Technical Writer Classifications

Subject: Technical Writer Classifications
From: Guy Oliver <guy -at- DEV -dot- TIVOLI -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 12 Apr 1995 17:05:46 CDT

From Paul Sholar:

> Steven J. Owens writes:

> ...
> A lot of organizations don't know that they need someone with formal training
> in technical writing, because the pertinent hiring managers don't know that
> such curricula exist. In such cases, persons who are inclined to write
> structured material clearly and carefully have an opportunity to actually do
> technical writing by training on-the-job.

> > By the way, Mr. "Sr. Technical Writer", how does Gensym arrive at
> > that classification? I'm trying to build a rule-of-thumb definition
> > of entry-level, mid, and senior technical writer, so I can post it and
> > let people take shots at it.

> Steve, if you have an opinion on these things based on your own experience,
> why don't you just post it, rather than "building" it based on the opinions of
> others?

> I don't speak for the management of my company (which produces and sells
> a workstation-level expert system software development tool called G2),
> but my impression is that the definition of "Sr. Technical Writer" is based
> primarily on a level of work experience (such as more than five years),
> but also on having developed skills in page layout, graphics presentation,
> interviewing, expository writing, and document project planning.

Tivoli Systems (the company that employs me) has been attempting to
address this very issue in the last few months. To provide a career
path for the development staff (technical writers included), the
company has installed a "technical ladder" that describes five levels
of skill:

Associate Engineer/Writer
Senior Engineer/Writer
Staff Engineer/Writer
Principal Engineer/Writer

Predictably, however, the number of senior/staff/principal engineers
completely swamped the number of senior/staff/principal writers when
the ladder was first announced. This stuation caused me to start
thinking about how a technical writer evolves from novice to expert,
which I thought might be interesting to most of you.

It seems to me that there are perhaps three levels of skill that can be
easily distinguished -- rather than the five proposed by Tivol. It would
be interesting to find out whether other experienced writers agree with
my assessment, which follows:

Writers with less than three years experience seem to spend most of
their time learning to collect information, conduct interviews, and
communicating thier findings on paper. In other words, they are
learning the craft of Technical Writing.

Writers with three to five years experience seem to be able to handle
most tasks associated with writing a manual including the preparation
of a documentation plan. They generally exhibt the required competence
to write technical manuals efficiently and require only minimal
assistance in planning and designing such documents. They spend most
of their time actually managing the development and maintenance of one
or two manuals and perhaps some other lightweight documentation such as
release notes.

Writers with five to ten years experience usually have acquired the
ability to plan and design large documentation efforts comprising
several manuals and other complementary documentation such as on-line
help. They seldom need to improve their writing skills significantly,
which gives them time to focus on these kinds of administrative and
design issues.

I haven't had the privilege of working with any writers that have much
more than ten years experience. Therefore, I really don't know how a
writer with 15 years experience differs in ability from a writer with
ten years experience. I suspect, however, that the professional growth
of a technical writer significantly diminishes after 10 years of

> >From my 15 years of experience at several software companies, management
> doesn't typically know how to define the skill set that technical writers
> often offer, because those organizations don't yet understand how to develop
> their product documentation in an organized manner. For instance, how many
> organizations require that each "Sr. Technical Writer" know how to author
> a document plan, including audience assessment, outline, usability
> criteria, evaluation criteria, and schedule?

> Communicate well and prosper,

> Paul Sholar pks -at- gensym -dot- com

> DISCLAIMER: Not speaking for Gensym Corporation

Paul, I would value your opinion in this matter, because of your stated
experience. I have been thinking about these issues and other related
issues for sometime.

I believe that our profession is still very immature, and I am
beginning to actively seek ways in which we can elevate the perception
of Technical Writing in the business community from a mere vocation to
a true profession.

Guy Oliver

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