional) Science Writer | Asian Scientist Magazine
Medical writing and the healthcare industry | Biotech Connection Singapore