In general, writing careers are not the best paying nor the most stable, but the field of technical writing is an exception.
A few writers have asked me about my job, so here are a few FAQ in case you are considering a career switch, want to know what you can do with an English degree, or if you’re simply curious.
Technical Writing FAQ
Q: What qualifications do I need?
It depends on the industry you are working on. For example, if you are working in the financial industry and understanding financial systems, or a background in finance, would be beneficial.
In general, you should be comfortable working with computers, be able to learn how to use new software quickly, and have a solid grasp of grammar. Being moderately anal-retentive is actually an asset. If the improper use of “its” and “it’s” grates on your nerves, if you reach for a red pen every time you see a typo, if you can debate over the use of serial commas, this may be the job for you.
I work in the niche of SDK documentation. I write documents that help programmers, create sample programs, and show programmers how to customize our software to fit their needs. In this case, a degree in computer science is a requirement. (Sometimes we joke that our job is to translate from software developer to English.)
Other technical writers, on the same team, have varying educational backgrounds, but they’re all intimidated by the software, and are good at communicating with technical people. They write documentation for the end users instead of programmers. What they create are the manuals, and what you see when you click on “Help” in the menu bar of the software you’re using.
Q: Does it affect your fiction writing?
Technical writing requires a different mode of thinking. It’s a left-brained activity instead of a creative one.
In some ways it does affect my writing. I’ve been trained to strip down my words to the barest minimum. There is no individual voice. My writing must be consistent with the other topics that already exist.
When it comes to fiction, I often have to consciously avoid listing the facts up front. I also have to coax out my writer’s voice out of hiding. It’s a timid little thing.
For the most part I’ve learned to switch between the two. They’re not the same.
Q: Don’t you ever feel burned out? You write during the day and come home to write some more?
Well, sitting at the computer all day is a pain! However, the writing makes up only 20% (or less) of the work I do on a daily basis. The largest portion of my time is taken up with research: getting to understand the subject matter, collecting data, testing functionality, and talking to other people. It’s not an isolated experience like writing a novel. So no, I don’t get burned out.
I do, however, really need to start going to the gym.
Q: What about the pay?
Very good compared to other writing jobs, but still nothing to get too excited about.
I’d make more money as a software developer or programmer (done that), but I prefer the technical writing. I don’t do the same thing everyday, I work with different tools, and I work with different people on a regular basis. It’s a lot less stressful than software development.
Q: What’s the writing process like?
- Peer reviews. The writing is put up to round table scrutiny by the other writers. Areas that are unclear are spotted. Questions are asked and validity is challenged. Rough spots and typos are pointed out. Structural issues are dealt with. I may have to go back and do more research at this point.
- I fix my stuff.
- The final pass goes through the editor, who works his magic. I swear he really has grammatical superpowers! He’s awesome.
- Then I fix up my stuff maybe once or twice more and work with the editor if there are troublesome areas.
- The editor signs off on the work, then it goes out for approval by the technical stakeholders.
- Possibly more edits at this point (but usually minor).
- The thing gets published!
That actually sounds an awful lot like revising a novel now doesn’t it? Did I mention we go through this process for every single page we write?
Q: Are there lessons from technical writing that you can apply to fiction?
- Even if something has passed through countless reviews, and the editor has signed off on it, there’s always something that can be fixed if it’s looked at again. Old topics can still spark debate if brought back into the light of day. There’s no such thing as perfection. There will always be something wrong. At some point you just have to let the writing ‘be’.
- Beware pronouns and make sure your sentences are not ambiguous.
- If you can say the same thing with less words, less is better.
- Avoid semicolons like the plague. You probably don’t need them. If you think you do, you can reword the sentence so you don’t.
Technical writing is not glorious. You won’t produce anything in the world with your name on it, but it is a stable writing job that pays decently.
I still need to flex my creative muscles, so I come home and write fiction, then I come to my blog and violate all kinds of grammar rules, but no, I don’t hate my day job. This is a pretty good place to be.
What about you? Do you enjoy your day job? Does it help or hinder your writing aspirations?