Reader question: How do I move forward out of a stagnant tech writing career?
I recently received the following question:
I'm an avid reader of your blog and I'm writing to seek your advise on improving my stagnant career.
I'm a Technical Writer working in New York City, working for a financial services consulting firm. I'm a computer science graduate and I chose technical writing as I loved writing more than programming.
In my short career spanning a little less than 5 years, I've documented many web-based and windows-based software applications and learned quite a few authoring tools like Adobe Framemaker, Adobe Robohelp, etc. I've also developed e-learning modules using Adobe Captivate.
Of late I feel I'm doing monotonous work and that I'm not learning anything new. Also my salary isn't good enough for a person with 5 years experience. In an expensive city like New York, my salary is just enough to get by (thankfully my husband is a Java developer and gets good salary).
I constantly update myself about the new tools and trends in the field of technical writing reading your blog. I really admire you for you have grown so much as a technical writer and I look up to you as my role model.
I don't know if you've got time to answer questions from your readers but I'd be very grateful if you could suggest some ways to build my stagnant career.
I've got these questions for you:
- Are there any technical writing certifications that I can do?
- What technical writing tools can I learn on my own in my spare time?
- How can I learn API documentation?
- What programming languages should I learn in order to become a successful, high-earning technical writer?
Your help and advice would be much appreciated. Looking forward to your reply. Hope you won't disappoint me.
Moving out of stagnancy through learning
If you feel your career is stagnating because you’re not learning new things through your job, then the easy answer is to learn new things on your own. If you dive into API documentation, there’s a world of programming you can learn. If learning motivates you, API documentation can pull you out of a stagnant career.
However, you may find that programming concepts are too dry and boring, and you’re not interested in that route. No problem. Pick another focus, such as the following:
- Video production
- Business analysis
- Product management
- User interface design
- Web publishing
When you specialize in one of these ancillary roles, you can bring a lot of life into a technical writing role. Try subscribing to one of the many online learning resources, such as PluralSight, Code School, Safaribooksonline, Lynda.com, or more to immerse yourself in new tech to learn.
If these additional roles don’t interest you, another route is to specialize in the subject domain that you’re writing about (for example, financial services or the health industry). When you become a subject matter expert, you can play an increasingly important role across any of these specializations. Specializing in the knowledge domain is probably one of the most powerful ways to boost your career. However, you pretty much lock yourself into that domain, so choose well.
Also, look for a new job that allows you to emphasize what you’re learning. It sounds like you’re ready for a change, so I’d say find a new company. Starting a new job will involve a lot of new learning — not just the company’s technology, but the work environment, the tech pubs toolset, authoring-reviewing-publishing workflow, and more.
Answers to Other questions
You asked some other questions:
Are there any technical writing certifications that I can do?
Yes, there are many online tech comm programs. See this guest post by Laura Palmer on taking courses in technical writing. My opinion is that tech comm programs make sense early on in your career, when you’re young and have opportunity to get formal education. However, today you can learn everything you need to learn online by yourself. If you’re a self-learner, the potential for learning is limitless.
What technical writing tools can I learn on my own in my spare time?
- MadCap Flare
- OxygenXML with DITA
- Atlassian Confluence
I see those tools referenced in a lot in jobs. I also recommend a video creation tool such as Camtasia Studio, and a graphics tool, such as Illustrator.
How can I learn API documentation?
Try taking these two Udemy courses by Peter Gruenbaum:
Also see my online content on similar topics:
You can learn a lot about APIs by simply using them. Using an API will help you practice your technical skills as well.
What programming languages should I learn in order to become a successful, high-earning technical writer?
If your husband knows Java, you’ve got a great resource to teach you right at home. Also see this topic from my API doc survey: The most common programming languages tech writers know.
It’s hard to learn a programming language if you’re not regularly using it, though. I think I’ve learned Java twice now and forgotten 50% of it each time, since I don’t use it regularly.
If any readers have advice, please add it in the comments below.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.