Career Choice and Degree

Subject: Career Choice and Degree
From: Barry West <Barry_West -dot- S2K -at- S2KEXT -dot- S2K -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 12 Apr 1995 09:41:19 EDT

Denise wrote:

>I have to disagree with William. As a technical writer, it helps to not
>be an expert in the field for which you are writing. As an expert, it is
>likely that you would carry too much knowledge into your editing, causing
>you to miss the parts technical writers are here to catch (the writing,
>grammar, etc.). I am not saying that it is not important to learn about
>your subject matter, just that it helps sometimes to not be an expert.
>What an engineer, scientist, or other SME might find completely
>understandable might not be understandable at all to a layperson or a
>person in another field. A technical writer that is not an expert in the
>field might need an explanation of the subject matter, revealing that the
>document might be unclear to its audience.

I have been writing techdoc for almost fifteen years, and as an experienced
Technical Writer, I have written just about every type of manual you can think
of, for more than just a handful of software and hardware technologies. I have
been successfully contracting since 1987 (fulltime for five of those years). I
have never failed to get repeat business from any of my clients, and my degree
is in Professional Writing. I have no formal technical background.

My pitch has always been that "No, I may not be a technical expert, but I am an
expert at documentation, audience, purpose and technical interviewing. And
unlike most (not all) technical people, I can write." In 1989, I was actually
awarded a project because I did not have a background in the company's product
focus (Project Management Software). When I finished that project, I was
awarded the next project without having to bid for it. More times than not, the
key to becoming a successful Technical Writer is diversity. You must develop
the skills to go into different situations and take on a variety of jobs.
Having a specific technical background is not necessarily going to help you do
that. You have to keep in mind that most companies have the technical experts
already in house. There must be a reason for wanting a Technical Writer.
Sometimes it's because the technical people don't have the time. Very often,
however, it's because the powers that be either realize the value of a good
Technical Writer up front, or they have stopped to read their existing
documentation and realize it by epiphany.

Obviously, there are always situations that require technical expertise to the
extent that it would be impractical for an off-the-street Technical Writer to
come up to speed in a reasonable amount of time, particularly in Scientific
writing (that's where you come in as the Technical Editor). Most of the time,
however, that very simply is not the case. Indeed, there are people with
technical backgrounds who work quite successfully as technical writers.
Generally, however, surviving as a Technical Writer means having as many
options as you can get. The string that is going on right now about "Technical
Writers and Longevity" is a reality. Technical Writers 'typically' do not stay
at the same job for very long, either by choice or by misfortune. You need to
be aware of that and prepare for it. Technical focus tends to limit your
options as a Technical Writer (although it may open up your options as a
technician, engineer, etc). If you want to work as a Technical Writer, my
advice would be to focus on being a good Technical Writer rather than being a
good technical person. If you can do both, more power to you.

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