Technical Writing: Growth Industry for Sharp Minds
Woody Lewis | September 2005
The other day I told a neighbor of mine I was looking into technical writing as a career. She didn't know about my ten-year stint as a programmer and systems architect, jobs that required me to continuously document my work in great detail. I tried to explain how exciting it would be to write about computer programs instead of actually coding them. I thought that here in Silicon Valley the prospect of any employment would be exciting, but it's hard to convince people like her, who imagine drudges trapped in windowless buildings, slaving to produce reams of dry copy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Technical writing offers opportunities ranging from contract assignments to full-time positions with upward mobility into management. The job has never been more interesting, particularly at information technology companies. The same sector that once boiled over with dot-com euphoria is alive with opportunities for writers who are analytical and willing to learn.
What is technical writing?
A technical writer creates documentation that describes a product or service that incorporates technologies such as computer hardware and software, bioengineering, aerospace, or consumer electronics. He or she must know the reason for the documentation and the intended audience's level of expertise. Since part of the job is to collect information from disparate sources, technical writers spend most of their time interviewing and doing research. It's not a dry task, but an ever-changing aspect of technical communication, a field that also includes jobs such as technical editor and information architect.
Types of jobs
While there are as many different jobs as there are companies and organizations, technical writing may be divided into three broad categories: outward-facing, internal documentation, and special expertise.
Writers of outward-facing content produce documents such as user manuals. Products with any degree of complexity require instructions, whether published as hard copy, embedded as part of a software application, or posted on a website. Whatever the medium, a clear and concise listing of features is essential. Input-output requirements (what the user needs to do to accomplish a given task), examples, problems, and any other aspect of the user's experience are important considerations, many times influencing the decision to buy the product at all.
A resource unique to the Web-the FAQ page-has become part of the technical writer's domain. Frequently Asked Questions are often used as a first line of defense on a company's help desk, reducing the volume of calls to customer support representatives. Many companies have expanded their FAQ pages into interactive e-learning modules, another source of writing assignments.
In addition to FAQs, help files-embedded and online-have become a cottage industry. Again, good customer care (another name for customer support) requires a steady stream of up-to-date instructions, tips, and troubleshooting procedures-all of which must be clearly documented.
The need for internal documentation is even greater. A technical writer with more than fifteen years experience reports he hasn't worked on an outward-facing project in several years. These days, he produces few book-length manuals, instead turning out internal documents in Microsoft Word, Adobe pdf, or other formats that can be printed at the user's option. This is not unusual in today's economy, where mass printing is sometimes viewed as an extra cost. Before the Web became popular, software companies shipped their products with hefty user manuals. Customers were spending hundreds of dollars for a CD-ROM or a few floppy discs, and they needed to feel they were getting their money's worth. Today, software is often purchased online and downloaded over speedy Internet connections. Another megabyte or so for the manual is no great imposition.
One of the by-products of outsourcing is heterogeneous source code: the text, written in various programming languages, that is compiled into software. Programmers in India , for example, don't always communicate efficiently with hackers in California . As applications have become more complex, the development process itself has changed, involving teams of engineers who are often dispersed over wide geographical areas. Writers are indispensable in normalizing, or smoothing out, the information generated by these various groups. There are few outsourced technical writers, a sign that companies might be keeping these assignments at home. To be sure, some jobs have been sent overseas, but the trend does not appear to be significant.
A senior writer at a video game company currently documents internal development tools. Typically, a PlayStation or Xbox comes with an extensive application programming interface (API): the gateway to code libraries contained in the device; the equivalent of a mini-operating system. Engineers writing games for these platforms often build reusable tools-secondary programs never seen by the public-to create special effects, play sounds, and perform other recurring functions. These tools are distributed internally to engineers who need supporting documentation in order to use them correctly. The production of APIs and software development kits (SDKs) requires writers who are familiar with programming languages.
It's difficult to identify the point at which a writing position requires special expertise, but one place to look is the requirements section of the job description. Biotech writers, for example, must often hold a degree in a discipline such as molecular biology. Senior writers at a software company may need a master's in computer science. Generally, the combination of an advanced degree and significant work experience in a given field is most desirable.
A writer must first learn about the product and then combine that knowledge with technical specifications to produce a document that explains what the product is and how to use it. The ability to do independent research is key, along with strong interpersonal skills to gather information from subject matter experts and stressed out programmers who are often incoherent under deadline. The ability to interview is crucial-one reason why journalists are welcome.
