Day in the life of a Technical Writer.
September 8, 2013 10:44 PM   Subscribe

Is your job title 'Technical Writer'? What on earth do you do all day? Would pursuing a job as a Technical Writer even be remotely fruitful given my past experience?

My mother in law works for a Rather Large Corporation with a couple offices across the country. She has found an opportunity within her company, in my metro area that she thinks I'd be good for, and has the ear of the hiring manager. I believe that I'm woefully unqualified, but due to some weird family lore* (I wish I was kidding), the MIL thinks I would do well.

The position at Rather Large Corporation is for a Technical writing position. From what I can gather, I would be writing documentation for software and hardware in a field similar in scope to accounting. The Rather Large Corporation only has one technical writer for this division, and is looking for another. I'm wondering if I should take the time to apply. I'm interested, as this job would almost double my income, even at the lowest pay-grade. I would love a job like this as an attempt to broach a decent middle class income for the family, and, oh, maybe buy a house or help pay for my kid's college. I am not above nepotistic means to get a job. If I thought this was a good fit, I'd jump at it in a second...but I have my doubts, and I'd like to explore the topic before I commit to an answer for her.

I'm not a technical writer. I don't know any technical writers IRL. Sometimes at certain jobs I have, I do admin oriented things that could be construed as technical writing on a rudimentary basis (I think?). I can read, and adhere to style guides when given to me, but in college (over 6 years ago now) I only had exposure to APA and Chicago. I have a communication studies degree, and graduated with slightly better than average marks. I have not looked at a style guide since college.

So, the first part of the question is; What's it like? What does your day-to-day look like?

I have no experience working for what I consider 'real' or 'corporate' jobs; I have mostly worked for small businesses with a couple dozen employees, that have very informal work structures. Scrappy is probably the best word I'd use for these offices. I'm entirely self taught in all of the office work I do, and am acutely aware of the gaps in my knowledge. I've mostly worked in the food service industry, but mostly on the office or wholesale side. Due to daycare schedules and work/life balance, I currently have 2 jobs that total about 50 hours a week; one working for a local farm's retail operation, and roasting coffee at a small local specialty roastery. I work a lot, but in weird bursts that allow me to pick my son up from daycare, and stay home with him a couple days during the week to save on daycare costs. They don't really pay well (12-15 dollars an hour. I've never made more than 15.50 an hour for any job, ever). I am rather burnt out on this scenario, and it isn't sustainable in the long run. Which is why this opportunity sounds attractive to me...but again, I'm not sure if I'm really qualified.

In past jobs, I've managed very small teams of employees, ran small offices and worked on the documentation to run said offices from scratch, but again, this was such a small part of my job anywhere I've worked that I don't really keep it on my resume.

The second part of the question is (which is understandably hard to gauge over the internet); Would this be a good fit for me? Does my background lend itself to having technical writing chops? Would pursuing this avenue be a waste of (limited) time and hope?

*the lore in question is often brought up around the holidays after a few drinks, and is that when my sister-in-law asked me for some care instructions for a newly purchased cast iron skillet, I gave her a tome of a users manual for all things cast iron. SIL was overwhelmed and still references it to this day, apparently. In reality, this was a 4 paragraph email, written in a conversational, blog-life, askmefi answer-ish tone on how to cook and how to care for a pan. Not bad writing, and I'm proud of it, buuut not really technical writing...right? I am actually quite embarrassed that the family in law keeps bringing this up, and tries to frame me as the family 'writer' but that's a topic for me and my therapist or bartender.
posted by furnace.heart to Work & Money (16 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think it's worth a shot. I've done some technical writing in my time and, if you like writing, you're okay with dry subjects and you're passionate about helping people learn how to use things, it can be a good job. It sounds like you don't have a lot of professional experience. Maybe if you even stuck it out for a year, you could leverage your experience or connections to move into marketing, communication, professional services, implementation or training. Depending on how entry level the position is, you may just need to know the basics of writing and maybe spend some time learning their software. They may have an in-house style guide.

However, I don't know what this move means for your family, nor what it would do to your childcare situation. And there's nothing wrong with the work you're doing now, if you're okay with it. But the financial opportunity seems worth your consideration, if you can manage the other points. Just make sure you have a back-up plan if you find you are bored to tears. Some people are. Others make a career of it and become very passionate about great documentation, user interface design and more.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:18 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not employed as a technical writer, but have done a fair amount of manual/procedure/help sheet writing for various bits of software and processes.

