I recently received an email from a reader who asked to know what the job of a technical writer is like. Anoop writes,
I am a computer science Master's student at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. I am in my second year and I am on the lookout for jobs. Other than the system software engineer posts, I am considering applying for a job as a technical writer too. I do love witing as much or maybe more than I love coding and understanding operating systems. I do have experience in system software but not in technical writing, though I do blog occasionally and I also have written a few technical how-tos.
Could you please tell me what the job of a technical writer is like? How different is it from that of a software engineer? I know it pays less, but I guess you might get more satisfaction especially if you like writing? Could you, if you have the time, tell me how a day at work goes like? Do you think with my limited experience, I have a shot as a technical writer and in the area that I'm interested in?
I love getting questions like this. Of course technical writing isn't creative writing, but it does require a lot of writing skills. If you can organize complex topics and communicate concepts clearly and concisely, conforming to a specific style, you probably have most of the writing skills you need.
As far as the salary and economic outlook, technical writing was listed as the 13th best job in America, according to Money Magazine. Technical writers earn an average salary of $57k per year. Software engineers, in contrast, appear at the top of the list and have an average salary of $80k. The job growth for engineers is projected at 46%, while that of technical writers is 23%.
In short, the economic outlook for the field of technical writing is good. As long as the tech industry is hot, the demand for technical writers will be there. Almost every software project needs a technical writer.
A lot of your job as a technical writer involves figuring out what the engineer is building. If you have an engineering background, you're often a step ahead of other technical writers. If you can read programming code, your potential for higher income increases significantly.
The questions you asked can be answered in a lot of different ways, so I'll give you a sample of my typical day. Below is more like a composite of different tasks all done within several weeks.
Tom's Typical Day as a Technical Writer
That's sort of a typical day/week/month/life of a technical writer.
You mentioned you're in Vancouver. Vancouver happens to be a hub of tech writing. Last year I gave a presentation titled "20 Usability Tips for Blogging" at Doc Train West (held in downtown Vancouver). This year I'm going to be on a blogging panel with several noteworthy bloggers. If you can make it, (May 6-9), I highly recommend that you attend the Doc Train West 2008 conference.
Is technical writing satisfying? In a way, yes. I previously worked as a marketing copywriter. Sometimes I had a hard time feeling good about what I was writing, because I myself didn't buy the products. I know technical writing helps people. Today I received an email from someone who mentioned they used the help and now they understand a difficult concept in the app. That felt good. With all the people out there who are confused by technology, who feel frustrated and try to find answers online or in help files, it feels satisfying to know I'm engaged in a good cause.
Through my examples above, I tried to show that technical writers do a lot more than writing. Very little time in the day is taken up by pure writing. There's a lot of design, discovery, visuals and other tasks that writers do. My blog is actually what cures my itch to write.
You've probably wondered if technical writing is boring. I wrote a post on this a while back and received some great feedback. I think the key is to keep yourself engaged in the field. Writing a blog and creating podcasts make me enthusiastic about technical communication more than anything else.
Specifically, listening to podcasts can give you ideas, help you see how others have approached problems, and expand your knowledge in numerous ways. Unlike blog posts, you can often feel people's excitement and energy through their voices.
If any readers have any advice or reflections for Anoop, please share them in the comments. You can also describe your typical day. I'd be interested to read that myself.
March 29 update: Definitely check out this Shanghai tech writer's description of her typical day. A lot of parallels, despite being on the other side of the globe.
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.