should I go into technical writing
July 13, 2005 8:36 PM   Subscribe

Should I go into technical writing?

As of June 2006, I will have an Honours BA in Linguistics. I'm interested in pursuing a Masters in Theoretical Linguistics, focusing on sex education and the discourses found there (i.e. how do we construct female sexuality? how to avoid heterosexism? do these attitudes in sex ed. correlate with rates of teen preganancy/infections?). I thought that I wanted to be a professor, but I've recently thought otherwise, given that I want to stay in Toronto and I'm not sure that I am in it for the non-teaching aspects of the job. I read Linguistics journals and just don't give a rat's ass about most of what is being published.

While I would love to somehow revamp sex education in public schools, I'm not sure how to go about getting into that or whether that is even a job, particularly for someone with an Arts degree. It might be something that I'll get into on the side -- maybe hook up with Good for Her or something. The Masters is an option that I'm considering because I'm interested in it, I have a 95% chance that I can get TA jobs (@ York, currently have an 8.0/9.0 GPA, professors know and like me, there are no LING PhD students to compete with), and therefore come out of grad school with no additional debt, experience with publishing a large document, and teaching experience. However, it would be another year or two without starting to pay back my student loans.

So, I've been looking at college courses, and both technical writing and editing have jumped out at me, particularly this program at Seneca which includes a co-op term. I have had jobs in the past editing/designing two Student Handbooks and one Seminary Academic Calendar and enjoyed them, working in both Quark and PageMaker, plus experience in various Communication-related things (press releases, website content, radio ads, etc). I am detail-oriented and like editing things and checking for consistency. I enjoy tutoring and usually find it easy to break things down into simpler language.

Does this sound like a good fit? What sort of people enjoy technical writing? Is the field still expanding? Should I bother with the Masters? Is it okay to settle for a job that will be alright in order to pay the bills, while pursuing the things I'm really interested in on the side?
posted by heatherann to Work & Money (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have a BA in tech writing and worked as a tech writer for about 3 years, so I feel qualified to answer your question. And, like most things, it all depends on your situation.
There are many different ways to "do" tech writing. You can do what I did and work for a big computer company, writing user manuals. I don't reccomend this. You can work for a just about kind of company doing communications type stuff and still be considered a tech writer. Whatever career path you choose, I highly reccomend the classes in tech writing. They are very valuable in terms of what you learn. As a career choice, I wouldn't reccomend straight tech writing. It gets old fairly quickly. But having the skills to communicate complex ideas in basic prose will take you a long way in any other position you choose.
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:45 PM on July 13, 2005

You might find some good information about the career of technical writing on the website of the Society for Technical Communication. There are areas open to nonmembers that talk about career options for technical writers, how to break into the profession, average salaries, and the job market

You can join as a student member for $50/year (US or Canadian $).
posted by Joleta at 9:04 PM on July 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you've put a lot of thought into it and have a really clear idea of what you feel your mission and/or passion is (a mission that I heartily approve of by the way). I think that what you would benefit from in a tech writing program is a lot of very specific education about how to create written communications with users' needs in mind, which can only help in your situation. I agree that you would probably be frustrated being a full-time (or, more likely, randomly freelancing consultant) in the tech industry (I'm a software developer but I have some friends who are tech writers and I've seen what they go through). As Joleta says, the STC would be a good resource. Keep your vision in mind, and use the tools you find along the way as building blocks to get you there.
posted by matildaben at 9:31 PM on July 13, 2005

I'm interested in pursuing a Masters in Theoretical Linguistics, focusing on sex education and the discourses found there (i.e. how do we construct female sexuality? how to avoid heterosexism? do these attitudes in sex ed. correlate with rates of teen preganancy/infections?)....I read Linguistics journals and just don't give a rat's ass about most of what is being published.

I don't have much to say about the rest of the question, but as to the quoted part - I think part of the problem may be that what you are calling theoretical linguistics isn't theoretical linguistics (I am a phd student in said field). That research description is so far off topic from mainstream theoretical linguistics journals (Linguistic Inquiry, Language, Phonology, Natural Language Semantics, Linguistics and Philosophy, Lingua, to pick a random assortment) that I'm not surprised you aren't interested. I'm not sure exactly what it would be - sociolinguistics? applied linguistics? applied pragmatics? You may want to check out other journals but I'm not sure what, one possibility is Journal of Pragmatics which does publish applied and pomo-style pragmatics alongside formal pragmatics. I'm sure there must be more.
posted by advil at 9:34 PM on July 13, 2005

It's worth noting, since you're already at York, that Glendon has a program in technical writing that is quite well respected.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:58 PM on July 13, 2005

I worked as a technical writer at a software company for three years. I'm also detail oriented and good at editing, and I enjoy the challenge of making difficult concepts easy to understand; that's what drew me to the field. Eventually, I decided to change careers, so I went back to school for a masters.

