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Technical Writing Careers -- Answering 13 Questions about Technical Writing Jobs

by Tom Johnson on Feb 16, 2008
categories: beginners web-designwikiswordpress

Technical writing careers are often a mystery to those on the outside. What do technical writing jobs involve? What is the industry like? What is the career path of a technical writer, and what challenges do technical writers face?

Carmen, a student in a technical management program, found me by searching for "technical writers" on Fulfilling an assignment in a Career Development course to contact someone working in the technical writing field, she asked me 13 questions about technical writing careers. She's currently a repair technician who has wanted to enter technical writing for years.

Her questions and my answers are below. Please feel free to build on my answers in the comments section below the post.

Job-Related Questions about Technical Writing

What do you like best about your position as a Technical Writer?

I like the combination of writing and technology. I majored in English and love to write, but careers for writers are usually low-paying. I also really like technology -- websites, blogs, gadgets, social media, cyber-utopian imaginations, etc. Technical writing combines my two main interests -- writing and technology -- in almost seamless ways.

What kind of impact has this position had on your lifestyle?

Given that technical writing jobs pay a decent salary, I've been able to support a family with three children and an extremely hard-working stay-at-home mother. I couldn't have done that had I gone into other writing fields. (For example, here's a blog about a guy who earned a degree in creative writing but couldn't put his skills to use, so he started delivering pizzas.)

I've found that working as a technical writer has sharpened my troubleshooting skills, given me greater patience and technical familiarity, and has deepened my awareness and interest in technology. For example, my wife jokes that computers -- when they seem to work against her -- are the Antichrist, and sometimes when she can't get something to work, she'll actually slam the keyboard or throw the mouse. Well, I've learned that broken websites, procedures that don't work, and confusing code can all be overcome with some patient problem-solving. This is a skill I developed as a technical writer.

Technical writing also gives me time to pursue other hobbies in the evenings and weekends. Sometimes finishing documentation for a project can require you to sacrifice a few evenings, but by and large technical writing is an 8 to 5 job. That's nice -- not a lot of stress, and it's not as if people die (regularly) because they can't figure out the software, unlike careers in medicine.

What advice would you give to someone just entering this career track?

I highly recommend pursing technical writing as a career, especially if you majored in English or Writing. I say English or Writing because much of a technical writer's day is spent writing (or preparing to write or editing what you've already written). Granted, instructions aren't creatively fulfilling, or even interesting, but you're still shaping complicated information into easy-to-understand, well-organized text. You're creating something out of nothing. You are, in fact, writing.

But skill with words isn't enough (and actually, you don't have to be very skilled to write sentences like "Click this button," "Select this from the dropdown box," and so on). You also need technical aptitude. Does your blood pressure shoot up when you can't figure something out? Or do you patiently find a way to solve the problem? If you're a problem solver, technical writing is for you. You'll be solving technical problems a good part of your day, as you experiment and explore and test how software functions, or might function (or is supposed to function).

To sharpen your technical skills, learn at least three types of programs: a graphics tool (such as SnagIt), an online help authoring tool (such as Madcap Flare), and a video capture tool (such as Camtasia Studio). Create some sample documentation so you can show employers your skills. Start a blog about technical communication so you can demonstrate your enthusiasm and knowledge to your employers. Take responsibility for your own learning, rather than relying on others. Also, get involved in your local STC chapter.

You might also see this post I wrote: "How to Break into Technical Writing"

What kinds of tasks do you complete during a typical day or week?

It's your lucky day. I've already written an incredibly detailed post about this here: "Could you please tell me what the job of a technical writer is like?"

What types of advancement opportunities are available for entry-level candidates in this career track?

Interesting question. Here's a great podcast on the potential career track for technical writers. Traditionally, junior technical writers become senior technical writers. Then they become managers, or often turn freelance, or do consulting. Some transition into business analysts or project managers, or move into other technology-related fields.

There's some debate as to whether technical writing is a transitional job -- something you do as you're working your way into another role, such as business analyst, usability specialist, information architect, or project manager. Many people see technical writing as a stepping stone into something else.

Company-Related Questions about Technical Writing

What is the corporate culture of your company?

The corporate culture where I work couldn't be better. I love the team environment, working with other dedicated and talented individuals who are inspiring and helpful (for example, they give access to what I need, answer questions, provide demos, review my documentation, and keep me up to date on changes). There aren't any political battles or bitter attitudes. It's really a fun place to work, especially since the entire project team is grouped on the same floor. There's even a foosball table. And the technological setup is top-notch -- see my previous post, "Top 10 Workspace Configurations for Technical Writers."

