Guest Post: Tech Writing Careers — The Raw, Unvarnished Truth

Last week a student emailed me with some questions about technical writing. I didn’t have time to respond, so I forwarded the questions to the Techwr-L listserv, where 6-7 people responded. One of the responses, from Keith Hood, caught my attention. Keith unfolded what one might refer to as the “dark side of technical writing.” His response is thought-provoking, and it will make you look carefully at your projected career path. Keith is a technical writer in Texas with 18 years of experience.

What steps do you take when writing a document?

Theory: In this order -– identify and define the audience to know their needs for information, develop the requirements for what it needs to cover, work out the review/approval process, plan the structure of the document, work out a coverage plan that says what to include and the level of detail to supply, arrange to have someone else proof and edit, run the doc through the approval process, apply changes from that process, archive it.

Practice: Get told what the boss wants, find out there’s not enough time to do it right, try to throw together some kind of doc development plan in your head, find an existing document that you can use as a template and start cramming stuff into it, simultaneously run around trying to drag information from subject matter experts while you try to build a finished document from scratch, the boss reads it and sends it to the customers, the customers nitpick over it like feuding little old ladies, the boss blames you and has you rewrite it.

How do time and budget limitations affect your writing?

In every imaginable way. You have to deliver on time and in budget if you’re going to have a good enough reputation to get your next job. Sometimes that means you have to leave out things you want in the documents. You have to prioritize what the reader *really* needs. And like it or not, you have to supply what the man who signs the checks wants, even if you know it’s the wrong thing.

How much time do you spend writing?

The writing is the smallest time block. More time has to be spent in fact checking, in discovering if the information you have from the SMEs is current, and in digging information out of the network support group who don’t want you to create that network diagram because they figure the less everyone else knows about the network, the safer their jobs are. The most important thing you can do is learn how to deal with people, so you can more easily get information from them. No matter how good you are at writing, you can’t do the job if everybody dislikes you and they won’t talk to you when you need to ask questions about the equipment you have to document.

How and when do you revise and edit documents?

Constantly. Which is a problem. There is almost never any support –- you almost never have an editor to back you up. Sometimes your work has to go straight to a customer without even going through your boss first, so the process of checking and proofing and editing everything has to be an ongoing process. And you should NEVER try to edit your own work. You get to a point you see things so often, they don’t register on your mind anymore. You have places in the content where you know exactly what you mean, but it won’t be clear to someone who’s not as familiar with the material as you are, and they won’t get it, but you’ve read it so many times you’ve lost the ability to see it differently. Usually, because you’re almost always working alone, revising and editing has to be a constant thing every minute, and that slows down everything else.

How did you acquire the skills you use for your job? Did you take classes or have on-the-job training, etc.?

I had one class in the tech school where I got an AA in electronics. Followed by 18 years of experience. I very seriously doubt anyone could fall into tech writing accidentally these days. The number of jobs has been seriously reduced and the competition has become a lot more fierce. Nowadays, especially for someone who doesn’t have a track record, being able to show lots of relevant training is probably terribly important in getting the first (couple of) job(s). And study tech subjects other than tech writing. Take classes in Java and database design. It will make your dealings with the subject matter experts easier because it proves you have the brains to understand what they do, and it makes it easier to understand how to get the information you need.

What steps did you take to get to the position you are in now?

I stumbled by accident into my first tech writing job in 1990 and stuck with it.

If you’re thinking in career terms, the problem is never getting the same type of job. Employers always hire because of your last two or three jobs. The problem is if you decide you’ve had enough of tech writing and want to try something else. People don’t look at your resume and wonder if your 8 years of experience as a tech writer would make you a good production manager. If you do think about doing something other than technical writing, you have to make the change early enough that you don’t become over specialized.

Everything I write from here down applies to some extent to every high-tech industry. A little less in companies that actually manufacture things, but very much so in software companies.

Here is the raw, unvarnished truth: If you want to make a life as a technical writer, you must sustain yourself by your enjoyment of writing, because you cannot get any satisfaction from your work any other way. For you there will not be the kinds of rewards that others can expect. Raises, promotions, company perks of some kind – forget them. You won’t see them. Technical writing will always pay significantly less than engineering or a type of work that is more central to the company’s business.

Technical writing is no longer considered a skilled IT field. It was, up until the tech stock crash of 2001. Now, technical writing has been commoditized. Since the tech bubble burst, companies have been doing everything they can to get leaner but still shovel out as much or even more product. The single largest expense (at least for software firms) is payroll. Payroll expenses are very much a function of time needed for product development. So, companies have been dedicatedly finding the absolute minimum number of people they can keep on hand and still be able to function. Cutting personnel costs has become one of the top 5 maxims in high-tech companies. This is why “outsourcing” and “offshoring” became industry standards.