Following academic writing guidelines (APA and Chicago) is not so useful with technical writing. What you need to be able to do is clearly and concisely explain how to use the widget/operate the software/perform everyday tasks. You need to have a good understanding of the software itself, what it's going to be used for, and the main steps involved in using it. Your cast iron skillet writing may not be technical writing, but if you took something complicated and explained it clearly and simply, that's a good step. Mind you, the fact that it is referred to as a tome and has become legendary may mean that it didn't seem simple? I can't tell the tone of the family lore so don't know whether they're being sarcastic or not.

Some general tips:
- Pictures help enormously. Rather than have a long-winded description (from the "File" menu in the top left hand corner, choose the drop-down option called "Save As". Then choose the type of format to save your file....etc), it's much easier to put in a screenshot and a text box saying "Step 1" with an arrow pointing to the bit you mean. Colour (if possible) can be very helpful too.

- What are you going to use to produce your technical writing? Is this a Word exercise or will it need more advanced publishing type software? Word is surprisingly useful, but does take some time to master its weirder functions. Spend a bit of time creating some practice documents, with pictures. You could also use this like a portfolio to help you get the job.

- Plan and structure before you write anything. This should involve lots of brainstorming the basic concepts, moving them around, creating a logical flow between steps.

- Make sure you have a table of contents if the document is longer than 5 pages. If it's really long and you are really nice, have an index. People need to be able to find specific thing X quickly.

- Get someone else to read/edit your work. No matter how good you are as a writer, you will be too close to it to see the obvious.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:35 PM on September 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I work in software and most of the technical writers I know don't have a 'technical writing' background - some of them moved over from marketing, some of them moved over from programming. I think a communication studies degree and familiarity with the idea of 'style guide' would make you at least as qualified as anyone else, on paper. If you are good at and enjoy explaining things to people, then this doesn't sound like a waste of time to pursue at all.
posted by jacalata at 12:00 AM on September 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

Don't say no for them. Go for it. Worst that can happen is that you don't get it. And then you're where you are now.
posted by 3491again at 12:22 AM on September 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

BTW, in case it wasn't clear, go for it! I just think if you want to make this move, it might help to have a clearer idea of what will be involved should you get the position, and also might assist you in the interview.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:37 AM on September 9, 2013

Best answer: I've been a technical writer for ten years.

What's it like?
It's okay. You often have to juggle many different projects at once. Normally, you spend more time managing moving pieces than you do actually writing text. The amounts of text are usually small, but they need to be clear, concise, and error-free.

You spend more time talking to people than you might think. It can be quite political. You have to be able to take criticism from other writers and from people throughout the company

It helps a lot if you are the type of person who cares about niggling details. For example, Athanassiel says "Pictures help enormously". Sure, but what if all of those graphics make your file size so large that it can't be sent to customers? What happens when the company rebrands the software and all of your screenshots are out of date? What if they rebrand every product at the same time? These are the types of content planning and management questions that tech writers have to think about.

What does your day-to-day look like?
Some common daily tasks in a typical software environment: review the list of changes that will be rolled up into a release, read requirements documents, talk to developers and testers about changes, verify all of the points in the doc that are affected by changes, peer-review other technical writers' work, apply reviewers' feedback to your own work. Probably also some admin-type stuff like sending doc to reviewers, updating the status of various projects, organizing files, fixing formatting problems, etc.

I only had exposure to APA and Chicago
Not important in the technical writing world. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications is the technical writers' Bible at most companies.

I have a communication studies degree
This is good.

worked on the documentation to run said offices from scratch
Collect all of that, because you will most certainly need to provide writing samples.

Does my background lend itself to having technical writing chops?
It's a stretch, but you should apply anyway. Play up your management abilities (especially project management, more so than people management) and get every bit of writing experience that you can on your resume.

Some more tips:
- Get Word at home and start using its advanced features. It's always a plus to be as good with Word as possible, even if it's not the primary tool that the writers in the organization use.
- It also helps if you're good with Excel, because it's commonly used to track work.
- Read up on component content management systems because they're a huge trend in the technical writing industry.
- If possible, get a copy of Developing Quality Technical Information: A Handbook for Writers and Editors and read it.

Feel free to send me a MeFi mail if you have more questions.
posted by neushoorn at 12:44 AM on September 9, 2013 [18 favorites]

Best answer: I think it will be a tough sell. It doesn't sound like you have demonstrable experience with technical writing tools or processes, which, depending on the company and content, can be somewhat complex.

