The Job I Constantly Have To Explain To People

Sometimes I don’t want to tell people about my work because the answer takes some explaining to do. I tell people I’m a writer and they think I write a book or that I write in newspapers or magazines. The only reason I couldn’t give a proper reaction is that I’m always undecided about whether I should be amused or flabbergasted. Really? In this time and age where everything is made available on the Internet, people still confine writers to books and newspapers? Because I am not the writer they think I am, the conversation usually goes longer than it should.

“Nope, I am a technical writer,” I say.

90% of the time here’s how they’d respond,

“What the hell is that?”

There goes the struggle when I try to be specific about what I write. Woe is me, I have to explain.

“A technical writer writes technical documentation to help readers understand how to use a product, tool, or service.”

That’s a pretty straightforward definition and that should cover it right? I wish. Most of the time the person would ask me either two of these things.

“What does it mean?” and “Can you cite an example?”

Of course, I should be more more more specific. So here comes the example that I always tell people,

“You know that manual that comes when you buy a phone? Yes, the one you don’t really read, that was written by a technical writer.”

This would induce that unmistakable look of enlightenment to a person. Hallelujah!

After 5 years of doing this job, I usually just take a shortcut and tell people I’m a technical writer then proceed to the bit about the phone’s user manual. That doesn’t mean though that the conversation is over because nope, I don’t write a user guide for phones that nobody really bothers to read (to be fair, I don’t read ’em too unless I have to ), I write and design pages for Google help center (yes I know, I’m badass, hahaha…).

Surprisingly, only a few have an idea what a Google help center is, so again, I have to elaborate. Normally, I’d take out my phone and show it to them, other times, I tell them,

“You know when you encounter an error, say on Youtube (or any other Google apps for that matter) and you google for a solution then find the Youtube Help website. That’s it, that’s an example of a Google help center.”

Just to be clear, I’m not creating help centers for Google apps; the processes I work on is for the management. This, I won’t elaborate anymore because if I do and the person I’m talking with doesn’t sleep in the next few minutes, it’s probably because I’m the one who would be asleep in the next few minutes. 

But seriously, and I think most tech writers would agree, that trying to explain our job to people is like trying to tell a kid about the birds and the bees. Ironic because the nature of our job is to educate people on how some things work yet we find it difficult to explain the most basic thing about what we do. Okay maybe I shouldn’t be generalizing, maybe it’s only I who find this difficult.

So I’m writing this, hoping that it would make people be aware that technical writers exist and that indeed, we are writers. Maybe you don’t see our documentation in newspapers, books, or magazines. Maybe you don’t see us on TV. Maybe this is not blogging and this is not poetry. But yes we are writers. Technical writing is a form of writing based on facts and figures.

And technical writing comes in different forms. We make user guides or user manuals, we can design a help center or a website, we can even write marketing materials. We can write technical reports, business plans, research results, policies and procedures, even feasibility studies and corporate reports. You know those cute infographics? We make them too. We help job transition in the workplace because we document processes. You can troubleshoot a technical problem on your own if you read our instructions.

Now here, I’m going to answer some of the most common questions that I get about technical writing.

How much does a technical writer make?

“The average salary of a technical writer in the Philippines is around 29,000 pesos or 581.56 US dollars. The typical starting salary, on the other hand, is PHP 20,000 (USD 401.08). How much you will earn as a technical writer in the coming years, however, will depend on several factors, including which company you are working for, which part of the world your company is, what skills have you acquired, years of experience, and the kind of tools that you are capable of using. I know some technical writers who earn as much as PHP 75,000 (USD 1,504.05). Yes, that’s how big a pay a technical writer can get if he/she knows how to play his/her cards right. When I say playing cards right I mean investing in one’s knowledge and skills. In this field, the more you know, the more experience you have, the higher your value in the market.

Do I need to study technical writing before I become one?

I used to say “yes” to this question, but I have met some people with zero backgrounds in this field who are now working as technical writers. Ideally, though, companies hire those who have a writing background. This job takes time to learn, so some companies (at least those where I’d been) offer resources (e.g., tools, short courses or training) to train their technical writers. In my case, I had a three-month training in my previous company, Innodata, where my technical writing career began. Before this, I was a civilian writer for the Presidential Security Group. So if you are a writer, you can build a career in technical writing if you want to.

How hard is technical writing?

This varies depending on the kind of documentation you are asked to create. In my case, my present job is the most challenging I’ve ever taken because it’s not just a matter of extracting information from the client or understanding their processes, we really have to analyze these processes and come up with a design that could best work for the company. There is also no existing documentation to work on, we do everything from scratch.

What is the most challenging part of being a technical writer?