Nowadays, tech writers are a dime a dozen. Companies hire them as needed and discard them when the immediate need is past. Companies will hire programmers and DBAs and QA personnel as regular employees because they have a direct effect on the process of turning out marketable product. But tech writers do not. So when a company reaches a point where it needs to field a help system or some other kind of documentation for customer use, they’ll hire a TW on a 6-month contract and when it’s over, he’s out the door.

In late 1999 my boss, the VP of product development for the company, told me, half-joking, that technical writers were considered a necessary evil in business. He said the job description would not exist at all if it were not for the fact that customers expect documentation. Companies don’t want to have to hire TWs because they are a drain on the company’s resources. They have to be paid, housed, and given equipment and support, but what they turn out does not contribute to the value of the product. And since then, his words have been proven by every other place I’ve worked.

Think about the career progress in tech writing –- there really isn’t any. If you are a programmer or engineer, you could have a career path something like this: Engineer > Team Leader > Project Manager > Product Line Manager > Director > VP of Engineering/Product Development > CEO.

A business type or sales could expect a career path something like this: First job > Lead > Region/Product Manager > VP Sales/Marketing > CFO/CEO.

Another IT type like a DBA could expect something like: DBA > Lead Designer > Network Manager > IT Division Manager > CIO > CEO.

Tech writer? Well, to begin with, today almost all technical writers are hired individually and are individual assets for totally separate departments in the company. And that’s if it’s a fairly large company. A lot of tech writing gets done for fairly small companies where you’re the only tech writer they’ll ever have. If they do ever hire more, it’s because they have projects come up for which they need documents, so they’ll hire someone to support that particular project for however long it lasts, and then that writer is out the door.

To have a chance of advancement in tech writing as a TW, you must work in a company which is large enough, and old-fashioned enough, that it has a hierarchical structure related to document production. Such companies are scarce today and getting scarcer. Most such structures for documentation today will be found in government agencies, which opens a whole new can of worms. So if you get hired by a company that has a documentation structure where there is some chance of advancement, how much advancement can you expect? Well, after you’ve worked there several years, you may become a team leader, and run a group of 3 or 4 people. After several more years, you may have a shot at becoming the documentation division manager. And after that, nothing.

There is no path upward from that. Nobody gets promoted into upper management because he’s a good writer. And nobody ever gets promoted because he’s good at managing writers. The upper levels do not consider tech writing important and no matter how good you are at meeting schedules or dealing with problems or fiddling the budget, experience with documents is absolutely meaningless when it comes to deciding who becomes the new VP. What matters is perception of dollar value to the company.

A few years ago, Wired magazine had an article about problems common in database management. It pointed out that one of the worst problems was, there is usually a lack of good documentation. But the same article recommended that the way to handle such problems was during the design phase, and to set up the databases in such a way as to minimize the need for documentation. It basically said that doing a lot of work to ensure good documentation was not cost effective in the long run, because management cares that you give them their data on time, and they don’t care if you do it with or without documentation. The article ended with the oh-so-true observation, “No one ever got promoted for having good documentation.”

One reason most business people care nothing about documentation and what goes into making it is, they think nothing of writing. They are sure it’s easy. They can write — they’ve seen themselves do it. They have no idea just how awful they are as writers, but they think writing is easy so they have no respect for someone who does it for a living.

Also, and more important, tech writing (documentation) is not seen as contributing to the bottom line. There is no way for a writer or a writing department manager to claim that his work made a verifiable difference to the figure at the bottom of the profit/loss statement. And for that reason, anyone connected to documentation will always be considered a necessary burden, at best.

As you go through life you will find upper level management who used to be tech writers themselves. But in every case, you will find they did not go from tech writing to management. They sidestepped. They got out of tech writing and into programming or business analysis, and *then* they started climbing the corporate ladder. The plain fact is, the career advancement ladder for technical writers has maybe one and a half rungs. There is no such thing as a career in technical writing; there is only a succession of jobs, some of which last longer than others. If you want a chance at a true career, which includes the chance to do different things and rise to a better position, either get out of technical writing or don’t enter it in the first place.

Good luck.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • David

    Uh-oh. Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays :-(

  • Jason

    In my nine years as a technical writer, I’ve definitely seen *some* of what Keith mentions. My experience is, though, that the role is as valuable to the company and to management as the writer makes it. If you allow yourself to just be “the guy that writes the manual,” you’ll likely have no career path at that company, and the role won’t ever grow. However, I’ve seen plenty of potential growth for writers into areas of business analysis, usability, design, and even project management – if the writer pushes toward those areas.

    The one thing I totally agree with, though, is that you have to be able to prove to the SMEs that you have the brains to hang with them. Taking a programming course or database management course (or whatever) so that you can speak their language at their level will pay off huge in the long run.

  • Long Time Tech Writer

    I’ve always worked as a freelancer, and certainly everything Keith says is true for me.

    The promotion issues of course don’t exist, because I don’t seek to work long-term for one employer. However, the general dismissal of the usefulness of documentation, the lack of comprehension of what we do, the poor decisions imposed by managers who think they’re saving money — it’s all true. Some of the old dinosaur companies, which are in their graves now — actually had things like usability labs for both their UIs and documentation . . . but those days are long gone.