One aspect of the job that might be a challenge relative to what you are used to: you'll need to sustain concentration and focus and nit-picky attention to detail for lonnnnnng stretches. If you are more used to dividing your time and attention across multiple workplaces (including home), being in the office all day and staring at a computer will be a major adjustment. Not necessarily bad, but different.

But what the heck, why not pursue it and see what happens?
posted by nacho fries at 12:50 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been a technical writer for about 4 years now. It's a pretty wide field, and every technical writer I know has what often seems like a very different job from mine, and from each other. I'm the only technical writer at my job, so my day to day may be a bit different than someone who works with a team of writers.

What's it like?
I enjoy what I do, and often, but not always, get a lot of satisfaction from my job. I don't just sit there and write all day, I spend a lot of time managing my part of whatever various projects I'm involved in, coordinating with the developers as to when they will have something ready for me to test and document, and checking with the business side to make sure that my content is in line with our marketing message. I also don't just write for our customers either. Over the course of this coming week I'm going to finish up a customer-facing user guide and write some e-mails for our marketing team, but the bulk of my week is going to be researching, testing, and writing an internal tech guide for a new service that we're offering that our techs will have to install. Next week I might not do any writing at all, just testing and research. It varies a lot, which I like.

What does your day-to-day look like?
This often changes day to day, which I enjoy but I know would drive other people crazy. I know that what I thought I was going to be doing this morning has suddenly been turned upside down by two e-mails from my boss who now wants substantial revisions to some existing docs because he's decided to change the names of the services they describe. Once I sort that out, it's back to more testing and research. I'm involved in a lot of projects, sometimes only on the periphery, but often as a major contributor of both documentation and testing.

I have copies of Chicago and APA on the shelf by my desk, but I've never opened them for work. I refer to the Microsoft Manual of Style, and also to an internal style guide that I wrote to cover those weird areas where the MMoS doesn't reach.

I don't come from a traditional tech writing background - I'm more technical than writer, having spent over a decade as a UNIX/Linux system admin before moving into technical writing. I don't have a degree in the field, I'm just good at taking "geek speak" and turning that into something our customers can use and be successful with. So even though you don't have some of the qualifications they're looking for, I'd say to go for it. Have some writing samples ready, and just go for it. As a friend likes to say: they can kill ya, but they can't eat ya..
posted by ralan at 4:56 AM on September 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You sound a little anxious to me (which is understandable, I've been there) and I think you may be overthinking this and/or talking yourself down. The way I look at your situation is very simple: it looks like you have much to gain and little or nothing to lose by applying for this job. Seriously, you are looking at a chance to double your pay and increase your entire family's standard of living. The major downside of applying for this job seems like it's just the possibility that you might not get it.

posted by Scientist at 7:26 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the world of business connections, where it's not what you know but who you know. Lots of people get jobs because they know someone, but initially lack precise experience to fill their specific job. With that, I'd say go for it!

My MIL is a technical writer, but her background was in sciences. She worked for bio-tech companies, and got into Q&A, QC and technical writing by some means. She then worked for a year re-writing a manual for a big software company. She has worked in large teams and as the only person writing (or re-writing) manuals.

As others have said, the writing itself is focused on 1) knowing the product, and 2) knowing the client, then writing to inform the client about how to use the product. You'll write differently if the product is generally used by experienced users or the public at large. Keep an eye on the details and internal consistency. And then there's whatever directions you get from the Rather Large Company.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:13 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am not a technical writer. I have never hired a technical writer, but I have worked with a number of technical writers, reviewed their work, and I've hired people for their first "technical" position (tech support, system administrator, entry-level developer) in other disciplines in the same milieu.

In addition to specific skills, I was generally looking for two things. First, a strong narrative as to how their past experience led them to seek the sort of job they were applying for. Second, convincing details that supported that narrative. On the latter point, I see a lot in this statement: "I've managed very small teams of employees, ran small offices and worked on the documentation to run said offices from scratch, but again, this was such a small part of my job anywhere I've worked that I don't really keep it on my resume."

Running small offices and managing small teams of employees could be useful in dealing with managing and juggling the technical writing projects you are given.

That you've worked on the documentation to run said offices from scratch suggests to me that you have the impulse to document often dull fussy things shit because it is the right thing to do. This is good, because, that is a big part of what a tech writer is hired to do.

