Career Profile: Technical Writer

Words by: Ashley LaMar // Interview by: Mia Sutton

1) Tell us a bit about what you do.

As a Technical Writer for a software company I create documentation that helps people understand and use the products and services that we sell. I spend my days building online help databases, writing and editing manuals (system, end-user, training), designing white papers and marketing materials, and preparing design specifications, project plans, and test plans.

In simpler terms, I translate computer programming in to English for the 'everyman' user.

2) How did you get involved in technical writing?

Actually, I kind of fell in to it by accident. Once I was in it I decided I loved it so I stuck with it.

A few years ago when I was working for a local government agency I was asked to help prepare training documents and form letters for our department. My boss at the time knew I was a writer and she thought I would enjoy creating the documents. Those documents led to me creating document templates, stylesheets, style guides, etc which ultimately led to my decision to pursue technical writing as a full-time career. For anyone interested in pursuing a career in technical writing, I recommend a degree in English and a strong understanding of computer programming.

3) What is your favorite thing about your job?

Technical writing is highly analytical which is an environment in which I thrive. When I was younger I was always being told I over-think everything but that is a skill that is required in a career such as mine. Before I can prepare any document I spend hours reading work orders, understanding programming, meeting with the system designers and developers, and testing the software. It isn't until after I have a thorough understanding of the system that I can begin preparing my manuals and help system files. I love playing in the software, analyzing the user's experience, and then creating documentation that will lead our end-user to the best possible use of the system.

4) What are some misconceptions about your job that you'd like to clear up?

The most common misconception is that I just write all day. A lot of people have said that it "must be relaxing to just sit and write all day" but that couldn't be farther from the truth. I spent the large majority of my time meeting with designers, programmers, developers, and project managers. When I'm not meeting with them I spend time in demo meetings, reading work orders and test cases, and testing the system. Even when I'm writing it isn't what most people think of when they think of writing. I'm not working in a Microsoft Word document or a basic web page. I'm working in systems such as Adobe RoboHelp, Confluence, or MadCap Flare. I'm building database tables and writing obscenely detailed step-by-step manuals that I then must test repeatedly to ensure accuracy. It is so much more than a keystrokes on the keyboard as I type out step one...step two...step three...

5) What is the best piece of advice you've received from someone in your field?

Don't create your documents in Microsoft Word!

Microsoft Word is the most well-known word processor but it is not a good tool for writing technical documentation. You are only creating unnecessary headaches for yourself if you try to use MS Word as your primary documentation tool. You face issues with formatting incompatibility when importing .doc files into different techcom systems and MS Word does not play nicely when working in files over 100 pages (some of our documents are 1,000 pages or longer). I'm not going to mention the trials you face when it comes to version control and multiple authors. Technical documentation requires a techcom system like RoboHelp, MadCap Flare, or Confluence. It's a bit of learning curve but it's worth it.