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…