That you tend to leave this stuff off your resume because it was a small part of your job is fine, but I'd include it when/if you apply for this job.

I'll add that if you go this route, one direction you consider looking for future career growth is "business analyst." Also, at least in this market (Seattle), a lot of tech writing work is on a temp/contract basis. Which could give you some flexibility in the future.
posted by Good Brain at 9:14 AM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sometimes at certain jobs I have, I do admin oriented things that could be construed as technical writing on a rudimentary basis (I think?)

I freelance as a tech editor, not a technical writer, but I don't work in software. I've tech edited knitting patterns, crossword puzzles, recipes... all kinds of things count as tech editing and I suspect also as technical writing. So don't sell yourself short.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:26 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to be a technical writer and I think with your degree you have a good shot, not to mention your personal connection. Spend some time brushing up your CV and emphasising the writing that you did. You could also write up some documentation for an open source project or flesh out something you did for a previous job if you need a writing sample. Heck, even the frying pan thing would do in a pinch.

Don't sell yourself short. You worked hard for your degree and you're working hard now to support your family. From your post it's obvious you can write clearly and concisely which will put you leaps and bounds ahead of many of the tech writers I worked with. Do you have any knowledge of the subject matter you'd be writing about? If not start studying up.

This kind of chance doesn't come up every day and given your circumstances versus what you want in life I think you should put some serious time and effort into making this happen. If this particular opportunity doesn't come through you can always do some or more writing (for open source software) and develop your portfolio with a view to breaking into tech writing in the future. Don't over- glamorise it. I think it's well within your reach. Good luck.
posted by hazyjane at 10:34 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to work as a technical writer, and briefly managed the technical writing department. I agree with others that the day-to-day responsibilities of a tech writer can vary a lot, even within a single company. The only thing that is likely to stay fairly consistent would be that you will:

- learn how to use the software/hardware, and
- explain it to other people, usually (but not always) in writing.

Thus anything on your resume that involves learning, teaching or writing is relevant. Working with complex systems that have lots of moving parts, whether the systems are mechanical like a coffee roaster or human like an office, is also relevant.

Based on what you've said, I think you sound like a good candidate. You can write, you can explain things, you have some project management skills. My one concern would be whether you are comfortable learning and explaining about software. If you can master office procedures and coffee roasting then I have little doubt that you are capable of learning how software works, but I have sometimes encountered people who have internalized the idea that they are "not good at computers." If this is you, do your best to abandon this idea.

Focus on the fact that you are "entirely self taught in all of the office work [you] do," and forget about the "gaps in [your] knowledge." Knowledge gaps are easy to deal with--it's skills that are harder to find, and it sounds like you have the skills you need.
posted by fermion at 11:10 AM on September 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: What's it like? What does your day-to-day look like?

I work as a technical writer within the IT/systems development department of a government agency. Day-to-day, I write and revise test scripts, tutorial scripts, system help files, and tooltips. I also do a fair bit of instructional design work (creating electronic tutorials in Captivate) and occasionally train groups of users on our systems. Oh, and I do QA/QC work on our systems.

Some days the work can be fairly engrossing, other days it's like watching paint dry. It's office work, which is not for everybody. (In my last job I was on the road a lot, so it's been a tough transition to go from one type of work setting to another.)

Would this be a good fit for me? Does my background lend itself to having technical writing chops? Would pursuing this avenue be a waste of (limited) time and hope?

If you're extremely detail oriented, have a knack for explaining technical concepts in a clear way, have a high degree of patience for doing repetitive tasks, and can deal with customer requirements that seem to change daily, it may be a good fit for you. Personally, my background is not really in writing or technology, but rather in libraries and the music industry.
posted by medeine at 2:15 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My day looks a lot like ralan's. I work almost exclusively on user interface copy for a number of platforms -- including web, devices and apps. I work with designers, information architects and developers to come up with the most straightforward, understandable wording to get users from one page/task/menu, etc. to another.

I agree with others that you shouldn't discount your previous experience as a manager of both projects and people. I got my job because of a solid background in different kinds of writing -- journalistic, academic and just a smidge of tech -- but the thing I draw on every. damn. day. is my experience as an English as a Second Language instructor (and my academic training in such). I work with people who aren't great with words, and I act as a kind of translator for them. I think the fact that you've already got great soft skills is to your advantage.

I think you should absolutely apply for this job. I also think the fact that there's already a tech writer working there is great -- you'll be able to train with her/him to start.
posted by LynnDee at 8:03 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

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