    I genuinely like struggling with content and turning it into something usable and readable. Until recently, I’ve been well paid as a contractor, and I personally need to escape corporate politics, so freelancing is the way for me to go. However, if you do want to advance and wish someday to be a VP of something, you can start out as a tech writer, but you must use those education benefits (if there are any) to get your MBA or other training, and move out of tech writing relatively early.

    Tech writing has always been known as a transitional field. Except for those of us who, weirdly, liked it and stayed!

  • Gina

    I don’t think I’ve ever read such a negative commentary on technical writing.

    Since I stumbled into the career in the 1990s, I’ve experienced some of the things about which the author wrote, such as job discrimination from programmers and IT managers, as well as business analysts and product managers. Many times, I’ve had them mention without thinking, “the customer will never read it anyway”.

    Yes, these comments and the cavalier way companies treat the importance of documentation frustrate me. Yes, I cringe at being told to sacrifice quality to meet the deadline and “just get it done. Who cares?” However, I also have worked with professionals who value my work and input.

    I’m choosing to believe you are addressing the “pseudo-tech writers” who are jumping on the bandwagon as a way to get a contract job. I once worked with a contractor who told me that he just started tech writing 6 months before and that he was talking his wife into doing it for “easy money”. Needless to say, I didn’t hire him (HR did) and the quality of his work was so bad that it had to be rewritten from scratch. Obviously, there are companies who took his work and paid him so he felt it was “easy”.

    I choose to believe you are directing your post to these people.

  • John Hewitt

    “Also, and more important, tech writing (documentation) is not seen as contributing to the bottom line.”

    This is a major issue. Some companies get it and some don’t. I work for a company that once discontinued its entire technical writing department, only to get smacked hard by the industry for their lousy product documentation. They finally get the value of documentation, but they are still way behind in usability.

    John Hewitts last blog post..Building Better Novels Through Conflict

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  • Gordon

    Great post. Parts of which I agree with, parts of which suggest you’ve been a little unlucky in your choice of companies!

    My own position, currently, now sees me liasing and coordinating technical information across the entire company, from Sales literature, Pre-Sales whitepapers, through product documentation and supporting information (information outside of our product but which has an impact on how our product works in the real world), to training.

    I manage the developer community website (I created it) and have convinced my boss (the CTO) that information will only become more important as time goes on.

    I started here as a ‘Senior Tech Writer’ but no longer write product documentation, getting satisfaction from seeing a cohesive set of information being developed across the entire company. I have company wide responsibilities and my position/salary reflect that.

    There is also the notion that the writers in my team also contribute the how the product is built, frequently pointing out that X won’t work that way because the user doesn’t know Y at that point, basically acting as user-advocate.

    However you nailed the information gathering/writing parts perfectly, particularly the feel of scrabbling around grabbing what you can..

    Gordons last blog post..There’s nothing like a good book

  • Sushant Paikaray

    The facts mentioned by the writer is true in broader perspective of the industry. if you ask me whether the technical writing job is insecure and hire-and-fired by the company with no time, then i disagree to some extent. I work for a company that has a separate department for technical writing. TWs are involved in some good projects and more are being hired. but yes, your chance to getting promoted to a top post might be elusive.

  • justelise

    I’m glad you mentioned not being backed up by an editor and that editing your own material is a bad idea. I’d go so far as to say that editing your own material is terrible business practice, and that more companies and organizations need to recognize the need for separate Editor positions. Nothing frustrates me more than job postings for Technical Writer/Editors. The implication that your eyes might be the only ones that review your work before it is shipped is disturbing. In a small organization it may be unavoidable, but if your content is going to be seen by hundreds or thousands of people (internal to the company or gen-pop), having one person manage the creation and editing of the document is a nightmare.

  • Too Long at the Fair

    Although stated in a more negative way than I might have liked, I agree with the truth of this post. Tech writing is a dead end if you want to climb the corporate ladder. Although I tried to switch to training (just because I’d find it more interesting now, not because I thought it offered a better career path), I’ve found that companies only see me as a tech writer. Frankly, I’ve been at it too long. To quote JT, “It’s just me and my machine for the rest of the morning and the rest of the afternoon and the rest of my life.” sigh

  • david

    Golly, where to start. I have had a career in tech writing for 29 years, writer, editor, doc mgr, pubs mgr, etc. And almost a decade before that as freelance writer and staff editor (technical, general, close line- and copy-editing, managing editor). I have always done my own layout and my own self-editing. It’s not easy, but it can be done. You have to be real, real experienced (and you know how to get experience), careful, precise, fast, flexible, quick study, methodical, low-keyed and also high-energy, blah blah. I am told I am exceptionally good at these things, but I don’t actually know that that’s true, or that I agree it’s true. I have learned what to do and what not do and how important it is to be able to substantiate and points to examples, which comes from a ton of careful reading, and how important it is to have a good memory, and so on. But (to stop being windy) I guess I think these assertions should be taken with some serious salt.

