Feeling ignored? What’s that? No pay respects the hard work you do as a tech writer.
Sad, isn’t it? Very sad…
Ever wonder why?
Ever wonder what you need to do about it? Hmmm?
Tom Peters says, “the value of services will continue to fall” and that the only way to survive is to differentiate yourself from the competition.
Is this true?
How do you as a technical writer make yourself stand out from the crowd? If you don’t, what impact could this have on your career?
How to Differentiate Yourself as a Technical Writer
Here are five suggestions to do this:
Video Blogging – use your Camtasia skills to create videos that show how products work. Cisco is doing a great job in this area. They gave flip cameras to the IT people and encouraged them to make short, snappy videos that show how to use their hardware, networks, and systems. Which would you prefer? To read 20 pages or watch a 3 minute video?
Screencasting Training – now that you know how to make the videos, why not use this to teach others to do this same. Position yourself as a screen-casting expert, setup the blog, get involved, and show others how this works. FWIW there is a very active video marketing group on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/ivanwalsh) that you may want to join.
Web-based Training – if you’ve spent years writing guides, you must have developed an in-depth knowledge of 2 or 3 fields. See which of these are most in demand (Google searches and forums will be a starting point) and then develop training modules that you can present online. Lynda.com does a great job in offering training over the web. Sign up with them and see how it works.
Social Media Writing – you know how to write, right? Well, most people don’t. As Social Media continues to explode leverage your writing skills and show (“the benefit o f communicating well on Facebook is…”) others how to get their message across on these Social Network.
Business English – the upside of all these jobs getting shipped to India, China, Brazil is that their Management teams want to do more business in the west. How can you help them write better reports, communicate more clearly, protect them from being misunderstood – you get the idea!
These are just five ways you can stand out from the crowd and position yourself as a specialist. My suggestion is to look at who is doing this right, e.g. Debbie Weil, and study them diligently. Then develop an action plan and start getting the rewards you deserve.
What other careers can you think of? Is it possible to differentiate yourself as a Technical Writer? How would you do it?
Kai raised an interesting point about which skill (writing or technical) takes longer to master.
Knowing how to structure and present information to users? Or knowing how to use a product or application? That got me thinking. If you want to make money as a technical writer, which area should you focus on?
Kai’s point is, “…it’s always been easier and faster to learn a product/app. So knowing about structuring and presenting information has been the more valuable skill in a writer – and the rarer one, too, that’s much harder to learn from colleagues!
… and with Ivan, that writers can make up deficiencies with interest: “… if someone has an interest in sharing how the technology works, then they will go the extra mile…”
I think the real issue is this: Which skill takes longer to master?
I have to admit, that’s a very good way of looking at it. I hadn’t actually thought of it in those terms.
My take is that it’s easier to develop language/writing skills… or at least to develop them to a level where you can perform your duties as a technical writer.
With technology it’s more complex as (at least for me) I’m always learning. Even in areas where I have considerable knowledge, I still find that I’m learning and finding better ways of doing things.
When I started out my writing skills were rather ‘unsophisticated’ and that’s being kind. But, I knew how to program (Cobol, C, Fortran) and landed some nice contracts as a results. Writers with much better qualifications weren’t even considered.
I think there is more money if you have deep technical knowledge rather than strong writing skills.
Scott, over on Words on a Page, says, “If you want to improve as a writer, you not only need to write. You need to read. Writing and reading are two sides of the same coin. You need to do both to achieve your potential.”
I head downtown most weekends and buy 2 or 3 books, mostly business, history and some fiction.
Every so often I run out of options (we’re in Beijing) and get something I usually wouldn’t buy, for example, Iain M Banks. Reading outside my comfort zone stretches me. I encounter writing styles, opinions, and information that I usually side-step.
How Stephen King Made Me A Better Technical Writer
I’ve read Stephen King (on and off) since I was a teenager-almost 30 years. After going through Jack London, King Arthur and HG Wells, he was the first modern author that I read.
What did I like most?
The tension, crisp writing and little details that sucked you right in. You had to read on. Would Cujo eat the small child? Most of this was horror, something I grew out of after high school.
But he also wrote another book, On Writing.
If you’re interested in the mechanics of writing, get your hands on this. For me, it’s his best book — and I wish he’d go back and read it.