One thing to avoid in corporate cultures is an overbearing bureaucracy, where a thousand regulations and procedures prevent you from being efficient. My current work environment is pretty much bureaucracy free.

I've worked in other companies where the environment was more challenging. For example, at one place, it took me two weeks before I was given access to the Intranet. In another place, I felt like I had an abundance of unnecessary meetings all day. But despite these challenges, the other environments have also been decent. I've always learned a lot in every situation I've worked, regardless of the corporate culture.

For alternative experiences, see this comment by Joseph K on a previous post.

Does the company promote or encourage continuing education?

Certainly my company promotes continuing education. They're sending me to a couple of conferences this year -- Doc Train West in Vancouver and the STC Summit in Philadelphia. (Granted, I'm presenting at both conferences.) They also buy me whatever software I need.

What type of training programs does the company offer?

I hinted at this earlier: you're responsible for your own learning. I have some intelligent, helpful colleagues who teach me a lot -- not just about software, but business process and documentation strategies. But I think ultimately, you're in charge of your own learning.

That said, my company pays tuition if I want to take college credits (in any field). I have access to Safari, an online library with thousands of books and tutorials -- I'm still exploring that one. I occasionally view webinars related to the software I use. I can order books as needed, and probably attend workshops or other training up to my allotted training budget.

What are some of the goals of the company of the next few years?

Hmmm, not sure how to answer that one on a public blog. But we definitely want to find technology solutions that help people on a global scale perform the tasks of their role more efficiently and powerfully. We want to leverage the Internet platform to provide helpful resources and information to people everywhere. We want to use technology to further our organization's mission. The same could probably be said of many companies.

Industry-Related Questions About Technical Writing

What kinds of challenges is the industry currently facing?

Outsourcing is one threat, although I haven't been following it much lately. I once interviewed an Indian technical writer who said the tech writing industry is exploding in major ways in India. In my experience, I think the technical writer works best when he or she is on-site (rather than remote).

Another threat is a crash in the technology sector. With the first Dotcom crash, many technology companies made dramatic cutbacks to survive. Technical writing is often an easy cut, since you can have the business analyst or subject matter experts (SMEs) write the manuals (or simply ask the existing technical writers to do more work, which is common).

Some leaders feel SMEs have the potential to do our jobs, but the results are often disastrous. (Think about instructions that lack any numbered steps, have a full-size screen print on each page, and are written in confusing jargon that assumes you're half-engineer.)

Who are some of the major and minor competitors in the industry?

Some people think wikis will reduce the number of technical writing jobs (or transform the role of technical writers). The idea is that project members and users will simply write the documentation in piecemeal fashion. However, this idea is one that only works in unique contexts, like the WordPress Codex, and even there it doesn't work well.

I agree with Craig on Helpscribe that wikis won't kill technical writing. I actually once produced a help project entirely on a wiki. I was documenting the new SharePoint 2007 platform and had about 75 wiki topics. Just two people made a couple of brief edits. That was it. And with the wiki, it was a pain to style, it didn't single source, and it was hard to manipulate and rearrange information. Wikis have been around 10+ years and haven't replaced much of anything (except Encyclopedia Britannica).

For more on using Web 2.0 technologies in documentation, see DMN's post on "Web 2.0 and Documentation Don't Always Play Well Together."

Another competitor is, as I mentioned above, outsourcing technical writing to places like India. I don't have much experience with outsourced projects, but Charles Jeter wrote an interesting post on the state of innovation in India. I personally have never lost a job to outsourcing. In part it's because I wear more hats than just a traditional technical writer.

Are there any likely changes that may affect the industry in the next few years?

Here's an interesting observation. You're writing me to ask about careers in technical writing. You're asking me to provide insight on the technical writing industry as a whole. But I've only been a technical writer for less than 5 years (been a writer for much longer, though). The interesting thing is that I'm the one being asked for advice, and am giving it. Hundreds of others will find this post and take direction from it.

We're seeing the rise of amateur content. If you want advice from someone with more authority and experience, you should have written someone like Neil Perlin or Doug Davis. Instead, because I'm more visible in Google, I become the de facto expert on technical writing. That reversal of roles, where non-leaders become leaders, amateurs become experts, and ordinary people become highly visible, will shape all industries dramatically in the next few years.

Another change is DITA, an XML language that allows you to reuse topic-based content. Over the next few years, DITA will become a standard technology embedded into the most popular help authoring tools. This will facilitate single sourcing and enable technical writers to be more efficient. As we're more efficient, we'll play greater roles with training, support, and quality assurance. I already wear each of these hats to some degree.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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