  • david

    I guess I should’ve added some quasi-data, too. I have had horrible jobs and Dilbert-level bosses and have crazy (and worse, painful and ugly) stories to tell about colleagues and superior, like every tech writer (or tech worker). But this has been a rewarding career as I have developed maturity and tact, and most important has been intellectually as various and interesting as one could want. And my salary in those 3.5 decades has gone from under 12k to over 100k, so it has not been terribly straitened financially, either, though of course one can make more money doing other things. The combination of interest and satisfaction and compensation has been unusual, though.

  • Long Time Tech Writer

    David, your post confirms the original post’s point that there is no upward corporate path in tech writing. 29 years in tech pubs and no job title higher than tech pubs mgr or doc mgr . . .

    Glad you’re happy with your work history, but the original poster’s point about upward mobility still stands.

  • Joe

    I suppose everybody has their perceptions, and some people choose to look at the glass half-full, even if it’s cracked and the liquid is seeping out, but I have to say that after over 10 years in the business, Keith’s response is just what it says it is – the “unvarnished truth.”

    I’ve seen just about every scenario in Keith’s post play out in one form or another. For now, I just happen to be fortunate enough to be in one of those “old fashioned companies” that actually has a Technical Communications team. I’m a Senior Technical Writer and that’s as far as I’m going in this company.

    With the recent turn of events in this economy, I’m wondering if the situation will be the same next year, or if I’ll be looking into contracting when my company starts cutting costs.

  • david

    LTTW — Oh, sure, and perhaps I read his post too charitably (or not carefully enough). Or perhaps with disbelief that he really meant what he wrote. Point taken: If you want to be CEO or CFO or VP for sales, yeah, sticking to TW will not do it. I mean, we’re all clear about upward mobility vs career change, yes? If I want to be a surgeon, I cannot stick with nursing. Got it. I see that I thought it went without saying. Doc manager or pubs manager is about it; maybe QC/QA chief if you do a lot of testing in the course of your writing research. One of the best bosses I ever had, a director of engineering, had started out as a TW. But he did not stay within that area — manifestly.

  • Sarah Maddox

    I’ve been a tech writer for 10 years, and a developer for 9 years before that. There’s a lot of truth in what Keith has to say, but there’s a lot missing too :)

    From my point of view, tech writing is what I love and is what I do all day long. This is probably true for most tech writers. It’s true that a tech writer tends to remain a tech writer rather than go into management, but that’s usually by choice. There are related areas like information architecture and knowledge management, which offer job titles with a bit more glamour. And if someone wants to move out of tech writing, in my experience that’s easy to do. I am constantly battling to remain a “lowly” tech writer rather than being moved into a management position :)

    The team of tech writers in any one organisation is usually quite small, which is perhaps why our opinion does not carry as much weight as, say, a developer’s. (They’re a dime a dozen 😉 ) But taking a wider view, there’s a lot of support from fellow tech writers. We are a close-knit community, even though we’re spread all over the world. Witness the blogs, the online communities like Content Wrangler and Writer River, and the well-attended conferences.

    Looking at the paragraph above which starts with:
    “How and when do you revise and edit documents? Constantly. Which is a problem. There is almost never any support…”
    I think this is perhaps one of the symptoms of the way things are speeding up all over the world. Even if you’re not in an “agile” environment, the technology available means that it’s important to react quickly. Almost instantly, in fact. At the moment, my tech writing is done entirely on a wiki. There’s no delay — what I write is often published instantly. (Only the larger updates and new documents are held back awaiting review and/or release date). And the developers and support staff update the docs too. This has its disadvantages of course 😉 But there’s certainly a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the tech writers and the rest of the company, and a lot of support for the tech writers and the documentation.

    So I guess it all depends on your situation. I hope things get better for Keith and others who are having such an unfortunate experience of tech writing :)

    Sarah Maddoxs last blog post..Say it like it is

  • david

    Sarah, the wiki notion sounds v cool, but how do you track edits and undo / redo / simply edit others’ work? Is there an ‘owner’ or any version control or way to check out and lock? At my new company we have just embraced DocuShare, which many feel is a bear, overkill, but also lacks a few key capabilities. I am simply interested in in the to-ing and fro-ing processes….

  • Sarah Maddox

    Hi David, good question.

    The wiki (Confluence) allows you to “Watch” pages (get an email every time something changes on a page). Even more useful, you can define an RSS feed which shows you all changes, new docs, comments, etc. So I monitor my RSS feeds daily, and go and fix up any edits that need it.

    The wiki also maintains a complete history of edits to each page, and of who dun what. I can revert to a previous version, or do a diff to see what happened between version x and version x+n.

    There’s no concept of check out and lock. But Confluence does allow concurrent editing, and merges the edits when saved. If there’s a problem then it shows you the conflicts and asks you to choose.

