Technical writing for the not technically inclined?
August 11, 2014 4:26 PM   Subscribe

I am pondering a career change into technical writing. I do not consider myself a "technical" person. Is this a stupid idea?

Here are the reasons I'm even vaguely considering tech writing:

1. I need a job that pays the bills (unlike so many jobs in this new gilded age).
2. I write reasonably well. Sadly, it's pretty much the only thing I do well.
3. I have no ego investment in my writing. I am capable of producing extremely dry prose if that's what's called for.
4. I am also capable of producing detailed, lengthy documents such as grant applications, and have been commended for the clarity of these documents.

The problem, though, is that I've always considered computers and software to be the boring things humming along in the background while I browse the web/write up my acclaimed grant applications and so forth. I sometimes have to deal with Technology for work, and my mind does not find it naturally "sticky"--I have to really work to get down the details and remember things I should know. I find it much easier to work things out on paper than to discuss verbally, but I fear that this would not be enough.

I ask this question because I've spent way too much of my life in jobs that I have no aptitude for, and do not want to once again put myself in the position of being the weakest link at work. On the other hand, I tend to sell myself short, and don't want to write off a potentially lucrative career choice because I assume that I would suck at it.

Also possibly relevant: my local chapter of STC folded a couple of years ago.
posted by whistle pig to Work & Money (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
To be honest, this is kind of an odd question.

The purpose of technical writing is to explain technical concepts. To explain concepts well (or at all, really), you have to understand them. And it sounds like you're actively disinterested in understanding technical concepts.

A competent technical writer must be good at writing, and know (or be willing to learn) the technical concepts they're writing about—just as a competent food writer must know something about food, and a competent sports writer must know something about sports.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:34 PM on August 11, 2014

I would strike "technical" from the job title you are searching for, and just call yourself a "professional writer."

I started out doing technical writing about 10 years ago, and it was a tough slog. I had a pretty cool contract with government documenting discussions among a team of architects for a new security infrastructure.

I didn't have any technical background and ended up documenting meetings, documenting server management practices, using Visio to create use-cases, etc. I interviewed with the local shop of a large engineering multinational to do technical writing for user manuals, but didn't get the job since I didn't have Robo-help or Framemaker experience (but how hard can it be?)

A lot of the writing I do now is actually quite technical - I do everything from legal marketing to product marketing in the VoIP space, but it's marketing writing. I try to focus on writing with an ROI. Technical writing has no ROI (although I suppose you can market technical writing in different ways to build engagement and send traffic to your site).

Technical writing is a "service" inside an organization, and managers are always trying to figure out how to spend less money on services and increasing the ROI of every dollar they spend. So they will try to get rid of you unless your job has a multiplier effect on spend.

Technical writing is really an entry-level position, and if you can get the job, you can move into product management, product marketing, or general marketing. You can even move into Business Analysis, client management, and project management.

There is also content management for larger websites which can be quite technical.

Trying to get jobs in this gilded-age economy is all about "knowing your product" and understanding your market, and also understanding workplace culture.

But technical writing is not really the end of a career arc, it's a starting point. Perhaps at mid-career you can come back to it if you have developed a strong network of potential clients and deep knowledge about something or other.
posted by Nevin at 4:40 PM on August 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you need to be able to find ways to identify with your reader. For some people, that doesn't require being interested in the subject yourself, for its own sake, and, in fact, an outsiders perspective can be valuable.

On a related note, I am reminded of this story, which touches on the differences between a good technical writer, and a bad one.

Oh, it might also be worth looking into the job of Business Analyst.
posted by Good Brain at 4:46 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sounds like copywriting/editing for annual reports and other longform corporate documents might be more up your alley?
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:31 PM on August 11, 2014

Actually a lot of people doing what their employers call "technical writing" have no technical background whatsoever. The point is not to know everything about how the XB-187 flat mail sorter works so you can explain it. That would be a very limited skill set and a very unlikely career. "Oh, I'm so sorry, you'd be great for the job except we were looking for a technical writer with extensive knowledge of the XB-192! The 192. So sorry. Do you know anyone? We've been looking for 18 months now."

The point is to be able to communicate both with the audience for the technical manual, and with someone who does know how the XB-187 works. I used to work as a trade journalist doing very, very targeted tech newsletters in the telecom field. These were weekly, 8-page newsletters, no ads, totally subscriber funded, and people paid about $900 a year for them. (This was just before the Internet totally destroyed that business model.) People were paying $900 a year to get my insights into various extremely esoteric aspects of telecommunications. And I didn't know shit about telecommunications!

At first I was gobsmacked. I was like, christ, we're defrauding our subscribers! This is fraud! But I managed to talk to a few of them, and discovered that they really felt we were providing the high-value service they were paying for. I didn't know jack about the inner workings of the phone system. But I did know how to talk to people who did, and draw from them enough information to provide an intelligent overview to an intelligent reader who also didn't have that kind of technical knowledge but needed to know the impact of my interview subject's knowledge on his own field, whether they were people who worked with other technologies, finance guys, regulatory guys, or business strategy guys. Our sub base covered all of those, and they didn't really care about the finer details. They either weren't technical themselves, or weren't the same kind of technical. So just letting the tech guy explain it to them was kind of useless. Most tech guys are horrible communicators.