Because it teaches you how to write tight prose, remove the waffle, and stay focused. All the things I try to do as a technical writer.I hope he’ll turn a corner someday which is why I give him so many second chances…
What am I reading now?
I tend to mix and match. I have a stack of books next to my bed and dip in and out.
Groundswell, Social Media book
Built to Last – what makes companies success over the long term
Stephen King – Duma Key, really lame, especially after his early stuff
Graham Greene is always a pleasure. Our Man in Havana is a favorite
Genghis Khan bio, life in ancient Mongolia
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
Iain M Banks – pretentious drivel! I had such high hopes. Philip K Dick is the best sci-fi writer for me.
Catch 22 – ok, bit dated
Al Ries, Focus and the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
Tom Peters, Peter Drucker and Seth Godin are all there too.
Seth’s writing style is, for me, the best out there right now, at least in the business world. Tight, crisp, and funny. No words wasted.
I rarely buy magazines anymore as most are close to 5 euro in Europe. Instead I pony with the difference and get some books.
Thinking of starting a career as a Technical Writer? I’ve worked in Technical Writing for over fifteen years, mostly as a freelancer. Here’s an outline of a typical day when working from home.
FYI – I wrote this last thing at night, so the grammar may not be perfect. But, it will give you an idea of what’s involved if you’re thinking of moving into technical communications.
A Day in the Life of a Home Based Technical Writer
My day starts at 6.05 and finishes around11pm. I’m online 7 days a week. How do I survive? I often wonder, myself…
A little background
I’ve been in technical writing for 15 years. I remember when Windows was just, you guessed it, little windows. I started with Aldus PageMaker, before Adobe bought it, and then moved onto Corel and other DTP packages.
After leaving theUK, I moved toSacramento, different parts ofCalifornia, then back toAmsterdam,Dublin,London(again), thenShanghai, and nowBeijing. I also work inIreland.
Ok, so that’s me.
Technical Setup for Writing
Technical writing in your pajamas. Well, maybe not actually in my pajamas — does anyone still buy these? — I do work from home.
Here’s my technical setup:
LG pc – this is souped up to the gills. I have it assembled when inShanghaiand it has oodles of memory, hard drives, etc. It has never crashed!
1st Dell laptop – super large (too big, to be honest) with Visio, Adobe FrameMaker and other tech document stuff.
2nd Dell laptop for light surfing
Finding Freelance Technical Writing Work
How I get work? Three ways: referrals, legacy customers and consultancy.
Tip #1 Long standing customers is where the money is.
Chasing new leads/projects etc is a fool’s game. There may be short term gains, but in the long run (e.g. when a recession kicks in) it’s your ‘old reliables’ that keep things ticking over.
New referrals come in all the time. But these can be problematic. People want, for example, web-based help written up.
But they don’t have the product ready yet, so you can’t see what needs to be documented.
Or they think the specs/screens etc may change in mid-project. Will this change the price?
Or they want you to use Flash to develop a knowledge-base. Why not use SQL? They like Flash; it’s cool.
You can waste a lot of time with these type of customers. We call them ‘tyre-kickers’ at home. They want to buy the car, but never get past the tyre kicking stage.
Technical Writing Consultancy
This is a mix. People want advice on tool to use, need a fresh set of eyes to check a document set, interview junior tech writers or partner them on a new project.
This is happening quite a bit. Say a web developer is going for a project (e.g. bidding for a contract) and needs a web writer/technical writer onboard. I sign up as the partner and do the documents when they come on-stream.
If you link up with reliable partners, this can be a nice little earner. So, what’s my day like.
Home Based Technical Writer- Typical working day
Alarm goes off at 6.00. Snooze. Up at 6.05.
I have 40 min to check email before the family wake up. Remember most of my clients are in theUS, so it’s their afternoon. This 40 min is often the most frantic time of the day. Someone somewhere has a problem – it’s always urgent – and I have less than half an hour to fix it. Once the crew get up, it’s just not possible. We live in a v nice apt — but there is no hiding place.
I have 5 email addresses. I get between 40-120 emails per day. The highest was 700 when I got spammed.
I check the business emails in order of priority.
Business 1, Business 2, and then Business 3.
