Technical Writing in Boston
August 6, 2006 7:03 PM   Subscribe

Is technical writing the right job for me?

Is technical writing a good field/position for me?

I am trying to decide what to do with my life. I know for sure I want to move to Boston, so I'll move there after I finish my MA in Communication (emphasis Health Comm). I studied French and English in undergrad. I don't really know what my passion is yet, if there exists such a thing for me. I do like to write however; as long as it's not creative writing.

1. Assuming I do decide to go this route, how tough will it be for me to get a job given that I have no specialized knowledge of technology, engineering, or anything else?

2. Given the above condition, what would you suggest as the best way to break into the industry/find a job?

3. Frankly, I couldn't imagine that being a technical writer is very interesting or fulfilling. I base this tentative conclusion on the explanation of duties on the want ads I've seen on Craiglist, HotJobs, etc. Moreover, I don't expect it to be, at least not in the first few years. Do you think this attitude will likely help or hurt me in terms of career satistfaction as a technical writer?

What I want out of a job:

1) relaxed/casual work atmosphere
2) no public speaking of any kind
3) minimal teamwork/collaboration
4) minimal management
5) benefits (health insurance, 401(k)
6) advancement
7) possibility of owning my own business

What I don't want:

1) High salary
2) Prestige
3) High stress atmosphere
4) Contact with the general public
5) Travel
6) To manage other people
7) To have only group work

I'll be 28 this year. Overall, I'm looking for a "non-throwaway" job that uses my strongest skills, and one that I can leave at the office at 5pm and not take home with me.

Thanks in advance for your help.
posted by noyceguy to Work & Money (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I was a software technical writer and publications manager for a bunch of years, and I thought it was a pretty good gig. I like geeks, and I think software development and how people use technology are interesting topics. Plus (at least at that time, 1985-2000), it was pretty well paid.

Couple things that jumped out at me in what you wrote:

You say you want minimal teamwork/collaboration. My experience is that tech writing is very collaborative: with the developers/subject matter experts, with other writers, with QA people, with product and project managers. Writers who go off in a cubicle and write without talking to other people, unless they are experts in the audience domain, IME, tend to write pretty crappy documentation.

More importantly, your belief that tech writing is not likely to be very interesting or fulfilling is a big red flag. While I was always skeptical about the starry-eyed job candidates who told me they had always dreamed of being a tech writer, I think a basic level of curiosity about and enjoyment of your job is important -- both for your future happiness, and for your likely success.

So -- my advice is, pause, reflect, and see if you can come up with another gig that actually sounds like it might be interesting. Because your job doesn't need to be your be-all and end-all of life fulfillment -- God knows tech writing wasn't that for me -- but it should at least be interesting and intermittently enjoyable.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:44 PM on August 6, 2006

Most tech writing jobs I had involved a greater or lesser degree of team work, even if merely to break up the vast pile of documentation into manageable parcels.

This might not be a drawback though: being on a team helps you to get through those stretches where you feel like you may go mad from boredom.

You probably don't need anything more than a degree to get into tech writing; lack of technical knowledge will tend to limit you to lower-paid contracts, but I'd be surprised if you couldn't make a living out of it anyway: I certainly did, and I had no degree and no technical background.

There isn't much in the way of advancement in the tech writing field. The only way up is supervising teams of tech writers, but it sounds like you're not interested in that.

Hours and pressure levels vary. Generally speaking, the closer the deadline, the longer you'll work and the more pressure you'll be under. Most industries are the same in that respect.

Make contact with the usual consulting groups: Deloittes, PriceWaterHouseCoopers, Andersens. You might also try DA Consulting Group: I've worked with all of them in the past and did okay.
posted by Ritchie at 8:00 PM on August 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

The best tech writers I've ever worked with understood that they were part of an iterative process, that involved constant learning and feedback. Especially on large projects, where people come and go over the life of the project, the documentation can sometimes become almost a member of the team, as new people are referred to documentation to get up to speed, and as people moving off the project are asked to make sure their contributions to documentation are complete and checked before being finally released. The line between being a tech writer, and being a subject matter expert sometimes becomes blurred in such circumstances.