A technical writer must learn a process or tool that he/she has zero knowledge of most of the time and attempt to translate it into a document that can be understood by everyone (even a kid). There is a constant challenge of learning and understanding everything you can about the subject, eliminating any gaps, and making sure that you are able to present the information in an effective way. When I say effective, it means that when a person reads the document about a tool, for example, he or she should be able to follow the instructions with ease and that whatever the desired result is, it will be achieved.

What is the most rewarding experience you have ever had in technical writing?

When I was in Henkel, I was given a chance to train employees, not only from our team but also from other departments including the managers and the team leaders on technical writing. The most fulfilling part of this job for me is not really being able to finish a documentation, but actually to pass on the knowledge to people. So I find this opportunity one of the best things that ever happened to me as far as my career is concerned.

I hope that shed some light on whatever question you may have had on technical writing. Yes, we don’t deliver news and we don’t write about the current political situation. Yes, we don’t write books in our place of work (hey we’re still writers, some of us do write books in our free time), but what we write is also useful to people. And the reason I wrote about this is not to stop people from asking me about what I do but to help people really understand what people like me do. Technical writing is a challenging work, it takes discipline and it can be boring to some degree. But it is a well-paying job and I find joy seeing my documentation being used as the source of truth by some people in the workplace. I think this is a kick-ass job, really.

From now on when somebody asks me what is my job, I am definitely referring him/her to this post haha…

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  1. I can definitely relate to this. Though I work on a different field and freelance, and stay at home job, it’s still hard to explain it to people. To the point where I got tired explaining it, people kept asking me when do I plan to work at a real company, a real job, on the outside world. I mean, my company is real ang my job is fulfilling and fun. So yeah, I think I should have this kind of post too so that I can also redirect people to my blog whenever they ask me to explain what I do.

  2. Sometimes when I am thinking what will be my next article in my blog, I also thinks of doing the same thing. People ask so many questions and it is quite a nuisance answering them repetitively. Some people do not love reading at all. They prefer to listen than to read for something. I think that only those who are interested to know what your job really is will pay attention reading. Some will just want to ask you question personally and get the answer instantly. Haha! I have experienced the same thing and all we just need to have is have a long patience.

  3. Haha! There is a lot of people out there who have no idea about digital jobs. Some don’t even have an idea what a blogger is or neither have an inkling on how we earn from being one. Well, sometimes I have the patience to define everything, sometimes don’t. Hehe!

  4. Hahaha!!! I can totally understand you… From where I come from both fashion designing & travel blogging are not clearly understood. People confuse it with tailoring!!! Somewhere when people absolutely don’t understand I just say, I do online business!!!

  5. Thanks now I understand what technical writers do. From broadcast media in my province to a freelance writer, I also experience being asked of what kind of writing I am doing, how much I earn etc. Well, why is it like that always haha! Anyway, I learned much about the description of your job and now I know better.

  6. Ha ha I can understand how difficult it is to explain this job to a lay man. And this post is so well done, a good reply.

  7. Good idea on referring them to this post should they have further question. Most people as well asked what my job was before and I would tell them im into PR or public relations. Then they would ask further. They often mistaken the job for an ad agency making tv commercial and writing copies for publication. Ihihi.

    Now that im a full time mom, I just tell them I am a freelance writer and youre right, they would think I write for the newspaper and magazine.

  8. And that’s how you tell someone about your job! You slew it girl! There are some things that people have a difficulty in understanding. Sometimes, I also get in a dilemma on how to classify myself. I do some freelance work and still pursuing post-grad studies. So I’m confused on how to classify myself as a working person or as a post-grad student. Haha!

  9. I found this post really interesting, and I’m really redirecting people towards this post. I’ve never thought it was such a wonder of people. I’ve felt this when you’re struggling with people’s question, since when you’re saying you’re an entrepreneur and a blogger, some people are just feeling lost and don’t understand what you do. Thanks for explaining your job, because really I didn’t know about this, and now I’m definitely able to explain it to others!

  10. Thanks for explaining this further. Although I think I haven’t asked you what a technical writer does, I was able to know what you really do in the field. And I agree kay Jon, pakape from Coffeehan, dba ang ganda at ang saya! hahaha!
    but Marge, i read those technical prints on manuals and other materials especially if I am bored lol!

  11. My sentiments exactly. Haha! If people outside my field of work ask me what I do for a living and I answer them “I work as an engineer.”, 99% of the time, they’ll answer me with “Oh so you design buildings?” Me thinks: “Uhmmm engineering is a very broad field. Why do people always have this in mind…” So I just tell them I work as an IT Professional and that shortens the conversation. Hahaha. Anyway, question ~ Is it possible to work as a part-time technical writer?

  12. I agree that the scope of this job is quite confusing to some. One of my first jobs was a Project Officer/ Technical Writer for an NGO. I was in-charge of writing feasibility studies, process documentation, project plans and reports.

