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Technical Writing -- Worth it? Interesting? Creative? Well-Paid? Hours? Answering a Few Questions from Saudi Arabia

Apr 9, 2008 • beginners, general

Kalyani from Saudi Arabia writes,

My name is Kalyani. I am 37 yrs old and live in Saudi Arabia. I have finished my Diploma in Electronics (4 year course). I was working at Hewlett Packard in India before moving to Saudi.

In this country, women have very few opportunities to work i.e., only in the schools or hospitals. I chose to work in the school as an English and Computer Science teacher. Now I have moved into the administration.

After 7 years in this country, I want to move back to India. While looking at the job market, I thought of re-training and getting into "Technical writing". I have a good command over English and a flair for writing. My computer skills are very good.

I have 4 months before I go back to India. I wanted to start my online training from 'The Writers' Block', a training institute in Bangalore, India.

I have a few questions for you:

  1. Is "Technical writing" an interesting career? (I like to be creative and take up challenges)
  2. Can you maintain your work-life balance? (I have 3 boys aged 9, 5 and 3)
  3. Does it pay well?
  4. In the long term, is it worth being a 'technical writer'?
  5. Do you think online training is a right choice? Or should I take the regular course??

I hope you will help me out with my queries whenever you find the time.

[Me: I asked Kalyani to tell me the state of outsourcing in India.]

Right now, outsourcing is at a peak in India, especially in Bangalore from where I come. There are many BPOs and there are few technical writers. Unlike software technicians who are in plenty, technical writers are still few in number. I'll go for this when the demand is still good.
Most of the European and American companies have outsourced their services in India. So I think this is the time to go for it.

I'll look forward to reading your blog post.

Thanks again,

Kalyani

Thanks for writing, Kalyani. It's always interesting to hear from readers in Saudi Arabia. You have an excellent background for entering the field of technical writing. With a degree in electronics, experience as an English and Computer Science teacher, and work experience at HP, you are probably well suited for a job as a technical writer. Let me try to answer your questions.

1. Is "Technical writing" an interesting career? (I like to be creative and take up challenges)

Yes, it is an interesting career. However, you can read some posts and discussions on this site that talk about whether technical writing is boring. Also read this post that explores whether I'd become a technical writer again if starting over from scratch. I recently asked a 2 question survey to see if my readers felt the same way.

You can see the results of 16 responses so far. Basically, only 31% of people would definitely become technical writers if starting over. 37% said maybe, and 31% said no.

The funny thing is, most of those who said no would instead move into instructional design, web design, or usability, which are all somewhat close to technical writing anyway. (By the way, the survey is still open.)
Although reading those posts may not put technical writing in a glamorous spotlight, it truly is a solid professional field with a lot of room to grow and explore new technologies. I do enjoy my job as a technical writer.

Technical writers can focus on a variety of things (content management, information architecture, e-learning, usability, single sourcing, XML, DITA, web design, multimedia), but the majority of technical writers spend their days creating help material such as online help, printed manuals, quick reference guides, and writing and formatting other content.

Of course it's not riveting, but as jobs go, it's not bad. I would say that technical writing is a satisfying career, but not a fulfilling one. (Vague on purpose there.)

2. Can you maintain your work-life balance? (I have 3 boys aged 9, 5 and 3)

It depends on your company. Most technical writers I know maintain a very comfortable work-life balance. It's nothing like investment banking or law or medicine where you're expected to put in 60+ hour weeks as the norm.

I have an 8 to 5 day, and I come home to a home-cooked meal and then wrestle with my kids for a while before putting them to bed and wandering online to post a few entries on my blog. Okay, so it's not that idyllic, but the work-life balance is one of the best things about being a technical writer.

3. Does it pay well?

Yes, technical writing is probably the most lucrative career in writing apart from being a best-selling novelist or becoming a big-time publisher in New York City. Of the careers one can pursue as a writer -- copywriter, copy editor, proofreader, essayist, journalist, teacher, professor -- technical writers earn a lot more, at least 1/3 more in salary, I'd say.

For surveys, see the WritersUA 2008 salary survey, which found the average salary of a technical writer in the U.S. to be about 76k a year. Everyone I talk to thinks this number is a little high. In 2006, Money Magazine named technical writing the 13th best job in America and said the average salary was 57K a year.

My own opinion is that the real average salary for technical writers is somewhere between 57 and 76. It depends on where you live, how many years of experience you have, what company you work for, and how good you are at negotiating a salary.

4. In the long term, is it worth being a 'technical writer'?

I assume this question has something to do with intangible rewards, particularly compared to careers in education. As a teacher, one often feels an internal reward in helping students learn and grow and see the world in a new light. (Or so they say.)

Well, the problem with feeling great worth as a technical writer is that we're so disconnected with our users. We don't watch them use our help. Teachers in the classroom can directly observe the impact of their teaching. But I can't see the indescribable joy that comes to those who read my instructions in moments of frustration and suddenly "get it." I can't observe users who, after struggling for hours, finally turn to the help and within minutes fall down on their knees and kiss the software manual I wrote, tears falling down their cheeks in gratitude. :)

I used to be a copywriter writing press releases, web copy, and all kinds of other campaigns to get people to buy nutritional supplements. While I was allowed be more creative as a copywriter, it wasn't worth it because I didn't believe in the products. In contrast, as a technical writer, I feel that helping people understand complicated technology so they can do their jobs better, become more efficient, and feel more comfortable with software applications is worthwhile.

But "worth it" really depends on you. What makes life worth it to you? (Here's an article that explores whether technical writing is a calling or job.) The sense of worth varies for every person according to their perceived calling and life purpose. Someone gifted in medicine would not feel that writing help content and making video tutorials is "worth it." A job worth it for that person is in the exam room or ER. But for writers, technical writing is an activity much more worthwhile.

5. Do you think online training is a right choice? Or should I take the regular course??

I don't know. I learned much of what I know about technical writing from my first job. I learned most of the tools on my own, and picked up style and other techniques by looking at manuals, trying different techniques, and in general reading from various sources. A course could be highly beneficial.
Read this comment by Mike, which he left on a post I wrote called "What's the Best Thing You've Done to Grow Your Career?":

Without a doubt, the best “move” I made in regard to my technical writing career was completing a graduate degree in communication. The sheer number of programs (broad-based professional programs to specialized technical programs) make a graduate degree possible for every practicing technical writer. And the networking opportunities within a graduate program are extremely beneficial.

It's never a bad idea to take a course in anything, really. (However, I'm a little confused by the name of the Institute you mentioned, the "Writer's Block." Let's hope they teach you how to avoid that.)

Final Thoughts

As a final comment on offshoring and outsourcing, I was talking to a technical writer at Novell last week. Novell apparently has writers and developers in several different countries, including India. This writer works regularly with about 14 writers from Bangalore. She said that within 5 years, technical writing would disappear in the U.S. and be completely enveloped by outsourced companies in India and elsewhere.

I'm not sure I believe that, because technical writers fit with engineers like peanut butter and jelly -- the two go together really well, and colocation is essential. But the instant you move your engineers to another country, the technical writers are sure to follow. Because Novell has engineers in other countries, they placed their technical writers there too.

By the way, I did interview an Indian technical writer for a podcast last year. You can listen to it here.

Also, there's a great listserv to join called Technical Writers of India. They post jobs and have an active discussion regularly. You might also connect with Rahul Prabhakar. He's up to date with the latest trends with technical writing in India.