(This, btw, is the same reason most people who are interviewed by journalists freak out because the final story gets it all wrong. They're right. The story doesn't get the finer nuances of your subject because the reader doesn't have your depth of experience in your subject and doesn't want to have it. They just want to know how it impacts their sphere.)

If I were you (or for that matter, if I were me because this is what I did when the trade newsletter business sank like the Titanic) I would look into proposal writing for federal contractors. Especially if you live around the DC area, but it's still a viable field in any big city. The work is more in line with the qualities you ascribe to yourself, and it's good paying work. It's basically about writing a response that complies with a very detailed Request for Proposals (RFP) that lays out just what they want to see, and often going right down to the type size and margins. Within those constraints, you need to clearly and compellingly lay out the solution your company is proposing for the client's needs. It's also nice if you can get in the "win themes" that make it clear you're the best choice for the job, and maybe even subtly "ghost" the competition by drawing evaluators' attention to areas where they're weak. It's very much a team sport - lack of ego involvement in your words is very good. But there's a lot of interesting challenges, and in my experience, nobody expects you to already be familiar with the technical solution. That's what they have subject matter experts (SMEs) for. You get the details from them and grind them into proper proposal copy. My title for doing this, by the way? Technical Writer. (Well, actually something like technical and proposal writer.) It's not quite as much fun as doing my newsletters was. There, I was the only one with even a faint clue what my topic was about, so I was pretty much left to do whatever struck my fancy that week. But it pays better and it's a field where a decent writer will stand out and find a job.
posted by Naberius at 11:14 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was a technical writer for many years, and have worked in all sorts of positions in software development since. It's late and I want to go to bed, so I'll just state my most important point: if you are good at taking notes and actually producing a document from them, you can be an effective tech writer for software. Many engineers HATE writing down what they could just explain verbally, and many managers know that and would be happy to pay for it. If I was hiring for a tech writer position, I'd hire someone who said "I don't know software development, but if your engineers say something, I'll write it, make it pretty and readable, and index it properly."
posted by Pacrand at 11:24 PM on August 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, I should note that many positions don't demand technical acumen because if you could understand what you were writing you'd be paid MUCH more than a tech writer makes.
posted by Pacrand at 11:26 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The trouble with the job title "technical writer" is that the actual tasks and responsibilities can vary a lot from company to company. I've worked with technical writers whose skills stop at "creating a Word document". I've also worked in companies where a technical writer who couldn't read code would be let go.

There are situations where a technical writer is actually writing for end users who aren't all that technical themselves; for example, if your employer develops banking software, you might be writing documentation for people who work in banks and use that software. Also, there are technical writing positions outside the software/hardware world; for example, plenty of people write documentation for physical machinery, etc. That might be something you'd find more interesting than software.

However, it's still likely that you'd need to communicate with developers, testers, business analysts, and project/product managers, and those people are going to think about things and talk about things from a technical perspective.

Also, within the technical writing industry, the expectation that you can evaluate, set up, use, manage, and troubleshoot your own tools is growing stronger. At very large companies, there might be a few people whose job it is to set up and deal with your content management system, publishing tools, etc., but more and more, this is becoming a part of a writer's job.

I'm a career technical writer, so I guess it's not a surprise that I strongly disagree with the points made by Nevin and Pacrand above. Yes, it is possible to land a job as an entry-level technical writer and to skate by, writing about things you don't understand, but 1) you're not going to excel that way, 2) you're in danger of being in a situation where you're being carried by your colleagues, and 3) honestly, it sounds stressful as hell. If you find technical topics inherently boring, then you're going to struggle in most technical writing positions.

In your situation, I would do these things:

* Collect the best and most diverse of your writing samples and create a nice portfolio.
* Get on sites like Technical Writing World and join open LinkedIn groups to get an idea of the topics that career technical writers are talking about.
* Set up saved searches on sites like LinkedIn, Monster, and Indeed for the job titles technical writer and technical communicator. These should give you an idea of how diverse the requirements are in your area. You may find some jobs called "technical writer" that actually aren't all that technical.
* Set up saved searches for titles like business writer, marketing writer, communications writer, proposal writer, etc. These types of jobs are probably more up your alley, and again you'll get an idea of the diversity there. My experience has been the opposite of Nevin's—I've known quite a few people who moved from non-tech writing roles into tech writing because they wanted a different challenge or, more often, because they wanted to make more money—so if you want to get a foot in the door and consider moving into a tech writing role later, that might be the way to do it.
posted by neushoorn at 12:18 AM on August 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for your answers.
posted by whistle pig at 6:30 PM on August 12, 2014

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