I find #6 on your desired list, "advancement" an interesting bit of ego, in a sea of repressed id, though. You appear to want not much as much as anybody I've talked to in a while, and yet you'd kinda, maybe, somewhere down the line, as a 6th priority, like to advance. I'm not belittling this a bit; therein, I think, may very well lie the answer to your question, mon frere.

What you gotta answer is, to what would you like to advance, that's not going to involve some taboo on the 2nd list?
posted by paulsc at 8:18 PM on August 6, 2006

Scott Kronick was a tech writer in the early days of Netscape. After installing this "netscape" thing I emailed him and asked him what he got paid. I like to think he's a zillionaire now.

Amy Tan was a technical writer.

A lot of people use tech writing as a gateway job to other things within the company.

One of my colleagues used to be a tech writer. he left after about ten years because the same sorts of problems kept reappearing and he lost interest.

I would say, if you're not drawn to it in some way that you should avoid it.
posted by mecran01 at 8:19 PM on August 6, 2006

Also, check the archives of the techwr-l list for some feel for what some writers think about their work. Also, there's a really good book of tech writer narratives published by allyn and bacon.
posted by mecran01 at 8:20 PM on August 6, 2006

I'd work on your math skills a little ... because this...

Is technical writing a good field/position for me?

... plus this ...

Frankly, I couldn't imagine that being a technical writer is very interesting or fulfilling.

... equals "no."

Sorry for the snark, but if you already don't think it's going to be interesting, why bother? You're 28 and you like writing non-fiction. Go work for a newspaper. Or an encyclopedia. Edit books.

Most of the tech writers I've met enjoy the tech and more significantly, really enjoying teaching others about the tech. So, go figure out what you like to do, and write about that.
posted by frogan at 8:25 PM on August 6, 2006

I'm a technical writer who works right outside of Boston. If you are still in school, my best advice is to start finding internships now. My peers who had internships had a much easier time finding a permanent job than I did. My biggest regret was not working harder to find an internship or find other ways to get some real tech writing experience. The lesson I learned was that a degree means nothing if you don't have practical experience doing what they are hiring you to do.

Because I didn't have actual tech writing experience, other than a BS in technical communications, I wound up getting a more customer service / tech support oriented position at my company, and after 2 years of experience there, the tech writing position finally opened up and I applied for it, and got it. I have no doubt that if I hadn't had 2 years of experience at my company, and if the people responsible for hiring the tech writer had not had firsthand knowledge of my abilities, that I wouldn't have been a top prospect.

So without an internship and a portfolio, it's going to be hard to find a full-time tech writing job. However if you find a company you love to work for, you can try finding another position that you are qualified for, that will give you a chance to prove that you are a solid communicator, and take on as many writing related projects as possible. Then you will have a better chance.

The other thing I want to mention is that as a tech writer, you will have to interact with people. I work for an Internet company, as such I have to spend time working with our software engineers and department team leaders to learn about our products and learn about how our departments will use them. There is also a lot of time spent at my desk, working on various projects, but being able to work well with a group is a definite advantage.

Good luck!
posted by tastybrains at 8:33 PM on August 6, 2006

I'm a technical writer and it can be an enjoyable gig if you like technology. You may also get to do some design and layout, technical illustration, and HTML these days, and if the company is small you may get roped into helping out with other writing tasks, i.e. marketing. So there's some variety out there, you may not be writing end-user doc constantly. That stuff IS pretty stultifying, really. The really engaging stuff is documentation for people with high technical skill, e.g. API documentation and the like. You need a fair amount of technical skill yourself to land this kind of gig, though.

An MA, though? I am by no means an expert in the current market, since I've been out of school for twenty years (and don't even have a bachelor's, to be honest -- doesn't seem to have hurt my career any, though), but you might actually have difficulty getting an entry-level job; people may think you're overqualified, yet you have no portfolio.

Do you like to do translation? That may be a plus, since you do speak more than one language. Is your French good enough that you'd want to translate technical writing to and from that language?
posted by kindall at 8:46 PM on August 6, 2006

From your list of criteria, I'm not sure tech writing would be for you:

3) Minimal teamwork/collaboration: IMO, an impossibility in techdoc. Part of the art of tech writing is balancing the needs of product management, engineering, marketing, and training. The most successful tech writers I've seen are good diplomats.
4) Minimal management: See #3. You'd nominally be under engineering, most likely, but have lots of indirect bosses.
6) Advancement: this is an interesting one. The only advancement I can see if going into project management in techdoc or maybe training (?)
7) Owning own business: a lot of tech writers are "guns for hire" for placement agencies. I suppose you could start your own agency or become an independent.

