Giving Technical Writing a Reality Check

As you all (read: avid readers of this blog) know by now, us VALCANA ladies pursued Professional Writing (#msupw) for our bachelor’s of arts degree. Without spending this entire blog post worshiping the people, things, and stuffed animals associated with this program, here’s what you need to know:

  • Professional Writing is amazing.
  • Professional Writing will prepare you for a career in technical writing, among other writing professions.
  • If you want to call yourself a writer, you should study Professional Writing at MSU.

–End unpaid endorsement–

It’s the second aforementioned bullet point that really got me thinking, especially as I’m deep in the job hunting trenches at the moment: What exactly is technical writing?

When I go into job interviews or apply for “Technical Writing” positions online what is the potential employer really expecting of my skill-set? With a couple of years of experience under my belt I can confidently say it’s not what I thought when I was studying technical writing. It’s time that I gave my definition of technical writing a reality check.

To understand what an employer’s view of technical writing is today, I needed to understand who the first technical writers they hired were. Growing out of a necessity for clear and understandable documentation to accompany machinery at the turn of the 20th century, employers hired engineers (today known as subject matter experts) who could write better than their peers or copywriters who could liaison well with these engineers. Thus, the stereotype of technical writers as engineers who are the outcasts amongst their colleagues working in corporate office buildings for software companies a la Office Space was born. Despite efforts on behalf of the Society of Technical Communication (Unpaid Endorsement #2: You should join if you’re interested in technical writing because these people are super cool), some of those who are not technical writers still have this perspective.

As a student preparing to enter the workforce, I instead thought of technical writing in terms of its foundational approach that allows someone to be a technical writer regardless of their C++ knowledge.

Technical writing identifies the audience (or user) and designs documentation around their needs.

Sample Infographic

Making infographics can be part of a technical writer’s job.

Expected more? Well, everything else comes from that key concept. Reduction in jargon? Yup, if your end-user requires it (most likely they always will). Appropriate graphical document design? Yup, your documentation better be if you want to make reading and understanding the easiest for your user. Proven and tested? Double yup, because before you bring anything to market you want to make sure it’s effective and when people are your users you’re talking usability.

This is a fantastic way to approach technical writing, but it does have its drawbacks. While this may be how technical writers view their own field, it’s not necessarily how the engineers, human resource representatives, marketing communications teams and CEOs view technical writers. Through my experience they typically define technical writing as:

(Best described in a disengaged adolescent voice) The act of writing user manuals, instructional documents and all of that complicated or boring stuff our MarComms team won’t do, duh.

While not representative of all companies, many of the companies I’ve pursued want subject matter experts (SMEs) instead of writers. Many of the job descriptions circulating out there put greater emphasis on having previous experience with the company’s industry rather than having a true understanding of your audience and communicating appropriately with them. These are the same jobs that require English or Journalism as degrees, but I can say with confidence I’ve lost out on them to those with degrees in Mechanical Engineering.

While every employer is different and every business unit within large companies can be different, this hiring practice is so much more common than I expected two years ago when I entered the job market.

So I may have a different view than the employer, but I still want to get a job! What do I do?

Taking some valuable advice from Chelsea’s post on why she loves her job: it all comes down to people. If the employer does not value your perspective as a technical writer, you’re wasting your time with them. Focus on applying with the companies that want you for you! Below are a few things I’ve had to change when it comes to my job search:

I become picky.

If the job description requires a lot of experience with specific languages or technologies, I don’t apply because I can tell they want an SME, not a technical writer no matter how the job title may read.

I re-brand myself.

I’m not just a technical writer, I’m a communicator who approaches tasks from a technical writer’s perspective. I can create a brochure for an event just as well as I can produce a user manual for a new software program.

I don’t let HR rule my career.

This is something that doesn’t always have a positive outcome and is more something I do in theory. HR doesn’t understand me as a professional and they may never understand me as a professional because I’m a new kind of employee. I don’t fit a 20th century cookie-cutter career. It may mean they don’t hire me, but I feel that if I can meet with the team I’ll be working with daily and we see how we can best work with and learn from each other, then it will be the right hire for both parties.

I structure my language for the job.

Ok, so I do let HR “gently guide me.” Most likely we’ll be referring to the same thing but HR will categorize it as something different (i.e. Develop standard product lines = Make templates that are user-friendly and standardized).

So, there you go technical writing, you have officially been checked.

Ashley HaglundAshley works in corporate, health care and non-profit communications. She loves starting new writing projects; is a media junkie; enjoys studying science, technology and patent law issues; and has a love/hate relationship with semi-colons. To see her face and be her internet friend, follow her on twitter.
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3 thoughts on “Giving Technical Writing a Reality Check

  1. Pingback: Happy (Almost) 1 Year Anniversary, GSL! | Grammar. Style. Life.

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