    Sarah Maddoxs last blog post..Say it like it is

  • david

    Sarah, cool; thanks. Confluence is a company? I guess I will look it up. DS permits wikis (also blogs and threaded discussions via msg board), though I have tried to discourage using them and just have it be chiefly a normal repository w checkout. We do everything in Word (thank God), though, not html pages. Thanks again. A devo for 9 years, huh.

  • Sarah Maddox

    Ha ha, Confluence is a wiki :) The company is Atlassian. (BTW, I work at Atlassian too.) Yeah, I’m an avid tech writer. I’ve used Word a lot, of course 😉 and repositories like VSS and Documentum. Other tools like RoboHelp and PageMaker too. At the moment it’s just about exclusively the wiki, but I’ve been playing around with DITA just for fun. It sounds as if you’re into the fun side of tech writing too.

    Sarah Maddoxs last blog post..Say it like it is

  • david

    Ha, fun; I am surprised it shows. I like it enough and love to edit/rewrite complex things and turn them into smooth-reading proposals or user doc or whatnot. But I have been doing this for so long. I have used VSS and Documentum too, and recently. DocuShare is a lot fancier, but overkill and a little kludgy. I used to be a RoboHelp wiz, but not Frame or PM or others (Interleaf). Also a Ventura wizard too, decades ago. And vi/Unix/troff, oi. I do not bash MS, though I could. I have learned my way around Word. How come you left programing?

  • Sarah Maddox

    I’m delighted you’ve “learned your way around Word”. I think if one pushes aside the nested heading styles and probes through the tangle of tables, one is bound to come across the odd tech writer who has been missing, but not missed, for years :)
    Why did I leave programming? Because tech writing is so much better 😉

    Sarah Maddoxs last blog post..Say it like it is

  • Ryan

    “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

  • Dave

    Sarah — how do you handle localization budgets with the wiki documentation?

    One of my biggest concerns in opening up edits in a wiki like fashion is that there will be tons of smallish changes that will cost too much; or the writing that random people do won’t be loc-friendly. To give an example of cost, one of our writers recently repunctuated a document and the bill was well into 5 digits.

    Have you found a good way to work around these costs?

  • Sarah Maddox

    Dave, that’s a very good question. The short answer is that we are not very good at localisation of our documentation at the moment. We haven’t yet included this as a consideration in our documentation procedures.

    One way to handle this would be to keep a small, core set of documentation which is under stricter control. The wiki does have a good set of permission controls, allowing fairly fine-grained permissions over pages and spaces, by groups as well as individuals.

    We could make a controlled set of documentation available to the translators prior to the launch of each major release. We could allow the wider community to update the more discussion-related pages, hints and trouble-shooting, etc, on an ongoing basis.

    We could also make use of the ‘{include}’ functionality, which allows you to include the contents of one page, or an excerpt from a page, into another page. So then you would have the content written once only, and thus needing translation once only too.

    It would be interesting to hear what other people are doing in this regard.

    Sarah Maddoxs last blog post..Say it like it is

  • Erica

    Well, this gives one pause for thought. What was the thread that inspired this? I seem to have missed it.

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  • Rhonda

    Coming in late to this discussion… There’s an assumption in Keith’s article that I can’t let go past without a comment, and that’s that everyone wants a career path and to get promoted to managerial level. Been there, done that.

    Promotion to managerial status is NOT a reward for many people. In fact, some of the best managers I know were terrible ‘technicians’/practitioners. Conversely, some of the best practitioners (in whatever field) made terrible managers. I was one of those. I sought the holy grail of promotion and was a middle manager in various occupations for some 15 years. And I hated much of it. I loved the admin side, but not the people management side, and most (all?) management is about people.

    Leaving middle management was like removing a millstone from my neck. Now I run my own one-person business and the only employee I have to manage is me. I love technical communication and the variety of things I can do within the profession and the myriad new things I learn every day. I love the ‘doing’ and I never ever want to be a people manager again. Not everyone is cut out for management, and making the assumption that promotion and a career path are the ‘be all and end all’ of any job sends the wrong message. For some, that ‘reward’ is a poison chalice. IMHO.

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  • Cat

    I agree entirely with the original post. But I think much of the problem comes from ourselves. In my 11 years in the industry, I’ve seen our profession focusing entirely on what I think is the wrong thing–tools, processes, and occasionally usability. No wonder writers have become a commodity.

    I think we should be looking more at how we can contribute on a business level. I wish we put our efforts into making documentation a sales tool–not just a really accurate account of what buttons to push when.

    I’ve been doing that for the past few years. Gordon, an earlier poster, gets it too. In small companies, they value it like crazy. In large companies (because eventually all small companies get bought by the big guys), they don’t always get it. Yet.

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  • Corey L

    I agree with much of what is written here. What’s particularly frustrating is how the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ trumps everything that a professional technical writer knows he or she should do, and wants to do. It’s incredibly frustrating to have your project manager tell you that he wants the documentation at about 80% of perfection! Although, when the software ships at 80% (with a service pack in production before FCS), I suppose one shouldn’t expect anything more.

