Posted on 7 Comments

Who Makes More Money? Technical Writers with Language or IT Skills?

money

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?

Sharpen your writing skills or deepen your technical knowledge, for example, learning how to document an API?

Which Technical Writers Makes The Most Money

I think there is more money if you have deep technical knowledge rather than strong writing skills.

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!

So I agree with David: “… it’s easier for a good non-technical writer with an interest in technology to become a good technical writer, than it is for a good engineer to become one.”

… 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.

What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Who Makes More Money? Technical Writers with Language or IT Skills?

  1. Oh, this is getting ever more interesting, good!

    In my rather limited experience, barely passing tech writers make less money than barely passing developers who can also write. That seems to extend all the way to the top, so top-notch tech communicators with big solid projects under their belt make less money than developer counterparts.

    So that gives you an easy answer to Ivan's question: “If you want to make money as a technical writer, which area should you focus on?”

    But it's not the only one. My answer, my advice is: “First get a good feel for the field of tech writing and its diverse nooks and niches. Then find a marketable skill that interests you and you can be good at. THAT's the one you should take up.”

    A few convictions play into that answer, and if you disagree with them, chances are you want to disregard my advice:

    – You should enjoy your work at least half of the time. If you're on a passage that you don't care for or makes you miserable, try to stay afloat on a diffetent, happier boat. Life's too short, etc.

    – There's considerable space and variety at the top in both areas, writing and technology. Yes, it's fairly easy and quick to get from a college graduate to “a level where you can perform your duties as a technical writer.” If that's where you are, imagine all the available paths instead of looking at the Joneses and their salary. If nothing else, the path “up” is shorter than “sideways and up” where you first have to train in a different discipline.

    – One helpful strategy when thinking “up”: Think of documentation as a corporate asset, not as a liability. That's where the “marketable skill” comes in. That's what convinces anybody who hires you that you have a business sense – even if you're the writer with a language degree. This is about cost-efficient delivery, optimizing processes, collaboration with other offices, sharing contents with other departments, etc.

  2. Hi Kai,

    Absolutely agree with this. For me, this was the turning point in my career.

    < Think of documentation as a corporate asset, not as a liability. That's where the “marketable skill” comes in. That's what convinces anybody who hires you that you have a business sense – even if you're the writer with a language degree. This is about cost-efficient delivery, optimizing processes, collaboration with other offices, sharing contents with other departments, etc.

    Most technical writers (ok, many technical writers) see themselves as doing the low-level stuff, such as guides and manuals, and don’t give themselves a chance to get past this.

    Positioning yourself as someone who can solve problems, reduce costs, increase efficiencies by developing better content – that’s where they real money is.

    Why?

    Because at that point, you're not getting paid to write, but paid to think.

    How can we solve problems but streamlining the content, improving process etc

    How can we reduce costs by giving customers better documents that reduce the workload on customer service (which is very expensive!)

    How can we increase efficiencies by linking content across all depts in a meaningful way

    And other ways that make your life as a writer more interesting.

    E.g. how to use Social Media to develop, extend your writing skills.

    I'm surprised that technical writers don’t do more with twitter (for example) as you’d think this medium is perfect for them – short, tidy nuggets of information.

    But, the key, like you said, is to demonstrate that you're adding value, not just solving a problem or getting a document out the door.

    Next week, I’ll try to write about how to do this, i.e. make the shift both in oneself and in an organization.

    Ivan

  3. You wrote: “Most technical writers (ok, many technical writers) see themselves as doing the low-level stuff, such as guides and manuals, and don’t give themselves a chance to get past this. Positioning yourself as someone who can solve problems, reduce costs, increase efficiencies by developing better content – that’s where they real money is.”

    I would go so far as to say that both technical writers with deep technical skills and those with deep communication skills probably no longer have the title (or the self-image) of “technical writer”. They're “programmer writers” or “information developers” on the one hand or “information architects” or “content strategists”, etc. on the other hand. They are looking at the big picture and adding value, as you describe, even while they may be cranking out the manuals and help systems to get the product out the door.

  4. Hi Janet,

    First, thanks for stopping by. I agree with most of what you're saying and hopefully this will put things into context…

    Have you ever taken the Animal Personality test?

    It’s a fun thing you can do at parties. Here’s how it works. You identify your three favourite animals and you can work out your personality from your choices.

    Ok, for me, it’s:

    #1 Bee (my fav)
    #2 Starfish and
    #3 Cricket

    According to the Animal Personality test, this means…

    #1 Bee – this is what you want others to see you as
    #2 Starfish – this is how others see you
    #3 Cricket – this is what you really are!

    'Ivan, what’s the point?'

    The point is that how we see ourselves and how others see us are different.

    So, we can call ourselves info developers (my title at IBM), info architects etc but what others really see us is probably… tech writers.

    Are you sure?

    We'll, most of the jobs on Monster look for tech writers, not info developers (even though that’s what we are, right?)

    So, if this is the term we use to define ourselves why are most jobs advertised for tech writers? Do you see my point?

    The important part!

    The reason I wrote what I said was in response to emails I get most every week from tech writers saying,

    1. They get little respect in the workplace
    2. They’re forced to work long hours and given little credit
    3. Their opportunities to advance their careers is limited

    And…

    How can they get out?

    Many feel trapped. Some regret choosing this as a career path. Others are angry. Their job titles may have changed etc but their not getting the credit they deserve?

    I hear this a lot on LinkedIn and also the emails I get privately.

    Many people are suffering out there. People in their 30s with mortgages, bills, families and other worries. I guess I was responding to them. I’ve been there. It’s no joke.

    Sometimes it boils down to: how can I make more money?

    I hope that explains some of what I wrote. If you have any thoughts, please let us know.

    Ivan

  5. […] Beijing-based technical writer Ivan Walsh tossed an interesting blog post to the Web titled “Who Makes The Most Money—Technical Writers with Strong Language or Deep Technical Skills?“. It wasn’t the salary part that interested us (although earning a good living is […]

  6. In my industry, deep technical skills would mean programming skills. I believe that whether a person is a good writer or a good programmer is largely hard-wired. There are exceptions, but most people are going to be naturally better at one or the other. I happen to be better at writing. Sure, programming would pay better, but it's kind of like telling a poet that they could make more money as a mathematician. It's true, but it isn't going to happen 😉

  7. Deep technical skills mean programming skills. I’d also add business knowledge, such as process design, re-engineering, finance and outsourcing. These can be very detailed.
    fwiw – I started as a programmer but moved into technical writing. just suited me better.

    and thanks for dropping by!

Comments are closed.