3) High stress atmosphere: Documentation is notoriously the line item in the project plan/budget that gets shortchanged. Be prepared for the expectation that you can just write it in a couple of days.
5) Travel: Would depend on if you're a gun for hire and location of client.
7) Only group work: nature of the beast. Tech writers must learn to work with SMEs, otherwise they don't have the info necessary to write.

OK, long discouraging answer, but: have you looked into writing marketing collateral? You could have more independence there (YMMV, of course).
posted by sfkiddo at 8:48 PM on August 6, 2006

"So, go figure out what you like to do, and write about that."

Fair enough. But I don't have that luxury. I need to have a job soon after I graduate. Tech writing just seems like a good start into the working world. I have to start somewhere, right?

If I could think of something else that seemed interesting, I would do it! Tech seems like it would do the job for now...
posted by noyceguy at 9:14 PM on August 6, 2006

paulsc, I'm not really sure what you're saying. Could you clarify?
posted by noyceguy at 9:17 PM on August 6, 2006

If you want to get a feel for the position of tech writer and don't find an internship to your liking per tastybrains there are ample opportunities to practice on Open Source project like Mozilla Documentation Project

If you don't find technology intriguing then you really should be doing something else - what you sound like you want to do is research and deploy. Boston is a good place to look for that kind of job - but it is again a matter of getting an internship while you're in school. Employers like to know your work without having to pay for it. The cost of discharging someone that isn't working out is very high.

Good luck.
posted by ptm at 10:16 PM on August 6, 2006

There are other kinds of technical writing besides software.

I notice in school you specialized in health communication. What about writing for a public health agency, editing medical research papers, writing white papers or marcomm for a biotech company, etc?

Presumably you majored in something that interests you; plus, you already have some degree of specialized knowledge.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:22 PM on August 6, 2006

Frankly, I couldn't imagine that being a technical writer is very interesting or fulfilling.

Wow. Really? Because when I was a technical writer, I found translating the language of the software engineers into something that was understandable to everyday users to be both interesting *and* fulfilling. But like ottereroticist says, there are other kinds of tech writing jobs - including some that don't involve the give-and-take communication that makes the experience interesting. But I'd bet those tech writing jobs are less "fulfilling" than the ones that give you a chance to be part of a collaborative process.
posted by mediareport at 10:52 PM on August 6, 2006

I'm another TW, and I also found #s 3, 4, and 6 on your first list to be problems.

3) You cannot do tech writing without collaborating. Period. Every day you will find things in the material you're given that need clarification, and you must be able to get that clarification from a person who can give it. That person may not think it's needed, or may not see it as part of their job. or may not like your boss, or whatever. You still have to get the clarification.

4) In your first TW job, and at the beginning of subsequent jobs, you will probably be closely supervised. Companies usually hire writers too late, which means the work has to be done quickly and well, which means the manager isn't going to risk letting an untested writer make the project release schedule slip. As with most jobs, a big part of yours is to make your boss happy. For a writer, that means getting the work done as quickly as possible, because he often doesn't have much advance information. (This is especially true of writing about software; software engineers often are tweaking the user interface right up to the release date. If you're writing a user guide, the things they're changing are exactly the things you have to have correct in your book. That usually leads to #3 on your "don't want" list.

6) The only route to advancement for a tech writer is management, which is #6 on your "don't want" list.

By owning your own business, I assume you mean working as an independent contractor. The only way you'll get to do this is by having a network of contacts among people who can influence the hiring of contractors. In my experience, they were managers I'd worked for. If you're thinking you'd start a company that provides tech writing services, as a package, you'd have to employ (or contract) and manage other writers. You'd also be in competition with several established firms in the Boston area that do that.