    Having said that, there are many ways a technical writer can expand his or her career options, as someone mentioned, varying the kinds of documents you are willing to work on is one way to gain exposure to different parts of any company, and perhaps to focus on things that interest you more, or are more lucrative. In my career I find myself frequently transitioning from working directly with developers, QA’s and BA’s to working with ths sales and marketing groups. Most technical writers (I think) end up developing a very broadly-based knowledge of their companys’ products, and this can be incredibly useful and valuable to a company — because a lot of the software people are focused on only their specific product group.

    In short, a career in tech writing is what you make it. You’re never going to get away from the annoying ‘tactical initiatives’ (i.e. the daily ‘urgent task’), but by developing relationshps at every level of your company you can be recongized as a valuable asset. Cheers…

  • Ex-writer

    After 12 awful years of working at in a “mill-town” (one big tech company in a small town), I can concur with everything said in this article. This is a horrible, horrible “profession” (if you call it that). It’s all BS – employers expect you to know just as much as the engineers, but you get no time to finish your product (yours needs to be done tomorrow whereas the engineers get years to plan and develop it), you’re expected to know every graphics and new online tool out there, you’re paid half as much as the engineers, and you have no hope of promotion. Oh yeah…and you’re expendable when things get tight…because you’re “just a writer.” I finally got so angry and frustrated that I entered an AACSB-accredited MBA program. Much to the surprise of my fellow engineer co-workers in the same program, I’m kicking their butts in all of the classes (“Gee-wiz…you mean writers are smart?!? Go figure!”). Advice to young people reading this: They say that, in business, if you don’t make, sell, or finance a product, you’re nothing. This is true. DO NOT go into tech writing. You’ll be “nothing but a writer.”
    — Been there, done that…never again.

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  • Michael B

    I’ve been a technical writer for over 25 years. I fell into it when the Bell system was breaking up. I have never spent a great deal of time learning about how to be a technical writer. In my opinion, the way to do it is to be TECHNICAL first and then a writer.

    During my career I have found very few engineers that can write at the level that is needed to impart knowledge to non-tech readers. I’ve pointed my efforts to learning as much about telecom as I can.
    Obviously, a writer who can read JAVA code or C++ is much valuable than on who can’t. It can also allow you to move from writer to a technical job when things get tight.

    Years ago technical writers were, as I used to say, casualties from other careers.

    If I had it to do all over again – I’d have been a Plumber it’s a job that can’t be out sourced.

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  • the fake fake al

    True, so true, painfully true. But some like the fact that we are just writers. Its just a gig, and you get to go home and play with the kids. E.M. Forester called that a Breathing Hole.

    Also, many of us are stuck in corps writing about things we barely understand. I think documenting at the consumer level is more important and interesting. Cell phones, ovens, etc. But where are those gigs? Have not written for a consumer product in 10 years.

    Lastly, how does a tech writer change careers?

  • mrb1974

    I don’t know how things are now but when I started in 01/83 – Tech writers had be doing something else before they got into this.
    The 80’s and most of he 90’s things went well and a learned a good deal – since I really don’t want to write – I want to be a SME – if I’d have wanted to be a pest, I would have been a reporter and gotten paid big money for it.
    Technical writing is still almost an invisible “career” but it does pay the bills.
    I’ve been working on becoming more technical – because the more technical you are the more money you make. EE make more than system testers – generally and we probably make the least – because if a company HAS to – they can get along without documents but they can’t survive without “product” namely software or hardware. You can send an Engineer out to hold the customer’s hand until things turn around but you can’t send them manuals and tell them the software is on the way.
    If I’d had it to do all over again – I would have been a plumber – you can’t out source that! and you make a bundle.
    Technical writers always seem to be an afterthought – we some customer is in trouble.
    I guess I shouldn’t be so down on it – it’s just that it’s been a career of ups and downs and I’m tired of it.
    I LIKE writing for engineers – it helps you understand the technology and may get you a job writing Architecture documents, which put a writer on a better pay scale.
    Lastly, we don’t get any credit for learning programming for the web.
    I once had someone offer me $9.00 an hour to do tech. writing, I told them that if they could find someone to write quality documentation for 9 bucks an how hire them!
    People think it’s so damned easy to write – I’d like to see them do it.
    Sorry, for rambling – just annoyed.
    DO NOT become a technical writer – unless you can become a Medical one and I don’t know how to do that – they make nice money.

    • Tired IT writer

      I’m not a newbie in technical writing and I get $6.00 per hour. In my country it’s a good rate.

      I haven’t had a pay raise for years and no promotion. So I’ve started my blog ( to say my word to the web and find colleagues who are successful at writing or switched to any other jobs.

      But now the job sucks.