I scan each box, delete junk, open what’s left. Many of my responses are 1-2 lines.
When writing emails, use numbered lists to break-out the message, e.g.
To convert the Adobe FrameMaker files I need the source files by Tuesday.
I will need the graphics by Monday inTIFformat
It will be ready by Thursday
The price is 300 USD
Who do I invoice? What’s their email address?
When answering emails, use lists to break out each answer. The reason I do this is that people will often answer the first question and skip the others. Then you have to chase them for the other information. Time is money when you work for yourself. Structure your emails so that it’s easier for customers (and potential customers) to give you all the information you need in one go.
Tip #3 – I NEVER check Yahoo or Gmail before the business emails are finished.
Food. Porridge with walnuts & soybean mix to start. A quick look at the clock and I see how much I can do before their alarm goes off.
Many emails are similar.
“I’ve lost a file, can you make a conf call, how much do you charge etc.”
To speed things up, I have a text file (no formatting) with the answers to the most common queries.
This saves hours every month. They all need to be modified to so degree but the bones of the response is there. Fingers crossed that I get the real urgent stuff taken care off before…
Lights on and they’re awake!
As I’m already pumped up (terrible isn’t it?) I rally the troops and get things moving. One of the downsides of micro-managing your business (depending on how you look at it, I guess) is that it tends to spill over to your home life — everything becomes a task, a deadline, a target. I try to lighten up. Sometimes we’re late for school. It’s fine.
Eat, shower, shave, arrange school bag, find missing sneaker, feed goldfish, coax pet crickets from their sleep/suspended animation and we’re off on the school run. Get back by 8.
School day are long inAsia(7.30 – 4.45 most days) so I get a good amount done. InEuropethis was more of a problem as we had endless teacher training days, mid-term, bank hols etc. Here, it’s go, go, go.
2 coffees, toast, soccer news, yahoo etc and then close them all at 8.15.
I take lots of ‘mini breaks’ thru the day but keep them all to 10 min or so.
Tip #5 Close the web browser and email. Otherwise, I’m peaking all the time. I know myself. Stay focused.
I work in short bursts between 8.15 and 11.
I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of my projects. It’s very simple. Nothing fancy. When under pressure, or knowing that I’m sliding, I print it out as a reminder.
“This is what you have to do, Ivan.”
Tip #6 Working by/for yourself is like dealing with a child. You have to be patient and firm. Little treats and threats both seem to works.
And I reward myself!
When things go well I splurge on a book that I usually wouldn’t buy. Steven Pinker, the Language Instinct is my next treat. Expensive over here.
Setting up interviews
I interview people for this site; it’s one of the most popular sections. Low-tech viral marketing.
I enjoy these interactions as it gives me a chance to meet others, by email and Skype admittedly, and get some insights into how they work.
You think you know so much. But then when you talk to others, you realize, there are so many areas you need to catch up on.
I started writing the questions for this interview at 9.25 (Emails took from 7.55-9.15. Much longer than I thought) and finished at 10.10.
But, here’s the thing.
How should I send it to him? Email, word, on the net?
The Word document I used was pretty bland. Ok, but not much else.
So, I spend 15 min formatting the document (actually tweaking my invoice template). Now it looks 10 x better.
If you want to succeed as a consultant/freelancer etc, you have to go the extra yard ALLTHE TIME. There is so much competition out there, you really have to stand out.
My work varies. This week it involves:
Writing standard operating procedures
Converting documents from Word to Adobe FrameMaker
Business process work.
Visio is by far my fav tool; creating process maps, state chart diagrams, flowcharts etc is a doddle.
Like I said earlier, I work in short bursts. Maybe 20-30 min and then stop.
It’s important to stand up, get away from the pc and stretch. Most technical writers end up suffering from lower back, next and eye problems. Which brings us nicely to….
I have a choice: swim or run.
My aim is to burn up 500 calories per day. I alternate between the thread-mill (even though I hate to run) and the pool (where I love the freezing cold water – the colder the better. BRRRR).
Some of my clearest thinking is in the pool. Maybe this is the only time I really can reflect on the business. No questions, phones, to-do lists. I now carry a small notebook and jot down ideas that pop up.