You probably don't need a degree or certificate in technical writing, although some companies may require one. I was hired because I had a minor in journalism (my BA was totally irrelevant), a longstanding interest in technology, and an excellent portfolio of writing samples. I took one technical writing class through a university extension program but found it frustrating--it was about two hours' worth of common-sense advice stretched out over an entire semester. Some people I knew felt the same way, and others found the program worthwhile.

My advice would be to give it a shot and see whether you like it. You can always get the masters later, and in the meantime, you'll be able to pay off some of your loans. If you can, find a company or industry where your knowledge of linguistics will be an asset; you probably know better than I do where that might be.
posted by Hegemonic at 11:16 PM on July 13, 2005

If you already have a B.A. you will be very seriously dissapointed by a Technical Writing program at a community college. You already have all the skills and tools they could teach you.

If you doubt me just call a program you are interested in and ask to sit in on a class. There is a substantial difference in quality between university and college for arts style courses. (Before college grads get pissed at me I think colleges are far superior for technical educations - just not writing).

You should also contact the school and ask for all the details of the coop term - tuition (probably around $400 for the term) and placement rates.
posted by srboisvert at 2:21 AM on July 14, 2005

It's not clear to me whether you're thinking about doing technical writing instead of or in addition to your research, but I had to encourage you to stay the course with your research topic. The fact that you're not interested in a typical research topic shouldn't, I hope, keep you from pursuing it. It sounds extremely valuable. I'd think you'd be able to get funding, too, because it's easy to see the relevance of this.

You'll throw yourself into this, write a book or two, and then see what happens. The fact that you'll be unique is a good thing. You can always get into tech writing later.

I'm not an expert on grad school, but I think you have something valuable to contribute here. It's not necessarily just about sex education, but about holding the line against erosion of discourse about difficult topics using watered-down language. I mean, you may not focus on that, but what you describe seems like it could be an important contribution. The fact that you have no patience for more abstract topics makes it seem likely that your work would be easier for non-linguists to appreciate.

Please keep working. I wish I could give you a grant.
posted by amtho at 6:08 AM on July 14, 2005

Response by poster: I think part of the problem may be that what you are calling theoretical linguistics isn't theoretical linguistics

Yeah, the program is called Theoretical Linguistics at York, but it has a big Sociolinguistics/Discourse Analysis slant if you're into that. Which I am.

I agree that you would probably be frustrated being a full-time (or, more likely, randomly freelancing consultant) in the tech industry (I'm a software developer but I have some friends who are tech writers and I've seen what they go through).

Like what? What do they go through? What is it like out there?

It's worth noting, since you're already at York, that Glendon has a program in technical writing that is quite well respected.

Yeah, I looked at that, but it's two years and there's no co-op and Glendon is a pain in the ass to get to. (I went there for a year.)

Thanks for all the encouragement on the sex ed. topic. I've started emailing various people around the city to ask how they got into it. Maybe I'll get to influence a change in the design of speculums after all! (I've always thought they should be designed by a sex toy company -- make something comfortable and non-metallic!)
posted by heatherann at 7:31 AM on July 14, 2005

I have a BA in tech communication (JMU in Harrisonburg, VA) that I sorta fell into and loved the program.

Whatever you do with tech writing, make sure it's in a field you're interested in. I took my tech comm skillzz and ended up as the web editor for a performing arts org. for three years. If you're not interested in medical issues for example, don't take your tech comm skills to a medical org just because it's a tech comm job.

As for school, I don't know that you need a master's, especially if you have some portfolio pieces already. There were definitely some things I learned, however, that were very specific to tech comm and it would probably help if you check out a class or two to start. If you're interested in proposal writing or editing or online publication, you might be able to find a class or two at a nearby university you could take. If you take the class (or two) and still crave more, then you may decide you want the full degree.
posted by awegz at 7:41 AM on July 14, 2005

Oh, and I'm currently in grad school for journalism (can't escape writing, I guess) and missing the working world like crazy. That's why I'm a little hesitant to strongly encourage you to take on more school. But if you're one of those people who wishes they could be a professional student, another program might be fun for you.
posted by awegz at 7:48 AM on July 14, 2005

If you already have a B.A. you will be very seriously dissapointed by a Technical Writing program at a community college. You already have all the skills and tools they could teach you.

I disagree. Tech writing done right is very different from the sort of writing that most English programs teach (unfortunately). Ask someone who's gotten a certificate what I mean. TW programs teach you to communicate in the most direct manner, using the most concise language.

To be good at tech writing, you must have a technical bent. If you have trouble setting up your VCR, don't become a tech writer.