  • Sarah Maddox

    This blog post is such a great resource! It’s exactly a year since I last commented on the post. My feeling hasn’t changed much — I still think it depends on your situation. But what I want to say now is: How amazing that this post is still attracting such interest after such a long time. And also that I’ve been able to refer people to this post when they ask me what sort of problems they may encounter in a technical writing career. Thanks Tom and Keith.

    • Tom Johnson

      Sarah, I agree that this post is definitely a classic. Thanks for participating in the discussion on this post. I’m curious why you returned to it just now. Are you subscribed to the comment thread notification? Did you see it in the list of random posts?

  • Sarah Maddox

    Hi Tom. Yes, I’m subscribed to the comment thread notification, so I’ve been getting updates over the months. Then a couple of days ago, someone dropped a comment on my blog asking, “what are a couple major issues you find technical writers currently dealing with”? So I pointed him to this post. :)

  • Coach Steve

    Listen….. Did you hear that? That was the sound of the wind being taken out of my sails – to some extent.

    I have been aggressively exploring, researching and plotting my plan of attack of becoming a TW. Of the time spent gathering various information pertaining to the field, the majority has been on the best and/or most effective way of actually ‘becoming’ one. Do I take one of the online courses which tout becoming a “Certified” TW in 15 weeks? Do I bite the bullet and actually attend a community college for 2 years? How much time am I going to invest in obtaining the title of Tech Writer”? Hmm… thoughts pondered by someone looking to get a foot in the door – at 45.

    The remainder of the time was spent reading lots and lots of articles, blogs, listening to podcasts, etc. about the field of tech writing. This is the first article I’ve read which has been candid and yes, raw. Nearly everything I read spun the field as being THE job to have in the tech sector. “Tech writers are a commodity and as such they are compensated accordingly” stated one article. “Tech writers are in high demand in nearly every industry across the board” read another. Oh sure, there were those which felt it necessary to discuss the cons of this field: boredom and lack of recognition for a job well-done. Whew! Thank God they decided to be so up-front and honest so that someone contemplating this type of work wouldn’t become a TW only to find out later that there were indeed serious drawbacks in this field just like there are drawbacks in becoming…. oh I don’t know…. a police officer or a border patrol officer in Juarez/El Paso.

    I recently closed my business of over 15 years. I owned and operated a computer repair shop. It was a break/fix, upgrade, network setup/configuration type of place. Before that I was in sales of various products for about 8 years and prior to that I was a chef which I thought at the time was what I would want to do forever – so I went to school to become one. Doesn’t take an MCSE to see the lack of college courses in my career path.
    Over the past 10 years or so I have become increasingly active in writing. Newsletters for the softball league for which I serve on the Board. Newsletters for my computer business. Press releases and media relations for a major music act/Grammy winning recording artist. Guest blogger on various hardware-related sites. How-to articles on various projects associated with cars, home-improvement, etc. I’ve done some writing.
    Unfortunately, the current state of the economy has done much to limit the options for someone with my background, education and age. I decided to take the bull by the proverbial horns and use the skills I have from the computer industry and my ability to write in combination and become a TW.
    The more I read, the more excited I became about jumping into this dynamic and exciting field. I can handle boredom. I can live with not getting an “atta boy” everytime I turned around. This is gonna be great!
    Then I read this post. Then I read the replies from other TW’s who concurred. Some completely, some partially.
    At 45 I’m not looking to set the world on fire and skip rungs on my way up the ladder so my sights aren’t set on becoming a CEO anytime soon. Recognition isn’t really something I care about so that isn’t a factor either. But, it’s a lot of the other things Keith mentioned which does, and should give me pause, not the least of which is the compromising of quality and accuracy demanded by those who for lack of a better way to put it, don’t care. I get that TW’s are seen as necessary evils by upper management but apparently not necessary enough to allow them the time and resources to create and submit a polished finished product.
    I’m glad I stumbled upon this article. It provides balance to this issue. Is it completely accurate? Does it aptly apply to every TW job on the planet? How do I know? The fact is I don’t. But before I read this post I didn’t know that boredom and lack of recognition weren’t the only drawbacks of the business. As I go forward on my mission of fact gathering, I’ll do so with a bit more caution and a lot less haste.
    Thank you for choosing to publish this post. It opened my eyes to some of the things the articles touting the job of TW as flawless seem to have left out.

  • happylady

    Sad but true; I agree with almost all of this post. I recently quit my job as a permanent technical writer at a software company because I was being worn down by a thankless and impossible job.

    Generally as a writer I was regarded as unimportant, a pain, or totally forgotten about, until someone screamed at me they needed a manual – tomorrow. We were seldom told what was being designed or developed until the very last minute, when it was assumed we could magically summon up the knowledge of the entire design/development/install team overnight, and produce a polished manual.

    At the same time, you are considered the lowest of the low – too dumb to be a developer or even a tester. I even sometimes experienced developers ‘baby talk’ to me when explaining how their code works!!!!! I’m not at all stupid or a baby.

    Of course I did work with some great developers too, who were lovely people and lovely to work with – but on the whole I think technical is not worth it unless you are being paid A LOT. You will waste all your good energy on a thankless, frustrating, difficult job.