Chris Brogan mentioned that when on a cruise in Mexico, he had very clear insights into where he should take his business.
So, while I go swimming too get away from work, oddly enough these are often my most ‘fruitful’ hours. But remember: write it down. Otherwise, it’s gone.
This is part 2 of my day; the halfway point.
From here until 4.38 (I leave on the dot) I continue to work on project
I find it hard to kick-start so soon after the gym/pool. To get around this, I do graphic, diagrams, videos etc. Visual work is a nice counter-balance to the writing.
I know I’m not the greatest technical writer in the world. But my documents LOOK great.
This is something to consider if you plan to go freelance. The accuracy, quality etc of your material is one thing (arguably the most important) but the packaging makes a huge difference.
I’ve seem people’s eyes light up when they saw a really sharp user guide land on their desk.
Use high-quality paper for the Cover Page if you’re going to give it to the boss. Even if you have to buy it yourself, do it. It feels good.
When you’re a consultant, people like to feel you’re worth the money.
Don’t go cheap. You can claw back the pennies elsewhere.
School run. Literally.
Back at the PC.
Work until 7ish or whenever dinner is ready.
Go swim (again) with junior, or cycle, walk, dvd, draw, whatever until bedtime.
Back at the PC.
Work until 11ish.
The last lap is light admin activities, Snagit work, and planning for tomorrow.
I try to avoid writing technical docs late in the evening as it takes too much brain power. The next day, I’m shattered.
Say goodnight to the crickets, gold-fish, lock the door and then off to bed with a book. Tonight I’m reading Margey Allingham, the Coroner’s Pidgin. Wonderful turn of phrase and great story lines.
Check that the alarm is set.
How many hours a day do you work as a freelance technical writer? What’s the hardest part of the job?
Which of these would you hire to join your Technical Writing Dept? Someone with great writing skills but little technical knowledge or, for example, a Computer Science graduate with deep technical knowledge but average writing skills? We’ve been talking about this on LinkedIn and here are some thoughts.
Writing skills give you the tools to communicate – and to help/teach others to communicate.
FYI – One of the trends I see in Tech Comms, is the changing role of the Technical Writer / Technical Communicator into an educator, facilitator, and becoming the central point of contact for technical information distribution (i.e. technical information coordination).
The counter argument is as follows.
Why Technical Skills Are More Important
Technical knowledge is the starting point. You need to know how the system works, otherwise all the writing skills in the world may be of little use. If you don’t know what it actually does, what can you begin to write?
Most ‘non-technical’ technical writers (e.g. graduates with English degrees) waste/take up developers’ time asking questions about how the application works, instead of actually generating content. While there is some leeway here with new technologies, developers have their own deadlines and can’t be expected stop coding to explain the innards to the application.
Those with technical skills can hit the ground running – it’s the responsibility of the Technical Editor to refine the text.
Those with technical skills know which questions to ask. As they understand the application/industry/codebase they can ask the hard questions that ‘non technical’ writers would not see in the first place.
Which would you hire?
If you were running a technical writing dept, which type of person would you hire?
A technical writer with strong technical skills, but prone to the occasional typo, or someone with perfect grammar, sound writing skills, but low on technical knowledge?
From Shakespeare, Graham Greene, JK Rowling to Colum McAndrew, Ellis Pratt, David Farbey. All have all one thing in common – great writing! As my career started in the Baker Street, London in the 90s, I’ve always carried fond memories of my time in England. Here are some UK based technical writers you might want to add to your Twitter list. By the way, do you notice any difference between UK and US tech writer blogs? Continue reading 5 UK Technical Writers You Should Follow on Twitter
Technical Writing attracts women. They’re very good at it and make great team leads.
Maybe I’ve been very lucky but I believe women are far better as technical writers than men.
Here are five areas where I think they have the edge of the guys.
When in entered technical writing, I assumed my days would be spent cranking out user guides on Adobe FrameMaker. Little did I know that a large part of my day would be spend chasing developers for specs, calling testers for bug reports, and working with customers (often non-English) to update the release notes.
This is in relation to the Documentation Plan (aka Information Development Plan) that most technical writers prepare in advance of starting a major project. Granted, on smaller projects you can get away with this if you know the product, have the resources and the deliverables are nailed down.
