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

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.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for a gamification company called Badgeville in the Silicon Valley area in California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), content development (DITA, testing), API documentation (code examples, programming), web publishing (web platforms, Web design) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

17 thoughts on “Technical Writing — Worth it? Interesting? Creative? Well-Paid? Hours? Answering a Few Questions from Saudi Arabia

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  2. Anne

    Kalyani,

    First of all I agree that you should move back to India, I’ve been there in the past (for a year) and absolutely fell in love with the place. You have a very rich past with all of the exact experience needed to become a technical writer, so go for it.

    I also work as a technical writer and I agree with all that is written above, it’s all true and accurate. However, after writing so much technical content I do get a little bored. I too share the writing flare as well, meaning that after writing tech content I need to let off some steam.

    I found an interesting publishing site called Triond. The way I let off steam may sound funny to you, but what I do is write…
    Not technical writing but creative writing about whatever comes to my mind on that day.

    So basically what I’m saying is that I write and then to relax I write some more, go figure. The fun thing is that when I write for Triond, I actually make money from my content, and thats always a good thing. By the way I’ve seen there many talented writers from India.

    In my opinion, definitely worth taking a peek – beware, it’s addictive!

    Hope I help out, good luck with the move.

    Anne

  3. Dr. Anu

    Hello Kalyani,

    Doing any type of education online has become a vogue today. In my opinion, it may be a good idea to complete the Certification Course online with The Writers Block. This will put you in a better position to seek a job as a technical writer. Your past experience and an added skill will help you get the right job/company you want.

  4. Helen

    Hello Kalyani,

    I am a technical writer (have been for over 20 years now). My career started in Bangalore and continues in Bangalore. So about your question on if it was worth it? I would say “Yes indeed!”
    Interesting because technical writers create various documents for a company not just the primary product documentation that is sold with the product. Interesting because you get to learn and write about various business domains, technologies and processes. My personal experience is that you improve your communication skills because you are constantly practicing those fundamentals of writing that apply to spoken communication as well.
    Like any other job, it has it’s share of challenges and by that I do not mean hard work!! :0) I mean coping with changing requirements, demanding project teams and deadlines. But then again, which job does not have challenge s.
    Work-life balance has never been a problem for me. I had a life before my job and continue to have one now. The trick is watching those commitments, working smarter (not necessarily harder)and of course working very very fast so that you get to go home to your family at the end of the day.
    There have been moments in my career where I have worked late but I can safely say not more than 8 to 10 times (in 20 years!!). Hard work always pays well. When you have given it all you have got, the rewards automatically reap in. I really do not have to say more on that.

    Online training has been as effective as a classroom training. The advantages for the online training have been self discipline and time management, self motivation in learning and a tremendous achievement in “doing it yourself”. Of course, the convenience of “learn at your own time” and not having to deal with external issues like traffic to get to class on time is big in Bangalore today.

    I started my career as a programmer, moved onto Technical Writing and have had a very successful career. With this experience and success I have been able to open my own Technical Writing company.
    Good luck in making your choice and hope my thoughts have answered your questions.
    Helen

  5. Lakshmi Ramanujam

    Hi Tom,
    Thought I must clarify this. You wondered about the name The Writers Block?
    Writer’s block is the state where a writer loses inspiration or confidence in his/her ability/creativity the point where further writing is difficult. The Writers Block (TWB) is a place where writers with a very high degree of expertise are found, and are being created (and the play of words is a great lesson in communication)!
    Do log on to our website http://www.twb.in/

  6. Clay Walnum

    Thanks for this great blog.

    One thing you didn’t mention about tech writing is the constant learning, which is a wonderful thing if you’re a curious geek like me. I’m a senior tech writer for a company that produces CAD/CAM software. Every new writing project requires digging into the software’s new features and not only figuring out how they work, but also why they work.