The field is very cyclical. It currently seems to be in a contraction, and good jobs are scarce. If you're good, though, those contractions probably won't affect you much, and you can make a comfortable living.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:10 AM on July 14, 2005

Oh, and Quark and Pagemaker are useful, but most tech writing is done using FrameMaker. Like PageMaker, Frame is an Adobe product, but Adobe bought them both from other, separate companies, and they work differently.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:13 AM on July 14, 2005

I've been doing tech writing for five or so years. I don't have any special qualifications, other than being a natural at it, and having taken a project management course that covered a lot of stuff that turned out to have excellent applicability for what I do.

I find there are only a few things that really make a difference:
* the ability to write concise, accurate sentences.
* the ability to ask 'dumb' (read: naive) questions.
* an unusual ability to focus on determining the correctness of details.
* a bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder. :-)

The bit I love most about my work is learning and exploring. The bit I dislike is when the work becomes rote maintenance of existing documentation: it just ain't interesting.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:07 AM on July 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

I was a technical writer for 6 years., and I can tell you it's a much tougher job than people give it credit for. And for me that was part of the problem - hard intellectual work without the respect that goes with it. I mean, in a software company, the developers are considered the smart, valuable ones - everyone knows programming is hard. But almost everyone who can write an email thinks they could write technical documentation if they could be bothered.

Does this sound like a good fit?

It sounds as if your abilities fit with the job. Not just your writing skills, but the fact that you mention that professors know you and like you. People skills are very important to tech writers - you have to convince busy people to spend their time explaining stuff to you, and this is much easier to do if you have an appealing personality. Also, to be frank, being a woman can be an advantage in a mostly male IT department.

What sort of people enjoy technical writing?

As Kirth Gerson says, having a technical bent is necessary. One thing you don't mention is your interest in technology.

Is the field still expanding?

No, it's tough to get a decent job, and as a result pay is declining - at least in Europe it is.

Should I bother with the Masters?

I wouldn't - it seems like overkill. Why not try to get a job without one? If you get a masters and you end up not liking tech writing, you'd be more "stuck", I think, than if you just jumped into it. It sounds like you have some relevant experience. You should also write a sample chapter of a user's guide, maybe for an open source project, and take this along on any interviews you get. Spend some time read up online about good tech writing. The rest you can learn on the job from someone more senior. It's good to start off in a large company with a team of tech writers for support if possible.

Is it okay to settle for a job that will be alright in order to pay the bills, while pursuing the things I'm really interested in on the side?

Okay for what? It's not ideal, but you do what you have to do.
posted by hazyjane at 10:17 AM on July 14, 2005

I've been a tech writer for, oh, half my life now if you count the programming articles I was publishing in small Apple II developer journals back in the late '80s. I freelanced for five years and am currently full-time employed by a small developer. I do not have a degree in writing. In fact, I don't even have a four-year degree of any sort. I have a two-year degree that qualifies me to write COBOL programs for mainframes, which I have never done and have, blessedly, largely forgotten how to do. My lack of formal education in the technical writing field has never stopped me from being employed.

IMHO, the best money (and the most solid jobs) are in writing developer documentation, i.e. manuals that tell programmers how to write software for a particular platform or product. Once you know the ins and outs of a given technology, you become basically the only person on the planet who can do your job. Hiring someone else would cost the company a lot of down time, which gives you excellent job security as long as the technology you're writing about exists. And you can make nearly as much money as the programmers do.

To do this job well, of course, you practically need to be a programmer yourself, and today that means knowing not just the basics of how to code in some language (something C-derived is a must), but also things like design patterns and development methodologies. You should know these things well enough that you don't need to bother the actual programmers (who will probably be called engineers these days) with dumb questions like "what's a pointer" or "what's model-view-controller." You also need good writing skills, but writing is something that can't really be taught. (Most people can be taught to improve their writing, but there is a ceiling to most people's skills that stops well short of professional caliber. Many people who can't write are technical writers, but they shouldn't be. Your job may involve cleaning up after them, which is a drudge.)

The technical writing style or voice is fairly easy to pick up if you can write -- it's the least difficult part of the gig, frankly, and can be learned by reading a few books on the technical writing and poring over a few manuals. Your ability to think logically and to clearly organize and present large amounts of material is more important. If you can do a little graphic design and technical illustration, so much the better. Acrobat, Word, Visio, and possibly FrameMaker (if you're lucky) will be your tools. Know some HTML too, since you'll probably be developing help. These are all things you can teach yourself, and should. You should continue to teach yourself new things, too, just like a programmer needs to.

I have heard from many clients that people who have creative writing backgrounds often make the worst technical writers. The complaint is that they can't resist tossing in cute metaphors and literary allusions and they try to make using software into a story, which it is not. So, um, don't do that kind of thing. Don't get creative. Learn the form and stick to it. It is possible to liven things up, but not by turning it into fiction. (You'll be writing fiction enough when they ask you to document software that doesn't exist yet from a series of screen captures.)
posted by kindall at 10:23 AM on July 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

(Mockups, I should say, not captures.)
posted by kindall at 10:30 AM on July 14, 2005

I have worked as a technical writer, mostly, since 1982. It is a hard, grueling job. I honestly can't recommend it if you have alternatives, unless you are really interested in technology--and even then, consider seriously what hazyjane says.

