A Look Into the Life of a Technical Writer
“You’re a writer?!! No way! Cool!!!
The gaggle of preteen girls in the backseat of the dadmobile stopped giggling. Mouths went wide open. Braces gleamed in the sunlight.
“You mean like books? Or novels? Hunger Games? Harry Potter? Looking for Alaska? Twilight? Gum on My Fangs … Adventures of a Lovelorn Vampire Tween?”
“Well, I didn’t write those,” I answered with a smile. “But I did write The RadioRouter 3000 Operations and Maintenance Manual. Not to mention The Flash-OFDM PC Card User Guide … that one was even translated into Czech!”
I could feel a backseat of gazes glaze over. Fingers went back to the magnets of smartphones. The blooping of smartphone screens started up again. Eyes narrowed in Facebook focus.
Except for one set. They shone with the “I may have found the light” kind of look. Those eyes caught mine in the mirror. They begged me to go on.
How could I not?! The other kids? Just another adult voice to ignore. They were used to it. Me too.
“I’ll bet you all must have a lot of questions,” I said to one set of eyes in particular. “So let me tell you all about it.”
So what’s a technical writer, you may ask?
Well, a technical writer is the person who writes all kinds of documents that make technology easier to use. They write things like user guides, and installation manuals, and troubleshooting documents, and software help. Sometimes those documents are for users at home. Sometimes they’re to help engineers or scientists move forward with their work.
Do you have to be super good with technology?
What you have to be super good with is explaining things in a clear, understandable way. It helps to like technology, but it helps even more to be able to straighten out knots. You’ll get most of the source material from people who really know the technology deeply, but can’t explain it very well. And you get to play with the technology yourself, figure it out, and ask a lot of questions.
So it’s kind of like teaching?
It can be, but with no spitballs, no grades, no discipline problems, nobody’s dog eating their software code, and nobody saying “I need to go to the bathroom” and not coming back until Tuesday. You are teaching other people to use something, but with time to think it through, and to present it clearly without behavioral issues.
Is it boring?
Depends on your definition of boring. If getting to test out new technology before everybody else does, or talking to some of the smartest people on the planet is boring, well, then it’s boring. But if you like figuring things out, making them really clear, and having lots of people say “thanks, that’s what I meant to say!” … it’s not boring at all. And did I mention you get to play a lot with the toys?
What kind of special tools do you use?
The most special tool? Your brain. You get to figure things out, and present them in a clear way. That’s the core tool. Oh, and let’s not forget that other crucial one — your writing skills. Not drama here, but clarity. Putting material in a framework of what it is, what it does, where it belongs. Then giving step by step instructions to make it work. As for other tools — well, yeah, there are cool tech writing tools too. Tools that let you capture images and make them look great. Tools that let you write once and publish in five different ways, on the web, for print, for smartphones, etc. But again — your primary tool is your wits.
Is it only technology?
Well, technology is a major industry for technical writers. Other areas where they often work are pharmaceuticals, finance, and defense.
Is it important?
Well, it can be. Imagine writing the user guide for a nuclear power plant or the Mars space probe. You don’t want to make a mistake and, say, press button B when you meant button A. Or if you’re working for a company that helps make water clean and drinkable for developing nations, well, that can be pretty darn important, too. And even if it’s not life or death, companies and users are thirsty for quality information that you can provide.
Can you make money as a tech writer?
You bet! Beginning tech writers typically make from $50,000 to $70,000 annually. Advanced tech writers often make in the six-figure range. Listings for technical writers at Google and other top financial firms quote around $150,000. There’s also a lot of room for freelancing in this field. Hourly rates typically range from $50 to $85 or more, which is not too shabby.
I pulled the car to a stop, and noticed something … the blooping had stopped, too. The opened mouth braces gleamed again.
And so did their eyes — not just those I had caught in the rearview mirror before. She smiled and whispered thanks, and as the rest of them piled out, I heard the words that made me smile.
“A tech writer — coool!”