    I was a free-lance writer before my current job, and I would suggest books or articles on subjects that I wanted to learn about. My first programming book was advanced tips and tricks for C++ programmers, and at the time I signed the contract, I didn’t even know the C++ language. The research was one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

    –Clay

  7. Jenise

    Kalyani,

    In addition to the great advice you’ve received from everyone, many technical writers with the desire and abilities are promoted up into Business Analyst jobs, and then eventually into Project Manager positions.

    My employer has worked with http://www.B2TTraining.com

    They have a blog on their site; reading the posts can help give you an idea what business analysis entails.

    Then there is http://www.PMI.org

    This organization provides the professional certification Project Managers desire and seek. In the western U.S., certified Project Manager earn over $100,000 a year. However, for work|life balance….they also tend to work 50 to 60 hours a week, and may travel for their jobs.

    THEN!! There’s what I do. I’m a technical writer, business analyst, and now an e-learning designer and developer. I LOVE MY JOB!

    If you have a leaning towards teaching people, after a year or so as a technical writer you could look into becoming an e-learning Instructional Systems Designer.

    You have many opportunities ahead of you. Good luck, and take good care of your boys!

    ~Jenise

    http://www.RidgeViewMedia.com/blog

    info AT RidgeViewMedia DOT com

  8. Anne S.

    Hello Kalyani.

    I’ve been a tech writer for 22 years. Although based in the U.S., I’ve recently worked with a team in Bangalore (for a large software company). Because companies continue to build teams in India, Bangalore in particular, there should be numerous opportunities for you.

    All the best,
    Anne S

  9. Charles

    Tech writing isn’t a bad job but many of them are being shipped overseas. Five or six years ago there were several outfits up here with small armies of tech writers, all but one is gone.

  10. Paid Survey Guide

    I think your poll needed more respondents to show more accurate results. Nevertheless though, writing can be quite tedious and is generally not the highest paid profession around. Still, well written articles are always a pleasure to read and I want to wish you the best of luck in your future writing.

  11. Pingback: Transitioning from Literary Studies to Technical Communication | I'd Rather Be Writing - Tom Johnson

  12. Jean P.

    I’ve been a tech writer in the U.S. for over 25 years, mainly working as an employee for large high-tech companies or as an employee of agencies (a.k.a. “vendors”) to which high-tech companies outsource work.

    I’d agree that the work is challenging and the salary is great, but I have to wonder where those who say they have a good work/life balance are working.

    I must be working at the wrong companies, because I definitely have NOT found that to be the case. Overtime (50 to 60+ hours/week) has been more the rule, not the exception. Couple that with aggressive deadlines, frequent layoffs, and reorgs, and it’s a recipe for burnout.

    So, who are these companies that offer tech writers work/life balance?

  13. Clay Walnum

    Jean,

    I work for a very employee-oriented company. I’ve never been required to work over 40 hours a week, although I often do just because I want to.

    The Tech Docs department here is wonderful. We have a manager who stays on top of our work loads and is supportive rather than confrontational. Also, we are a close team; if someone has trouble with a project, one or more of us volunteers to help, without getting the manager involved.

    And, yes, I know I’m lucky, especially considering that I was looking for work all over the country and ended up working at this place that’s only 10 minutes from home.

    Oh, and did I mention that we’re among the highest paid tech writers in the country?

    I don’t buy lottery tickets. I’ve already won.

    –Clay

  14. Robin Marie

    I admire the tenacity of people from other countries learning English and other languages than their own.

    However, I am a technical writer whose job is seriously endangered because of outsourcing in India. I will not stereotype and say that all foreigners are handicapped at writing clearly and concisely in English. However, I’ve spent a lot of time during the last couple of years cleaning up stuff that was written by people my company has outsourced to in India. I do not believe this is the answer.

  15. senior tech writer

    2013: Tech writing, like most of information technology, has been largely outsourced. The majority of “jobs” are temp assignments filled freelance writers and staffing firms. Benefits, if offered, as often self paid. There is little to no upward mobility.

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