Management skills are also important. Since the writer often works independently, organizational ability is essential. Senior writers need to be good managers of people, particularly when supervising multiple projects.
The way in which information is organized and presented can determine success or failure. A technical writer must present content in a logical sequence. If the intended audience finds the documentation confusing or hard to understand, they'll simply ignore it-not the best endorsement for the writer.
Besides basic proficiency with HTML and authoring tools such as Macromedia Dreamweaver, many positions require familiarity with XML, a standard for sending and receiving structured data. Adobe FrameMaker, a program that produces not just text files but HTML and XML documents, is another widely used program, as is Visio-a program used to build flow charts, process diagrams, and other portrayals of schema -and Macromedia RoboHelp, a tool for creating help files. Collaborative Web-based platforms called wikis that permit multiple users to add and modify content have also become important, especially at smaller companies, where writers and engineers constantly update specifications and other internal documents.
Writers at some software companies may need to be familiar with the Uniform Modeling Language (UML). This has nothing to do with being photogenic-it's a tool for illustrating the logical structure of a program. A working knowledge of SQL (Structured Query Language) will enable the writer to describe database schema as well.
Who holds key positions
A membership study conducted by the Society for Technical Communication found that the five most common academic backgrounds for technical writers are English, technical communication, science or engineering, computer science, and journalism (source: http://www.monster.com). Key positions are usually held by writers with degrees in these fields and from three to six years experience, depending on the industry and the company or organization. More programmers and engineers have become writers, partly because there are fewer jobs in their primary field.
Technical writing salaries are driven by a number of variables: geographical location, type of employer, years of experience, degree held, and additional product certification from companies such as Microsoft. The median salary for a writer with one to four years experience is $40,000 (source: http://www.payscale.com). For a person with more than ten years experience, the figure jumps to $54,000. The median salary for writers in Florida is $39,500, about $20,000 less than their California counterparts.
Interestingly, self-employed writers earn a median of $57,500, higher than those working as contractors ($51,500), at companies ($48,500), in the federal government ($45,000), or for nonprofit organizations ($42,950). It's important to note the relatively wide range of salaries. A technical writer with extensive work experience in software or financial services can earn a six-figure salary in San Jose or Manhattan , respectively.
In the past few years, contractors have been affected by recent class action suits meant to discourage employers who don't offer benefits to individuals considered de facto full-time employees by the IRS. It has become standard practice in Silicon Valley , for example, to limit contractors to twelve- or even six-month assignments, and to require a 100-day hiatus in between.
What hiring managers look for
Hiring managers look for good communicators who are naturally curious about how things work. The successful technical writer should be interested in what he or she is documenting, and must be sufficiently detail-oriented to capture information others might overlook. Personality is also important. No one is going to sit down and tell you everything-you often have to dig for what you're after, and it helps if you can get along with those you're interviewing.
Advice to the aspiring writer
A few things to keep in mind as you plan your job search:
- If you're just starting out, don't ignore smaller companies, where you'll see a greater mix of projects and develop broad experience. Large corporations are good places to be, particularly where there are many writers and an editing staff, but your chances of landing a job at one of those companies might be enhanced by first working at a smaller firm.
- Study as many examples as you can. Scrutinize manuals and web pages for content, design and layout. The companies that produce them spend literally millions to test the effectiveness of these resources. It's foolish to ignore the results of countless focus groups and other research. You don't need to reinvent the wheel-study accepted standards and you'll go far.
- Decide just how technical you want to be. If you have a rudimentary knowledge of one or more programming languages, consider taking a course, or if you don't have the time at least study a few tutorials. The Web is crammed full of such tools, ranging from guerilla open source listings to corporate sites that provide access to a complete range of knowledge. The more you can converse knowledgably with programmers and other technical workers, the better you'll be at documenting their efforts.
For further information
The Society for Technical Communication is the largest professional association in the world devoted to technical writers and editors, with more than 15,000 members. For more information and a list of valuable resources, visit the STC's website: http://www.stc.org.
Woody Lewis is a consultant in northern California . He has been a systems architect for IBM and Cisco, a corporate banker for Citibank and Salomon Brothers, and currently builds web applications for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. He holds a BA and MBA from Columbia University , and is currently an MFA candidate at Bennington College.