What does a technical writer do, exactly? How much does it pay?
May 30, 2004 11:28 PM   Subscribe

What does a technical writer do, exactly? How much does it pay? Good field to go into?
posted by Tlogmer to Work & Money (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What does a surgeon do, exactly? &c.

Which is to say: are you kidding?!
posted by nicwolff at 11:53 PM on May 30, 2004

A technical writer does a range of things, from simply documenting procedures with multiple steps to planning and developing full documents or suites of documents. They may "just" write or may perform complex publishing tasks. Technical writers make a good living wage, but there's lingering bitterness over the tech downturn. Is it a good field to go into? Not so sure.

The information that would lead to a better answer to your questions includes what your background and experience is, what (if any) subject-matter expertise you have, and what you enjoy doing.

Visit Society for Technical Communication for more information. They make it easy for interested nonmembers to get to know their organization and attend their events, too. That's probably the best quick introduction to the sheer range of what's encompassed by "technical writer."
posted by caitlinb at 11:53 PM on May 30, 2004

Hi, Cait.
posted by nicwolff at 11:59 PM on May 30, 2004

Hello, um... nicwolfff? Say something useful or piss off. Thank you.

Technical writers produce documentation. The good jobs out there will pay mid 40s+ to start, which is better than your average very-literate post-grad is able to score editing a publication or writing anything journalistic. However, if the prospect of copy-editing is unpalatable to you, you're probably not cut out for technical writing, as it can be terribly narrow in focus, extremely.... um... technical, and your "audience" is usually only a few people.

Not all writers are cut out for it talent-wise. You have to be able to write concisely and clearly, using consistent terminology and adhering to an easy-to-penetrate structure. It's actually kind of a writer's hell IMHO.

Imagine being asked to enter into an accounting department, talk to everyone there, find out what they do, what their workflow is, and write it all down such that they could all be fired the next day with no loss of "institutional knowledge." This is prehaps the dryest and most insidious example I can think of, but it's a valid one nonetheless.
posted by scarabic at 12:18 AM on May 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

The pay isn't bad, depending on how much you value the one human soul you'll exchange for it.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:23 AM on May 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

You have to be able to write concisely and clearly, using consistent terminology and adhering to an easy-to-penetrate structure. It's actually kind of a writer's hell IMHO.

Yes, it's much easier to be a writer when you don't have to worry about communicating anything at all in a form that can be understood by a reader.
posted by jjg at 12:49 AM on May 31, 2004

Okay, fair comment. What I meant was that your format, terminology, and audience are usually very well defined for you from the outset, which leaves little creative space.
posted by scarabic at 1:56 AM on May 31, 2004

...and, you're writing about something that you could really give a fuck about outside of work.
posted by bingo at 2:24 AM on May 31, 2004

My girlfriend worked for NETG in Ireland for two years. She hated it. Their work flow was so controlled and well defined that it is the IT equivalent of putting caps on bottles. And she was 100% alienated.
posted by kenaman at 5:20 AM on May 31, 2004

Hell, it's difficult to give a fuck about it while at work.
posted by PrinceValium at 5:20 AM on May 31, 2004

AHEM...OK, ok, something positive:

A decent technical writer can make the difference between unqualified success and mounting "mythical man-month" hell."

Or between an application being regarded as something that works, and something that gets in the way.

I'll add that in my experience, tech writers often end up being primarily responsible for requirements analysis and definition. And on the opposite tack, the success of a project often hinges on whether the requirements analyst is a good tech writer.
posted by lodurr at 5:47 AM on May 31, 2004

That's what I did before I stopped working. My primary professional experience has been in engineering, management, and support in IT. I had been doing support work (enterprise class, not like what you're thinking) but we created a tech writer position within the support dept. specifically for me since I write relatively well, it suited me, and we needed someone with very strong engineering skills to write knowledge-base articles and whitepapers for staff and customers. For example, I wrote a site design architectural whitepaper on caching.

Anyway, I mention this because if one has pedagogical and expository writing skills, tech writing can be very enjoyable and satisfying—not soul-destroying as implied above. You'd need to be interested in the subject matter, of course. But a lot of science writing could qualify as technical writing, for example.

If you're primarily a creative writer, and/or if you work in one of the very many tech writing subfields that are extremely schematic and boring, then, yes, it can be hellish. On the other hand, given the right conditions, it can be very rewarding.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:56 AM on May 31, 2004

It's a good gig but it's boring. It in no way resembles Real Writing, and it likely won't do much for your writing skills, but you can make decent coin and leave the office at 5 PM every day. There are much worse transitional jobs you could take.
posted by Succa at 8:01 AM on May 31, 2004

I like technical writing. I don't find it boring at all. I love taking the confusing words scribbled by the 'geers and geeks, and interpreting them into real English. I also love taking things apart and putting them back together, and writing clear instructions that any doofus could follow.

