Originally published at The BLIPS Network. Please leave any comments there.
(This is in response, or should I say, another view, on Resty Odon’s essay on Technical Writing.)
When I was considering leaving the academe after three years, I was wondering about what job to take. I finished a technical course (Computer Science) but I dabbled into other fields from time to time. I was part of the school paper for a good three years of my college life (my second college life, but that’s an entirely different story), so I know I can write decently. Immediately after graduation, I was hired to teach computer programming subjects. From time to time, I was asked to teach courses which are esoteric to my field – accounting, for example. And I find it ironic that I was asked to teach Technical Writing, all because the director knew I write well and I had been an editor at the college paper for close to a year. Of course, those are not proper credentials to teach the subject, but I felt confident enough to dive in.
The fact that (1) I know a little about programming and (2) I can write decently gave me an idea. Take the best of both worlds. Yes, a technical writing job. Scrounging the newspapers and online job hunt sites, I found one for a foreign (the vogue nowadays – outsourcing) software company. Yep, technical writer, with a decent salary, incentives, and the prestige of the company to boot (it is a well-known company in the industry it is in).
When people ask me what I do, and when they hear my answer, they always ask back either “What’s that” or “Is there a job like that”. Then, I tried very hard to explain what I do, which is a process that always drives me to exasperation.
Technical writing is so vaguely defined that an online texbook says this:
Technical communications—or technical writing, as the course is often called—is not writing about a specific technical topic such as computers, but about any technical topic. The term “technical” refers to knowledge that is not widespread, that is more the territory of experts and specialists. Whatever your major is, you are developing an expertise—you are becoming a specialist in a particular technical area. And whenever you try to write or say anything about your field, you are engaged in technical communications.
Another key part of the definition of technical communications is the receiver of the information—the audience. Technical communications is the delivery of technical information to readers (or listeners or viewers) in a manner that is adapted to their needs, level of understanding, and background. In fact, this audience element is so important that it is one of the cornerstones of this course: you are challenged to write about highly technical subjects but in a way that a beginner—a nonspecialist—could understand. This ability to “translate” technical information to nonspecialists is a key skill to any technical communicator. In a world of rapid technological development, people are constantly falling behind and becoming technological illiterates. Technology companies are constantly struggling to find effective ways to help customers or potential customers understand the advantages or the operation of their new products.
And a lot of people have a wrong conception of what a technical writer does. Take, for example, my previous job. I didn’t get to write anything at all. The Web page credits someone else. And rightfully so, for he or she had written that. What I did, and others like me in that company, was to check other’s work for grammar and readability, place HTML tags on them, and then publish these on the Web. It was more of an editing job than writing.
To reduce on cost, the company plans to automate the process, so I left.
What does a technical writer do? It depends on the situation. Right now, I have a wide span of responsibilities. I write, rewrite, and/or revise product manuals, quickstart guides, SDKs; I make content and design changes to our company Web site; and I might even participate in the redesign and coding of the company Intranet.
For others, it might involve reading a very technical document and creating a more readable document out of it. For some, it is more of an editing job, like how a writer submits his work for editing before it is published. For others, it might mean reporting about something technical. You see, in this context, a newspaper or magazine reporter who writes specific things about a specific technology can be a technical writer.
A programmer who writes documentation for a project that he does is a technical writer. An engineer who writes a report on how a network outage started and how it is resolved is a technical writer. Heck, even a lawyer who writes about the constitutionality of screening blog comments is a technical writer.
The job is a lonely one, with very few interactions with other humans, and most of these interactions are through instant messaging and email. Face-to-face interaction is very rare; it only happens in meetings. It involves facing a computer for eight hours or more. It involves deadlines, document formats, last-minute changes.
And a technical writer doesn’t have to think about an ending to a story. =P