Re: Tech Writing as a career

Subject: Re: Tech Writing as a career
From: Erik Harris <ewh -at- PLAZA -dot- DS -dot- ADP -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 25 Oct 1994 14:46:07 -0800

James Driggers asked:

>a. What do you do over the course of a day as a writer?

Manage dozens of review copies, make little picky changes, revise templates
used to create multiple similar documents. The job I hold now is much more
secretarial than any other TW job I've held, but strangely, it pays more.
In other days, I used to design documents and even the systems they were
supposed to support. I was the only writer in a 45-person company then. Now
I work for a huge company that has many writers but not as professional a
writing culture.

>b. How did you get your first job as a writer?

Applied to a posted job description during senior year of college. Then it
turned out that I knew someone who worked there...he was the other writer,
a philosophy major, and the company had done so well with him that they
were looking for another writer with no specific TW background, just
aptitude (and cheap).

>c. What kind of skills did you have starting out?

I could write and edit for a variety of audiences. I could teach myself how
to use word processors and other computing ideas. My first "professional
writing sample" was an outline of a set of policy guidelines for my college
radio station, where I was program director. *That* job required a lot of
organizational skills and analytical ability, which is 40-60% of TW, in my

>d. What kind of skills are needed now starting out?

All of the above, plus, to get one's foot in the door, being able to claim
knowledge of various WP and DTP tools.

>e. What's best/worst part of being a writer?

Best: proving your organizational strategies by putting them into practice.
Experimenting with products to see what "the truth" about their use really
is, as opposed to what the spec says. (If there is a spec.) Convincing
management to let you use your usability knowledge and your sense of
user-advocacy to revise the design prototype.

Worst: people thinking you're there to "make it pretty" and/or be their
secretary. Non-editors taking the opportunity to edit your work for "style"
instead of content, like they're supposed to be doing. Management not
inviting you to design sessions and then giving you a rotten product to
document in a big hurry.

>f. What advice would you give someone thinking about writing as a career?

Technical writing is excellent analytical work. You have to like details,
however. Also, consider whether you can be satisfied practicing your craft
in obscurity rather than receiving accolades from a broad, responsive

>g. What kind of advancement opportunities are there as a writer?

System interface design (I hope!). Writing books on the subject. Consulting
for $$$.

>h. What kind of money can be made at entry level? After 1-3 years?

I made $23K out of college and got 20% and 10% raises in years 1 and 2.
This was in a sweatshop in New England. In Montana I wrote proposals for
$16K, which was crazy, so I moved to Oregon where I now make what I did in
N.E. If you're any good and your employer isn't paying in the 30s after 2-3
years, work somewhere else. You'll know by then whether TW is for you.

>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?

Convince someone that the soc. degree is highly analytical and your chances
will be better than fair. Assemble a portfolio. Figure out what companies
*need* in a tech writer (they have varying requirements). Can you learn
programming concepts quickly? You'll probably need to, even if you never
write any programs. You might consider working for a printshop that accepts
copy on diskette in various formats...they have to have lots of computer
programs that will output customers' documents to their linotronic devices
and whatnot. You could gain experience with the programs and the
publications process, then make a transition to a TW job by stressing or
proving your writing skills to an employer.

Best of luck. It's a growing if you can contribute, you're welcome.

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