Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Career Day: Technical writer

Courtesy a post on the blog of the fabulous and attractive Janice Erlbaum, I came across these five generic questions. You can see for yourself how she answers them from her perspective as a full-time nonfiction writer; I thought I'd give them a try from my perspective.

0) What's your job?

Technical writer at a big software company. I write manuals that tell customers how to install, configure and use our products.

1) When you were in high school, was this the career that you were most interested in? If yes, how did you accomplish your goals? If no, how did you choose this career?

When I was in high school, I had never heard of the job "technical writer," nor was I interested in computers (very few people in the early to mid 70s were exposed to computers, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his recent book "Outliers," in which he says that the fact that Bill Gates was lucky enough to have a computer at his high school contributed to Gates' destiny), but I was definitely interested in being a writer, already working on short stories and plays. I was in the Creative Writing class in my senior year, and I had been keeping a diary since the beginning of my time in high school.

2) What is the education and training for this career?

Most technical writers I've met are like me: we have had little or no technical training. One of the maxims in the tech writing field is that you can train a writer about software, but it's very hard to train an engineer to write.

The training I had that contributed to my ability to do this job was, mainly, learning to write film criticism, and also training later in life as a high school teacher. From the first, I learned many good writing skills; from the second, I learned good ways to present information.

If you're a young person and think the job sounds good, I'd say the best thing you can do is work on your written communication -- clear, concise, unambiguous writing.

3) Can you please take me through a typical day that you might have?

I get to work around 9:00, screw around for a while reading email, then start tackling something that has to do with my job. There are several ways to start. I could:
  • Look at a bug report that points out something incorrect or lacking about one of the manuals I'm responsible for.
  • Look at a specification for one of the new features the engineers are working on.
  • Work on one of the lists I keep just to keep track of all the different things I have to remember, do, and plan for.
I'll work a few hours, and I usually have lunch around 1:00 or 1:30. There's often a meeting in the morning or afternoon that lasts from 30 to 60 minutes, in which I meet with other employees and share information about current projects, because it helps to have others' insights on how something works (or is broken, which is often the case). I'll work some more until 4:30 or 5:30.

The actual work consists of writing new material, or editing old material, in these software manuals -- which are between 40 and 400 pages of instructions on how to install and use our software. We write the manuals in FrameMaker, and I use a utility called SnagIt to take screenshots of the software as illustrations. We publish the manuals using Adobe Acrobat, creating PDF files, and that's the only way we distribute them -- we don't have paper manuals printed.

In order to write about the software, I have to install, configure and use it myself. I have to talk to software coders, testers and managers to understand why a feature exists and how it works. I have to read specifications -- documents written by engineers and managers that explain how the software should function, and what under-the-covers work they have to do to make it work right. Since those documents are written only for other engineers who are working on the guts of our software, I have to selectively take only the parts of them that the customer -- the "end user" -- will care about.

4) What do you like the most about your job? What do you like the least?

The best thing about this job is the high pay. Starting salary for a junior tech writer is in the 50-60K range. With over 10 years experience, I make over $100K.

The worst thing about the job is working for a huge company with bureaucratic systems that get in the way more than they help.

5) What is the employment outlook for jobs in this career over the next 3-5 years?

Not bad. I thought that after the software industry bubble popped in 2000-2002, I might never work in high tech again. But the industry recovered and I was hired again in 2004 and have been exmployed ever since. The current economic climate is plenty scary, and a lot of people in high tech are losing their jobs -- not me yet, fortunately. But the industry will come back when the economy does.

Other posts in which I write about technical writing:
* Other posts about technical writing

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