Tech Writer Levels and Responsibilities (long)

Subject: Tech Writer Levels and Responsibilities (long)
From: Steven Jong <SteveFJong -at- AOL -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 8 Apr 1997 11:05:10 -0400

Based on my experience at large companies, I have a mental model of the
differences between a junior, senior, and principal technical writer, for
what it's worth to you. I see the jobs as having increasing scope and
responsibility, as well as decreasing turnover rates and need for
supervision.

A junior writer is expected to work on one document at a time, probably an
addendum or revision (not a new document), under close supervision. The
junior writer is told what to do fairly explicitly, and is expected to carry
out those instructions. I would expect a writer with 0-2 years of experience
to fall into this range. A junior writer is necessarily fungible; one leaves
and another comes in as a replacement--no big deal. (An "irreplaceable junior
writer" ought to be a contradiction in terms 8^)

A senior writer is expected to work on one (new) or more documents at a time,
probably as part of a writing team under the direction of a lead writer. The
senior writer may be responsible for a particular document for several
revisions, and is expected to work with little supervision. I would expect a
writer with 3-5 years of experience to fall into this range. Senior writers
tend to be on their second job; at about this time wanderlust sets in 8^)

A principal writer is expected to work on one (or more) product documentation
sets as a time, probably as lead writer. The principal writer may be
responsible for a particular product documentation set for several revisions,
and is expected to work with little or no supervision. I would expect a
writer with 6+ years of experience to fall into this range. You don't want to
lose a principal writer; you've invested a lot over the years in training,
and you can call in a principal writer, give no more instruction than
"There's a new product coming out at the end of the year; Joan's the lead
engineer, so talk to her", and end up with a professional doc set at the end
of the year with no further supervision necessary! You gotta love it.

Principal writers, in particular, are specialists. They may be exceptional
writers, exceptionally knowledgable about the product, exceptionally good
with tools, or exceptionally facile at passing on knowledge. In fact, I would
demand exceptional skills in some area from a principal writer. At two large
companies I worked for, the "Principal" title was characterized as a
"lifetime" level; that is, there was no shame in remaining at that level for
the rest of your career, and no expectation that you would rise above it.
(Indeed, there are very few companies where you *could* rise above the
principal level without going into management.) By the same token, I have
observed a lot of ideosyncracies in principal writers (too numerous to go
into here 8^). The specialist is also often the odd duck. Lest you think me
too harsh, I offer by comparison the senior engineering staff of any software
company. 'Nuff said.

At a smaller company, such nuances are less apparent, and there's more work
with less supervision. You're in the deep end of the pool; sink or swim.
(Logic would dictate that small companies hire experienced writers; I suspect
economics dictate just the opposite.) You probably aren't even framing the
question if you work for a small company.

You also asked about supervisory skills. I don't think they fit into this
model; writing supervisors are like other supervisors more than they're like
other writers.

Wow, I think that's enough sweeping generalities for one day! Needless to
say, your mileage may vary.

-- Steve

=============================================================
Steven Jong, Documentation Group Leader ("Typo? What tpyo?")
Lightbridge, Inc, 281 Winter St., Waltham, MA 02154 USA
<jong -at- lightbridge -dot- com>, 617.672.4902 [voice], 617.890.2681 [FAX]
Home Sweet Homepage: http://members.aol.com/SteveFJong

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