All tech writing is not writing about software, as others have noted. It helps a huge amount to have some technical knowledge in the area you're writing about. If you don't have any, and are relying on your Communications degree, I suggest finding something else. The TW field is knee-deep in English majors who can tell you all about past participles but can't explain how to set up a WiFi network or change a tire. There are also a lot of engineers in the field who can tell you all about the esoteric workings of wireless routers but can't explain how to set up a WiFi network.

If you can distill what users need to know how to do into clear explanations of how to do it, you can be a good tech writer.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:25 AM on August 7, 2006

Your MA should allow you to have many opportunities to write in the health field especially in companies that specialize in medical equipment. Nurses who have writing skills and go into medical technical writing have a good career. You might want to call firms you are interested in and see which agencies those companies hire temp or staff writers from to get your foot in the door and have real experiences before taking the plunge.

I am concerned however with your distinct lack of enthusiasm for technical writing. As others have mentioned technical writing actually covers many fields and is not solely restricted to writing end user software manuals. You are contemplating technical writing not because you are interested in teaching or conveying information but because you are entering the "real" work world which, throws a red flag that a great future in the field maybe difficult for you. Others have pointed out the conflicts between your two lists so I will leave that there.

Also, your communication program seems to have failed you by not having you put together a portfolio. Professional Communication majors usually have portfolios by the time they graduate with a BA and being a MA with NO portfolio of work is somewhat shocking. Further, why did your advisor at both the undergrad and the grad level not talk to you about internships? Did you at least improve your CV with conference presentations and papers in the pipeline for publication? Projects that you can show-off?

First, I would suggest expanding your definition of technical writing; second, consider groups or departments outside of the engineering side such as, marketing which uses extensive writing beyond simple ad copy and requires a good, knowledgable person in the field to do more detailed information; third, if you have not already done so, get an internship and finally, put together a portfolio.

Good luck.
posted by jadepearl at 7:49 AM on August 7, 2006

distinct lack of enthusiasm = story of my life

part of the problem is that very little interests me -- as in, I can't imagine ever wanting to work at any job. in my view, all work sucks; some jobs just suck a little bit less than others. i'm thinking of technical writing because it seems like the way to get the best results with the least amount of effort.

i have plenty of non-work interests, just like anyone, but I don't want to ruin my enjoyment of them by doing them professionally. I've already been down that road. If I had my way I'd spend all my time working out, reading, traveling, playing music, and so on. There is no field I have encountered so far that sounds even remotely like something I'd want to do every day.

i don't apologize for my apathy. i just try to work around it.
posted by noyceguy at 11:41 AM on August 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Maybe you should be a travel writer.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:43 AM on August 7, 2006

Sorry noyceguy, I found myself short-tempered writing the following. You said:
i don't apologize for my apathy. i just try to work around it.
Sounds like pathetic bullshit, actually.

Look, forget this whole 'I want to keep my real hobbies and passions "pure" by not getting paid for them' juvenilia and face a nasty fact: either you learn to enjoy work or you hate yourself and your surroundings for 40% of your waking life. If you can't take your passions seriously enough to pursue them in a serious structured way, then they're not passions, are they? But if you're going to invest energy in that way, then you may as well get paid for it.

If you're actually any kind of writer, start working in your free time to put together pieces for submission to periodicals. (There's a zillion of 'em.) If you think you want to be a tech writer, start working right now on a tech/structured writing project, as a sample. If you've got clips, make a portfolio. If that excites you, if you get a feeling of achievement from looking at a collection of your finished work and want to repeat and build on it, then start submitting applications and asking around.

But get over this notion that you can just dip a toe into a field without legwork and passion for it, and expect to be any good or go anywhere. If you have to make excuses for your job and you're self-doubting or critically introspective you'll go completely fucking nuts at work - unless you're willing to put your head down, acquire some proficiency, and look for better work.

If you're asking, as it looks like you are, 'How do I make a living without giving a shit?' the answer is, 'Learn how to give a shit.' Which starts with being honest with yourself about what you enjoy, and building on that. You're welcome to keep your sources of sustainable emotional energy separate from your day job, but you'll be bored or annoyed or unhappy or worse - boring, annoying, unhappy - for a lot of your day. It's not worth it.
posted by waxbanks at 2:23 PM on August 9, 2006 [4 favorites]

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