In the pre-bust days, you could always make good money as a tech writer, and the jobs were quite secure, if you could stand them, as there was a lot of demand, and relatively few people who could do the work well. Now jobs are much harder to find.

If you can grab a job to make some bucks without investing in a lot of training, it may work for you in the short run. I wouldn't spend money to train for the field now. Spend the money training for something else that is commercially viable and that you might really like.

Almost all of the tech writers I know wish they were doing something else. I know exactly two people who just love being tech writers.

posted by lustra at 11:31 AM on July 14, 2005

We need to clarify something:

Not all tech writing is about software. The manual for that VCR (the one you know how to set up) is also tech writing. Service manuals for medical equipment are tech writing. Operating manuals for M60A1 tanks are tech writing (though I wouldn't want that job). In short, any document that explains how to do something is probably tech writing. Lots of it has a software component, and some of it is all about software, but there is hardware writing, too.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:52 PM on July 14, 2005

To add to Kirth Gerson's comment, some programs also touch on medical writing, legal writing, proposal/grant writing, document design, online documentation, graphic design (at least mine covered all those things, and probably more since I graduated).

It's really *any* job where you're writing/designing/illustrating to make an idea clear to the greatest number of people possible...and that's not just in the world of computer programming. I had a job at a national performing arts center in DC. Yes, I was doing HTML and design...but I was writing about ballet companies, and education programs, and history, etc. etc. Not in an advertising/marketing way, but in an informational way.

And a few people have mentioned that you need a "technical bent." I'm not entirely sure what's meant by that. I may just be reading it wrong. You do not need to have a background in science or computer programming or engineering to be in tech comm (although, yes, it is a HUGE asset for a number of jobs in the field).

What you do need is to be the type of person who, when you buy a new stereo and have no clue how to set it up, takes the time to read the manual and is able to figure out how to get it working. And besides, some underpaid tech writer probably spent hours on the manual.
posted by awegz at 5:21 PM on July 14, 2005

Huh. I'd say you need to be the type of person who, having no clue how to set it up, figures out how to set it up anyway, and would be able to write it down in a way that someone else would be successful.

I love the kind of writing where I get to figure out how things work, and write it so that any ol' Joe would be able to understand it.

It's a lot like teaching, in many many way. Er... I suppose that's my other training: I've a B.Ed., and it often shows through in my writing.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:17 AM on July 15, 2005

I've worked as a tech writer for the last nine years. I'm just now starting to branch off into user interface design. My BA is in Mass Communications.

I enjoy my work. (now you know three people, Lustra ;-) )

I'll second fff's criteria for being a good tech writer. You need to be able to write clearly and concisely. You need to be curious. You should be a quick learner. You should be good (or at least diligent) at processing complex information. You should feel comfortable being a "Jack of all trades", as you're often required to support multiple projects/products.

In addition, it helps to be an affable person. A big part of tech writing is capturing information. You spend a lot of time talking to designers, developers, engineers, testers, etc. You need to be able to get along with a broad range of personality types and you can't be shy about striking up a conversation.

It would also help if you had some HTML skills to go along with your desktop publishing skills. More and more documentation is being delivered via HTML.

It's definitely not for everybody, but if this is you, then tech writing isn't a bad way to go. I make a comfortable living, and despite some volatility I've always landed on my feet (laid off twice: 2002 and 2003). As someone said earlier in the thread, if you're good, you won't have too much trouble finding work. The field seems to be contracting a bit right now, but as technology continues to expand and infiltrate day-to-day living, someone is going to need to explain how it all works.

Good luck. My email is in my profile if you have additional questions.
posted by 27 at 3:01 PM on July 15, 2005

Affability, indeed yes!

I disagree re: HTML. I mean, yah, you should know it just by matter of course if you're any sort of tech geek. But it isn't necessary for web pages any more, not if you're client has a computer tech.

You can have him set up a wiki, forums, file server, email information requests, whatever. None of it requires you to know html.

I also believe the future is bright for tech writers. Businesses are finally beginning to really comprehend how important it is for their customers to be well-served by information and documentation.

And the truth is that no marketing department is capable of satisfying the typical business' complete info/doc needs. There are places the customers are going to want facts, not fiction, and that's where the tech writer comes into play in a major way. And it's not so much about knowing the facts, as it is finding them and filing them in a way that best benefits the company. Getting them documented so that they are remembered and used.

It's a little philosophical, perhaps.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:41 PM on July 15, 2005

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