I got this email during the week. The question was: is it worth the time and money to take a technical writing course?
“I’ve been reading articles about Technical Writing and I’m thinking about a change in career. I’ve worked as a non-degreed Quality Engineer in the manufacturing industries. Writing quality documentations and SOPs was a large part of my duties. In the last 12 years I’ve been employed as a Business Mail Entry Tech with the United States Postal Services. I’m currently making 53K, and with all my benefits add up to about 75K. Writing has always been a love of mine. I’ve been looking for a field that will provide decent living as some sort of writer. After reading your articles I realized that I should take courses in HTML, Frame Maker, etc. Is it worth the time and money to take college technical writing courses?”
Can I get a job as a Technical Writer without a Degree?
Taking the courses won’t hurt, that’s for sure. However, I think we need to step back a second and look at the bigger picture. If you’re thinking of moving into technical writing —and don’t have a technical writing related degree —then, how do you go about it.
I left university in the middle of my computer science degree. This was 20 years back when the economy was even worse than it is now. Partly this was to take up a role in London as a programmer (v low salary but a step in the door) and also to see what opportunities I could generate in a large city versus the small town I was living in.
I moved out of programming and into dtp/technical writing; more out of necessity as the recession got worse and also no-one else wanted to do it!
Several years later, I was working in Sacramento for at Intel on a nice little contract. That was a start as a freelancer technical writer. I’d held full-time positions now and then but prefer to work for myself.
In that time, I’ve worked in Dublin, London, USA, and Asia. Clients include IBM, Bank of Ireland, Valista, and S1.
So, how much training have I had?
Some courses in UML, Process Design and Oracle, but no formal training courses in Adobe FrameMaker and other technical writing tools.
I didn’t go on the courses because of a) cost, b) time, c) and justification.
Instead I downloaded the applications and trained myself to use them. So, while I’m not a ‘recognized’ expert on Adobe FrameMaker, I know how to get under the hood and get things done.
This meant that when interviewed, I could hold my own and ask the interviewers questions that demonstrated that I knew the applications, making suggestions on how they could resolve their issues and improve working practices and so on.
Having the actual diploma wouldn’t have hurt and if you can get it, then go ahead.
But, by itself, then diploma or degree won’t get you hired.
There are a few reasons for this. What I’ve done next is complied some articles that discuss how to get hired as a technical writer, especially those who don’t have a degree or are coming into this field from another area, for example, journalism or engineering.
What type of skills do Technical Writers need?
You need enough expertise to understand your audience’s background and their needs. For example, writers who develop documentation for software APIs and other technical subjects are often paid more than those who write guides for a nontechnical audience as it’s difficult to find writers with specialized technical knowledge.
This article is from a technical writer who started when there were no technical writing qualifications.
“The only requirement was that you had a degree of some sort, and even that wasn’t really compulsory. I know some technical writers who came up through clerical roles. Others, like me, are former programmers. A lot of them are trainers who decided that they could write better training manuals than the ones that were forced on them.”
A journalist who set-up a home office with the aim of becoming a freelance writer, lives in an area that is very IT-connected with many tech writers roles available.
He asks: how important is it for a writer to have a background in IT to be a techical writer in the IT field?
“I have done tech writing in the past (instruction manuals for the pulp and paper industry.) I knew little about the machines for which I was writing instructions, but was able to understand and clearly explain how the machines worked.”
Chris Street says to turn your skills to your advantage. For example:
You are a technical writer (you have written instruction manuals)
You understand programs from a user’s point of view
You can write simply and clearly
You are used to writing to deadlines
You’re used to writing quickly
You’re used to rewriting to editors requirements
You’re used to talking to people and getting information which you then turn into documentation
Chris adds that the two areas non-tech writer friends fall down in (from an IT-related perspective) are:
they don’t know the tools and
they’re not comfortable with project management and the software development lifecycle.
He also adds that most writers are “notoriously bad at selling ourselves, particularly if we have been in one job for a long time. You have to take a long, hard look at what your skills are and produce a marketable resume.”
UK STC on Qualifications for technical writers
The UK chapter of the Society of Technical Communications reckons that it is not necessary to have a degree in technical communication in order to get a job.