However, it's probably noteworthy that I have no Great American Novel dying to get out of me. I suspect most dissatisfied tech writers are erstwhile novelists.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:47 AM on May 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

I have some trouble with the idea that writing is writing is writing. It isn't. Yeah, at its most technical, and to the ignorant, all writing is similar in the same sense that all mathematics is essentially the same. But the mathematics of, say, civil engineering is a very different mathematics than that of set theory or differential geometry, not to mention corporate accounting. Writing is a set of technical skills which is collectively a means to various ends—and those ends can differ greatly in quality. Some writers may be very unhappy in some positions because they've mistakenly assumed that as writers they should be able to write anything. That's silly.

There's probably twenty novels and forty screenplays in me, and one of them might even be pretty good. And I'm competent as a technical writer—in some capacities, much more than competent. My point here is that I don't think of the two activites as being essentially similar. To me, they are two completely different things.

From this perspective, the attractiveness of "crossing over" should be self-evident and dependent upon one's own temperment and skills. If you must ask if you think you'd enjoy doing it1, then the answer is probably "no".

1 "It" being, for example, one of these: writing fiction, technical manuals, screenplays, city desk newspaper stories, sales brochures, textbooks, legal documents.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:23 AM on May 31, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Basically, I have no (documented) skills now -- I'm looking for a Day Job, something I can get a Bachelor's in that will get me a $10/hour or more, not necessarily a career (that can wait).

nicwolff: Of course I know what a technical writer does on a very, very general level. Apologies for phrasing the question in a way that requires a modicum of thought or empathy.
posted by Tlogmer at 3:40 PM on May 31, 2004

$10/hour or more? Have you tried shoveling shit? Seriously. Anywhere that doesn't have you wearing a name tag is going to pay more than that, in my experience anyway.
posted by bingo at 3:52 PM on May 31, 2004

geezus. If you're not earning $40+ as a professional, you should get out of the field instead of lowballing everyone that is a professional. There's nothing quite as much a pissoff as spending four+ years establishing one's credentials, only to have some newbie schmuck claim to do the same thing on the cheap.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:14 PM on May 31, 2004

I mean this in the nicest way: you can make more money than $10/hr (and be in less debt) w/o a bachelor's degree in something that isn't going to be your "career".
What is it that you're waiting to do until later? Maybe you should focus on getting skills that are useful in that arena.
posted by j at 4:24 PM on May 31, 2004

Response by poster: Sorry; my tongue-in-cheek-ness doesn't come across well in print. Didn't mean $10 literally.
posted by Tlogmer at 7:47 PM on May 31, 2004

I'm looking for a Day Job, something I can get a Bachelor's in that will get me a $10/hour or more, not necessarily a career (that can wait).

Sorry; my tongue-in-cheek-ness doesn't come across well in print. Didn't mean $10 literally.

Uh, ok. But the damage is done. I can't speak for five fresh fish, but I definitely share the sentiment of both his first and, especially, second comments.

I guess the addendum I have as a professional writer (ask me about my career) is: The job we do is hard to do well. If you sincerely want to learn to do technical writing well, know that it is almost as varied as writing in general, and there are resources to help you find your place. If you want a day job, and you're a skilled writer (I'll leave that as an exercise) or very knowledgeable in a particular field and a very good writer, then maybe it will work out, too. But, jebus, dude, have a little respect for the people who are offering you answers.

At the end of this thread, I feel like Nic had the right idea after all. (And ... hi to you, too!)
posted by caitlinb at 10:27 PM on May 31, 2004

I currently write developer documentation for a Web services platform. If you are someone who has the aptitude for programming, but who also has good writing skills and finds writing about technology satisfying, writing developer documentation is a good gig. It pays considerably better than writing end-user application documentation.

Naturally, I won't say specifically how much I make, but it's in the same ballpark as those who do development. (I'm not entirely sure what the engineers I work with make, as discussing salary is taboo in the workplace, and they are very very good so I'm sure they make above-average coin and probably more than me, but my salary is comparable to what a good senior engineer or analyst would make at a lot of companies.) You won't make this kind of money right off the bat, of course; I've been writing about technology for 15 years now, though it hasn't always been my primary job.

Writing developer documentation is, in my opinion, more interesting than writing end-user documentation. Rather than writing step-by-step instructions day after day, you get a chance to do a lot of big-picture architectural explaining, and I find this can be a lot of fun, if only because it means that part of your job is learning new things so you can explain them to others. Some developers need to know how all the parts fit together, the underlying philosophy of the tool, and you've got to give it to them. Others just want to know how, of course, so there's always going to be a certain amount of step-by-step stuff, but at least you don't have to explain things in fine-grained detail. Developers can follow a fairly high-level instruction like "Fill in the fields in this dialog" rather than having to be told what to put in each one or what button to click to dismiss the dialog. That makes that part of the job a lot less tedious.

