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“A Technical Writer? What’s That?”

November 19, 2012

For over seventeen years, I have been answering the question of what I do professionally by replying that I am a technical writer.

You can probably guess the question that is frequently spawned by that answer:  “What is a technical writer?”

Answering that question can be more challenging.  The greatest challenge can be making it sound interesting.

As a technical writer, companies pay me to glean information about a product from highly technical source material and put it into a form that is understandable and usable for a particular target audience.  The target audience is generally made up of equipment installers, operators, and maintenance technicians.  I will be the first to admit that it is not terribly exciting reading, not even for the people who need to read it in order to do their jobs.

I originally got into technical writing because I liked writing and had a strong technical background.  In college, I had majored in physics and spent several years working in a research lab.  During that time, I realized that while I still loved science, something wasn’t quite right.  The daily grind of lab research didn’t excite me as much as I thought it would.  At the same time, the college courses I was enjoying and excelling in were ones that had heavy writing requirements.  That’s not the way it’s supposed to work when you are trying to get a doctorate in physics.

Around the same time I was wrestling with the question of how to modify my educational and career aspirations, an older friend suggested I look into technical writing.  Ironically, I first asked the question I’ve been answering ever since:  “What’s a technical writer?”  After learning what it was, and finding out that companies paid technical writers rather well, I completed my master’s degree with a different emphasis: Interdisciplinary Studies.  It allowed me to take some courses with heavy writing requirements in order to expand my qualifications.

My first paid writing job after college was as a freelance script writer for a television production company.  I got paid to write scripts for five-minute segments on companies which were featured on a television show called USA Corporate Profiles.  Strictly speaking, what I was writing was not technical writing.  It did, however, enable me to put something on my résumé that said I had been paid to write something.  That first writing job helped me get my first actual job as a technical writer.

For someone who loves writing, working as a technical writer can produce some conflicts within one’s soul.  In the “plus” column, the pay is good, the work is generally steady, and there is great satisfaction to be had in producing something that is accurate and usable.

There are, however, a few items in the “minus” column.

First of all, few writers dream of writing to a comparatively tiny audience.

Second, that audience will likely never know your name.  I’ve never heard of a tech writer going on book signing tour for the latest release of the ACME 321 System Installation Manual.

Third, as a technical writer, the scope of your writing is dictated by the needs of the company.  If you want to write the Great American Novel, do it at home.  That’s assuming you have the time and inclination to write when you get home.

Fourth, sometimes technical writing doesn’t seem much like writing.  A lot of time is spent updating existing product documents, adding new information and deleting old information, editing massive tables and poring over figures and diagrams looking for errors.  Depending on the type of document you are “writing”, you can go for days sometimes without actually writing a new sentence.

Anyone who got into technical writing in order to be a writer may need to find a creative outlet or two in order to retain their writer’s soul.  Some tech writers get into similar fields, such as marketing writing.  Some have a novel or short story they are working on in their off hours.  Some may join a Toastmasters club, where they can work on their speech writing skills and practice speaking before a live audience.  Some write books about technical writing.

Some may start a blog.

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