TechWhirl (TECHWR-L) is a resource for technical writing and technical communications professionals of all experience levels and in all industries to share their experiences and acquire information.
For two decades, technical communicators have turned to TechWhirl to ask and answer questions about the always-changing world of technical communications, such as tools, skills, career paths, methodologies, and emerging industries. The TechWhirl Archives and magazine, created for, by and about technical writers, offer a wealth of knowledge to everyone with an interest in any aspect of technical communications.
> a. What do you do over the course of a day as a writer?
Scheduling, rescheduling (Oops! they forgot to tell us about that feature/fix),
trying to get the program to work, talking with programmers/users, writing,
creating graphics, fighting with Framemaker and other programs.
> b. How did you get your first job as a writer?
I started as a programmer. After 8 months on the job, my first husband decided
to leave me and my 3-year-old. In those days programmers worked 9 p.m.-6 a.m.
and there were no overnight babysitters. So I asked if there was something
else I could do daytime hours. The company needed a manual, and I had a degree
in journalism, and that's how it started.
> c. What kind of skills did you have starting out?
I knew how to write. I had several years' experience in newspapers. I knew how
to program. I also had taught English and journalism for four years.
> d. What kind of skills are needed now starting out?
The ability to write, to interview, to learn new programs, and to play teacher
in your mind as you think through what people want to know. Some experience
with graphic arts. Computer skills!!!! The ability to juggle multiple
projects and difficult people. Stress management. Flexibility when it comes
to dealing with changing project definitions and schedules.
> e. What's best/worst part of being a writer?
Best: creating things that help people become better at what they want to learn
or do. Constantly learning new things and getting paid to do so. These days,
being on the leading edge of an important growth curve.
Worst: The attitude by most engineering companies that documentation isn't
important. Product teams that don't take the doc process into account, with
the result that, they use up all the slack time in changing the program and
don't leave you enough time to get the doc out. Lack of respect.
> f. What advice would you give someone thinking about writing as a career?
Be very clear whether you want to write primarily for the love of creative
expression, or to get paid for what you do. If you want the former, please
attend all the writing workshops you can find, submit to elegant little
fiction magazines, and keep your day job as an editor. Yours is the world of
an artist; adjust your realities accordingly. If the latter is your prime
objective and writing is secondary to getting paid, pay close attention to the
want ads in your community, read the trade press in your industry, go to users'
groups and listen to how people ask questions, learn about usability, and
get yourself an internship with someone who can show you the ropes of the
business. Pay attention to growing your salable skills. You will live and die
by your resume.
> g. What kind of advancement opportunities are there as a writer?
You stay a junior writer/intern for six months to a year in most places. Then
you become a "technical writer." That period lasts as long as economic
conditions in your area permit. In Silicon Valley, you become a senior writer
after about three years of broad experience with several packages. Once you
become a senior writer, the only writing option is publications management,
and there you are highly vulnerable to upper management changes of heart, etc.
Most pubs managers become contract tech writers, for higher pay (higher stress,
too, it must be said) and more freedom. Some pubs managers try becoming
book authors, only to find that it generally doesn't pay a steady income. Some
pubs managers become consultants who specialize in some facet of programming.
> h. What kind of money can be made at entry level? After 1-3 years?
Money is totally a function of geographic area. Rumor on the street is that
in general you make the best money in Silicon Valley - however the cost of
living eats it up. Entry level writers in Silicon Valley can make $24-30,000.
Senior (captive) writers make $50-65,000, on average. Contract tech writers
make anywhere from $35/hour to $65/hour, depending on skills and their ability
to negotiate, although most companies choke at anything over $50/hour.
> i. With strong writing skills, a BA in sociology and much clerical type
> experience, but next to none in programming, what kind of chance do I
> have getting a job as a tech writer?
Slim. Try doing some marketing communications stuff in a technical company
first, to show you can handle the technology. Then leverage that into more
technical writing. In general, you have to show you can handle technical
information before you get a chance to write about it.