    However, I think people who are aware of it thinks its on the IT side only (like yours) and thus, I get a lot of emails for job invites for technical writing which is not my field. Should I refer them to you? 🙂

  13. Wow 🙂 This is actually the first time I heard about the term. Thank you for educating me on it! I think what you do is pretty awesome. It’s funny how a lot of people overlook it but just imagine a world where technical writers don’t exist…we all might be totally lost! Is the average pay you stated what they earn monthly? How busy does the job get? Is it a 9-5 or something you can do from home?

    1. Hi Katrina,

      Yes, the average pay is what tech writers get monthly. It’s a demanding job and usually done full time. Some companies, like Innodata, have tech writers at home. If there are tools, then the IT just need to install those in the writer’s home computer. Most tech writers though work in the office.

  14. I find this funny because finally you can actually link this blog to your friends the nth time they ask! Haha. I guess non-traditional jobs especially in terms of freelancing are harder to explain. Jobs are really evolving at a quicker rate than most of us can keep up. Can you imagine I work for an NGO and the question I always get it “Do you earn enough?” I had to stop my eyes from rolling and blurting out, “How the hell can I pay for this coffee if I don’t!”

  15. Oh my god, I am shocked by the wages you are mentioning. That seems to be very poorly paid for such a qualified job. I am absolutely anti-technical, that stuff is too dry for me , but I really enjoyed a fascinating read.

  16. You should print a business card with the link to this article on it. If you have to explain all that every time, ugh, I can imagine the boringness of it after the 50th time. 😉
    Well I would like to thank you for being a technical writer, we need you!

  17. Good thing I have an idea what a technical writer does haha This was enlightening though! I’ve learned to not to ask about what people do unless I’m armed with gallons of coffee because chances are I’d be totally ignorant about it while the other goes overly passionate with explaining and nganga na lang ako haha

  18. Awesome post! I can totally relate to this as my day job is also on the technical side of things in the healthcare sector — Data Validation/Analysis. So I always have to explain it. LOL! However, after the explanation, it seems like they are still clueless on what I do in the hospital. Kudos to you! All the best Marge!

  19. I totally understand. I work with technologist for electrical and pharmaceutical brands. They are always misunderstood I have the task to double check there work as Instructions manuals must be 100% correct. I totally understand where you’re coming from 🙂

  20. That first sentence of your blog.. I feel the same way! For me it’s about my day job in that case. People never understand. I’m used to just seeing glazy eyes when I say what I do. I’m glad at least 90% asks what it is. I often experience that people just say “Ooh, okay”. And I just know they don’t have a clue. I loe that you’re explaining what a technical writer does. I do love to learn about other professions!

  21. I’d say you’re job is so cool!! To me, any writing job is heaven! Although I haven’t really had any experience with “technical writing”, I can sense how much stress and information overload you go through everyday! haha, especially for products you don’t really use yourself.

  22. I knew what your job was! I think it sounds interesting. You would really have to love researching though as you’d need to know everything about the product before you can write the manual. I think I would actually enjoy technical writing.

  23. I agree it’s a kick ass job and it really pays well ah. So libre na ng kape? from coffeehan. Haha

    Seriously, I’m just happy to know that aside from blogging, you’re also enjoying your job. Kasi nga it involves writing which is something you’re passionate about. Bihira ang ganyan. Marami dyan stuck sa mga crappy jobs lol buti nalang may blogging. Kung wala, pano na? Haha

    Oi libre mo kami since your job really pays well. Hahaha

  24. One of my favorite elective subjects in high school was Technical Writing. Thank you for writing this blog post. I actually experienced the same predicament when I had to explain what a call center employee does way back in 2003. I made you a shortened link to give to those people asking – 🙂 Hehehe!

  25. And that is why it is fun to blog because there are things you may have to talk about, again and again, now you can tell them to read up. Haha.

    Technical writing is challenging in the sense that there is a need to know well the topic/content, and then it has to be accurate and presented in a manner understood by intended customers. Although it lacks the creativity (that of creative writers), I think the pressure is higher in technical writing than in creative or other forms of writing.

  26. I found this post very interesting. I can’t help laughing on the inside reading and imagining your feelings of having to repeat and explain what you do to others. It seems to me that Technical writing definitely requires high level of intelligence, accuracy, attention to detail, patient diligence and a lot of skill building apart from the gift of writing. You have a really cool job, Marge. Not everyone can do that.

    1. You pretty much summed it up Arni. It has its own discipline and it requires knowledge of different tools and apps. That’s part of the challenge really and a technical writer must be really really patient to learn. This is not the most exciting job in the world in a sense that this is more logical than creative, and I am a very creative person so imagine my struggle haha… But I like the challenge and I find it fulfilling so I’m able to do it for a long time now.

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