    I am a much much happier person now 

    • Tom Johnson

      Happylady, I’m intrigued by your comment. Can I interview you for a podcast about your experience in the tech writing career? Although your experience seemed to be negative, I think you have a lot of valuable lessons learned that you can share with others. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll give you more details.

  • Scott Baird

    Wow, what a great post. It really bites deep, as evidenced by the firestorm of comments here. Although I agree with most of what was written and tend to think that those refuting the post’s claims are wishful thinkers, I would also hope that moving into the second decade of this century tech companies are getting to the point where they do see the value of clear documentation.

    Social media and the rise in importance of the consumer’s experience (versus just plain product quality) should point smart companies toward the fact that customers’ experience will depend on how usable the product is, and documentation is big part of that.

    I currently work in Documentation for a great software company that’s small-medium in size, and I have been blown away by how well documentation is treated here. We are part of the Development department and sit next to programmers and QA people. We are a part of every process, project, and design decision, and are respected and valued. It’s incredible, I know, but true.

    I hope more companies follow this model in the future, because it’s working very well. Support loves our manuals, as do the customers, and we are a better company for it.

    • Tom Johnson

      Scott, I agree with you. That post really shows the ugly side of the technical writing career — one that I don’t think is the norm. More and more companies are recognizing the importance of good user documentation. One support call alone costs about $28 at my organization. Not to mention that it deters users. I have been fortunate to be respected and valued in the companies where I’ve played a technical writing role. Perhaps it’s a trend.

  • Katheryn

    I have been a technical writer for over 22 years. During the 1990s, at the time of the bubble, the field was exciting and challenging. Now, with the bust, technical writers often do nothing more than edit dreary procedures. I have found that working for small or medium-sized companies is much more exciting than working at a large corporation. I have also found that there are too many technical fields where the only qualification for writing is the ability to speak English. I have seen some abysmal writing and grammar lately…

    In the current state of the industry, I would NEVER recommend technical writing to anyone. If you want to write, find a niche where you are appreciated.

    • Tom Johnson

      Kateryn, your comment is timely. I’m preparing a presentation about writers who play multiple roles. I’d love to hear you expand on why you find the smaller sized companies more interesting places to work. Can you expand a bit?

  • Charso Bhis

    Mentioning that you are ISO 26514 complaint immediately earns respect from the engineers:

  • Michaelfbp

    The sheer durability of the topic on this blog speaks to what I believe is the heart of the matter, i.e., Keith Hood’s original comment that “If you want to make a life as a technical writer, you must sustain yourself by your enjoyment of writing, because you cannot get any satisfaction from your work any other way.” In other words, the central issue in this field of endeavor, as in any other, is to what extent its demands match your own propensities so you can get into the “zone” for optimum performance. Long, long ago I began to figure out that each of us represents a unique blend of inherited aptitudes and interests whose exact balance and nurture determines how we are “in the world.” For those of us who, for whatever reason, now face the necessity of reinventing their careers, the exploration process can be daunting yet invigorating. For that reason I’m especially thankful, now, to have stumbled across this conversation to help guide the effort. The second “nugget” I find in these posts describes an apparent professional trend toward greater fluency in the technical specialty for which one seeks to write. Perhaps, at least in terms of forthcoming opportunities to earn our keep, we should at least be grateful that demands for greater literacy are not being more widely imposed upon graduating “technoids.” The trend will definitely now guide my current efforts to acquire some academic creds in order to more effectively “walk the talk,” so to speak, among those with whom I will, in all likelihood, need to consult in order to get the job done.

    • Tom Johnson

      Michael, thanks for commenting on this thread. You pulled out two good nuggets from Keith posts, and I mostly agree with these points. I think that one can learn to enjoy technical writing, as simple and seemingly dull as it is sometimes painted out to be. Particularly, when you infuse story into the content creation for help topics, it puts the whole endeavor in a new light.

      And as for the additional skills that go beyond writing, definitely pursue that as well. You should listen to my podcast Anyone Can Write. It’s all about addressing that problem.

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  • Bunny

    Zoom forward to December 2014: tech writing jobs far and wide are all contract (because they don’t want to have to pay benefits for a full-time writer). And…(I’m laughing while I write this), the employers want every skill known to man: you must be able to code, be a graphic artist, write, be certified in project management, and probably make breakfast while singing an perfectly tuned aria! Oh..and we’re willing to pay you bottom dollar. What BS. I’m going to move into something else where I’ll be appreciated, and I won’t have to do everything that the company doesn’t value/is too cheap to pay for….

  • Chelsea

    The author of this article nailed it. This is exactly what technical writing is like. Some thought that he was being negative but he wasn’t. He was simply telling the truth for most writers.

    There is no career advancement. No matter how great you are, people always look at you as a writer. No matter how many years of experience you have people always see you as a novice. If you get into this field and you want to advance you will have to leave, the sooner the better.