Regardless of the type of tech writing you do, widening your skill set will also make you more valuable. Knowing basic graphic design, enough to make your documentation look nice and to put together simple illustrations, is good. Knowing how to tailor your writing to your audience is good. (I once wrote documentation for a software system to be used by loading dock workers with an 8th-grade reading level. Simplifying things without making it seem like I was talking down to them was a real challenge. I still do a good amount of end-user documentation.) Know something about writing business plans, marketing, etc. Know how to put together a help system or a Web site. Know Word, Acrobat, Visio (good for diagrams) and FrameMaker, and have basic competency in one or two other general-purpose graphics tools. Learn how to manage yourself, to accurately estimate time and page count for projects, to serve in various editorial capacities on a team (if you have any management aptitude at well). Learn to write well quickly, such that if you were up against a wall, you could send your first draft to press without too much embarrassment.

That's for tech writing in general. For developer documentation, be familiar with the tools and methodologies that developers use for planning and architecting systems -- object-oriented design, software patterns, UML, agile development, etc. You can read a lot of material on these topics on the Web. Knowing at least one C-like language (C, C++, Java, C#, even JavaScript) will go a long way toward being able to read today's source code.

Is technical writing boring? Well, not to me, or I wouldn't still be doing it. I expected and intended to do programming full-time now, and my education is in a technical field, but I somehow ended up writing instead of coding. Each project is a different sort of challenge, and I find meeting challenges very fullfilling. So do most people.

I would go so far as to suggest that if you do indeed find tech writing monotonous and soul-destroying, your work is probably not going to be that good, both because you're not really interested in it and also because you're overlooking many of the subtleties that do make it challenging and interesting. In that case, by all means, find another line of work; the last thing the world needs is more mediocre tech writing.
posted by kindall at 11:33 PM on May 31, 2004 [3 favorites]

Yay, Kindall! Thanks for saying what I was attempting to say, but much better.

Obviously, I did much the same kind of work you're doing now. The big-picture stuff is really fun. I suppose that end-user documentation that is just a list of rote "click on X, then type Y" instructions could be very tedious. But there's a whole lotta different kinds of tech writing; just as there's a whole lotta different kinds of writing.

It's interesting that both of us came from the engineering side of the fence. My experience has been that many/most tech writers are relatively weak on the technical aspects of their subject matter. On the other hand, engineers are, in general, notoriously bad writers. I suppose that's why there are so many very mediocre tech writers (no offense intended to anyone). It's that strong engineering and writing skills are relatively rare—for one person to have both is very unusual, I suppose. I had kinda expected the tech writers to be more, um, "techy" than they tended to be. A fair number are, I think, stifled creative writers.

My best friend was a science textbook editor (now he's doing computational linguistics), and he noticed a similar problem with spotty science/math competency among his fellow editors. Many were highly qualified and competent in science/math, of course; but some were, um, not. Some were writers and editors writing and editing on subjects they little knew.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:52 AM on June 1, 2004

My god, I must be a freak. I actually enjoy writing "click X, type y" instructions...
posted by five fresh fish at 8:41 AM on June 1, 2004

. My experience has been that many/most tech writers are relatively weak on the technical aspects of their subject matter. On the other hand, engineers are, in general, notoriously bad writers.

Oh yes. And it certainly doesn't help when a lot of engineers these days don't speak English as a first language. But this too is a fun challenge to surmount.
posted by kindall at 10:55 AM on June 1, 2004

Response by poster: Uh, ok.

Okay, more clarification, if anyone's still reading. A non-native-english-speaking person asked me to help revise an economics paper, which I enjoyed. The $10/hr thing was a joke because I'd assumed the only way to get a tech writing gig from someone who doesn't live next door to me was a degree (hence mention of the degree -- I'm still not sure what there is to misunderstand). I'm not taking anyone's job.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:13 PM on June 1, 2004

My first career was as a tech writer and like fff, I was all over the "Click 'Preview' to read your post as it appears on the page. When you are satisfied, click 'Post'." stuff. And copy editing! And standards! My favorite days were the standards meetings and working on our internal style manual.

Everything just made so much sense!

The downside is I've moved into a legal career and my first job has been with an attorney whose style and document organization structure has developed somewhat... organically. And it drives me crazy. If I ever get to practice law on my own, I've already got this huge plan for document management software, templates, a style guide... It's going to be so great.

I doubt I have the great American novel in me either.

Tlogmer, if you have good connections and can develop a portfolio of good work, you might not need a degree. But if it's really something you're interested in going to school for, I'd check out the technical communications programs at the colleges you like. Seeing the kinds of classes you would take might help you understand more about what you'd be getting yourself into.
posted by jennyb at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2004

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