Only a small proportion of technical authors in the UK have such a qualification because most of the university courses in technical communication did not start running until the late 1980s or early 1990s.
However, most employers expect candidates to have a degree or equivalent qualification, though they sometimes settle for less in people with good practical experience.
The qualifications demanded depend to some extent on who’s doing the hiring; a Technical Publications Manager is more likely than a Software Development Manager to look for a degree or diploma in technical communication.
Any experience of formal writing is useful, as is a solid grounding in a technical discipline, such as computing or engineering.
The Technical Writing Zone makes the point that unlike other professionals, “technical writers do not have to meet specific educational requirements in order to be considered for employment opportunities. Indeed, there are successful technical writers who only have a high school diploma.”
Most technical writers today have a strong educational background. So, although there are no mandatory courses you must take before you can try to pursue a career as a technical writer, it is recommended that you obtain one or more of the following qualifications to increase your chances of success.
If you want to become a qualified technical writer then the Certified Technical Writing Specialist course is worth a look.
The Certified Technical Writing Specialist (CTWS) is a globally administered credential representing the highest level of certification for professionals who create technical documentation.
CTS sets the credentialing standards for the CTWS credential and develops, maintains and administers the Certified Technical Writing Specialist Examination. CTS provides an objective reference for technical writers to demonstrate that they hold the highest level of core knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes.
The CTWS Candidate Handbook contains sample questions for the CTWS credentialing exam.
This Technical Writing Certificate was introduced in 1998 in response to the growing demand to more effectively communicate technical material through manuals, reports and online documentation. The program design provides an integrated curriculum covering principles and practices commonly used in technical environments. The program is designed for those who are looking to accent their current careers or enter an entirely new career focusing on technical writing.
Skills focus on organization, project management, creating user guides and manuals, documenting policies and procedures and writing documentation for online formats.
Online Brooklyn College Technical Writing Certificate Program
Started in 1999 this program gives students plenty of opportunity to interact with instructors. As of February 2007, people from all over the world have registered for and completed over 400 individual sections of the courses that are offered.
Eight-course program is online: you can take the courses individually, or you can take some combination of the eight courses and earn the certificate—right in your own home and from anywhere in the world. http://www.io.com/~hcexres/brooklyn/index.html
UML Certificate Program in Technical Writing
Those with strong writing skills and an aptitude for computers are encouraged to enter this program. Taught by practicing professionals from the high tech industry, students learn to use the most current technologies and processes.
You can selectively take Business & Technical Communications courses without going for a degree or certificate. Students intending to complete the degree or certificate often get jobs during the program and never complete the degree or certificate.
You can register in two ways:
Regular academic credit: To get a formal academic certificate or degree, you must take courses for regular academic credit. This entails admission to the college and tuition payment according to where you live. You can transfer in any relevant college course work you have done. You can complete the certificate or degree by distance. As a distance student, you can apply local course work to the certificate or degree as long as at least 25% of your course work is “in residence” at Austin Community College. (Online Austin Community College courses are considered “in residence.”)
Continuing education: With this option, you do not have to apply for admission to the college, and you pay the same tuition no matter you live. However, you must “convert” courses taken as continuing education to official academic credit.
If you plan to go for a degree or certificate, contact David McMurrey, department chair, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512.223.4804 for advising. http://www.austincc.edu/tcm/
It’s not inexpensive, (ok, it’s expensive) but it worth the money if you want a decent primer into technical writing and are considering taking the online technical writing course via Austin University.
While I believe it’s possible to move into technical writing with a little determination and perseverance, the salary expectations for technical writers is falling. Contracts are also drying up and more IT companies are outsourcing to Eastern Europe, Asia and India.
For this reason, I’d be cautious in moving from a ‘stable’ position, especially if you’re earning 53K, with benefits 75K.
One approach might be to learn some of the tools (e.g. Frame or RoboHelp) and/or writing techniques and try to get freelance technical writing work. If this takes off, then you can give it more consideration and maybe move into it on a part-time basis.
One final thought it that most technical writing roles tend to be in large metro regions. It’s hard to find freelance work in the suburbs unless you live near an R&D centre.
What do you think? Is it possible to get a job in technical writing without a degree? Should this person stay where they are or upskill and move into IT?