What is the Job Description of a Technical Writer?
Name: Tricia Sullivan
Job Title: Senior Tech Writer
Where: St. Petersburg, FL
Employer: Raymond James
Years of Experience: 30
Education: Downers Grove High School College of DuPage – Journalism
Salary: Use the PayScale Research Center to find median technical writer salaries.
Sr. Technical Writer Career
Tricia Sullivan not only shatters the stereotype of boring technical writer jobs – she makes them sound interesting and fun. In fact, when you read the, “What is the job description of a technical writer” section, you may find out that you've been working as a technical writer all along, just not getting paid for it.
In this Salary Story, Tricia explains the difference between technical writing and other forms of writing. You’ll get answers to questions like, “What are the different types of technical writing?” and “How do you find technical writer jobs?” Most importantly, she offers the inside scoop on dealing with clients and project proposals in technical writing. We hope you enjoy learning about this exciting career just as much as we did.
What is the job description of a technical writer?
I work with the business analyst and product managers in setting up user focus groups to better understand what the users need and want in terms of applications and documentation. Then, once a project is undertaken, I accompany the BA in the collection of requirements and visit with the users to understand how they do the job currently. Once the requirements for a project are collected and signed off on, I work with the business analyst to design and define the screens and reports. We work together to make sure the fields flow in the right sequence, that the field labels are clear and easily understood, and that any onscreen text or embedded help text is clear and concise. At each iteration of the screen design, we involve the subject matter expert, who represents the users, so that we can make sure that all of their needs and concerns are met. I then take the screen mock-ups and use cases and develop the documentation. This can be one document or many.
My team creates many different types of user documentation (how-to guides, quick references, quick cards, or cheat sheets). Near implementation for the project, I work on product announcements, marketing brochures, adverts, newsletter articles, and marketing specifications. I also work with the stand-up training staff to put together class materials, CBTs, demos, and other training materials. When not working on projects, I do research into usability and give presentations to my team and other development groups (the business analyst team, the software engineering team, product managers, etc.). I also develop forms or web pages for different business units, produce marketing pieces, brochures, or newsletter articles for both internal and external newsletters. I am also the primary photographer for the newsletters. I take photos of different events, such as the Fall Carnival – an annual event of different games and events. The pie-eating contest and the dunk-your-manager challenge are two of the biggest draws, and we usually have slide shows at the fall team meeting depicting these events. I also mentor some of the junior writers, manage multiple projects, and edit two newsletters, while functioning as the team’s information designer.
What were your steps toward a technical writing career?
I went to a party at the university with my husband, and it was there that I found my new career. My husband’s professor casually asked me what I did for a living, and when I described my job, he said, “Oh, so you’re a tech-writer!” I looked at him blankly, not knowing what he meant. What was a tech-writer? I’d never heard of such a thing. Seeing my blank look, he explained what tech-writers and procedural writers did and how it was a growing profession. It was then that I realized that I had been doing a tech-writer’s job, but under the guise of administrative assistant and earning the pay of an administrative assistant. After the party, I started scanning the want ads under IT professionals and was amazed at the number of job openings I saw for tech-writers and procedural writers. It had been there all along, and I had never seen it. Although I spoke with my current employer about a title change and perhaps a pay increase, they were happy getting my services for the hourly wage that they had been paying me and could see no reason to move me to a salaried position or even change my title. So, that afternoon, I started creating a resume outlining all the tasks and responsibilities I had performed. Within a week of sending my resume out to a half dozen of the ads, I had three job offers – one for procedural writer and two for technical writer. They all paid about 30 percent more than what I had been making, and they were all for large companies in the Loop. After discussing my options with my husband, I jumped to a new company and happily began my new career as an official tech-writer.
What do you like about being a senior technical writer?
I love the creativity that’s possible. I just spent the past year redesigning some of our company’s deliverables. I got to do the usability and information design research; then present the information to the team. After that I and two others from my team set up several focus groups comprised of users and product managers to determine what worked and what didn’t. We pulled together the results and came out with some sample documents, which we then presented to users at different client sites. We asked them to try the documents for a month or so and let us know their likes and dislikes. This led to another round of creative strategy as we had to make modifications not only in the design of the deliverables, but also in the delivery type of some of them. After several rounds of testing and redesigning, we got our deliverables approved and are now using them. The product managers love them. The team loves them. But best of all, the users love them. They love the fact that they were included, they love the new look, and most of all, they love how easy the new documentation is to use. We are now working on redesigning the training materials, and again, I’m looking forward to the research and creativity in finding new and better delivery methods for the training. I hope the users will be as helpful as they were before.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your technical writing career?
One of the biggest challenges for me are the users/clients. They usually aren’t sure what they want. They want some documentation, but don’t know if they want online help, a quick reference, a full how-to guide (which includes the business processes), a quick card, etc. Trying to determine what type of deliverable would work best for the users, plus the format in which the deliverable should be delivered (paper, electronic (PDF, web, CBT, etc.) can sometimes feel like pulling teeth when trying to get the users to make a choice. I usually have to make the choice for them, and then convince them that what I’ve chosen is their idea. While it’s a challenge to get the users to decide what they want, for me, it’s also fun. I like putting together samples and ideas and showing them to the clients. I love to see their faces light up when they see some of their ideas become real, or to see their reaction to something they had never thought about. Being a tech-writer is more than just words, it’s also being creative and imaginative and being able to come up with different presentation ideas. It might be as simple as adding a bit of color to a how-to guide, or as complex as coming up with a logo or cover. Either way, it can be fun or a chore – it’s your choice. The next biggest challenge I usually face is the ever-moving deadline. First, they’ll tell you that you have six weeks, and then the next thing you know they’ve moved the deadline and it’s the end of this week. I try to keep my personal plans flexible because I can’t always guarantee that I won’t have a deadline move on me. Luckily for me, my husband is okay with this, and it always keeps our life exciting because we never know what our users will bring to our lives.
Can you recall any amusing moments from your technical writing jobs?
One of the first jobs I had was for a radio and cellular company in Chicago. On a Friday I was told we were going on a photo shoot the following Monday. I was all excited. In my mind, I was seeing models and fancy sets. Come Monday, I showed up wearing one of my most fashionable outfits (not wanting to be outdone by all the models I was expecting) only to find that the “model” was a van outfitted with some of the latest in cellular tower testing equipment. We took the van out to tower in the countryside, and proceeded to photograph it from every angle, inside and out. Not exactly the glamorous photo shoot I had in mind, but it turned out to be a fun experience, even so.
One of my later jobs was working at a large pharmaceutical company. I was nervous as heck but really wanted the job. When I got to the interview, the gentlemen asked me a few desultory questions, but seemed distracted. I answered, then waited. Finally, he looked up at me and said that he didn’t really know what to ask me. He’d never hired a tech-writer before, but the clients wanted some user documentation. Without missing a beat, I jumped right in and told him that I would give him a list of questions to ask the other contenders for the job. So, I fed him the questions, and then answered my own questions. We spoke for about an hour, laughing and enjoying the whole interview process. (I admit it was one of the few times I didn’t mind being interviewed for a job.) When we finished, he thanked me for coming and for providing him with some interview questions. I drove home second-guessing myself as to whether I had done right by giving him questions to ask other tech-writers. Finally, I decided that there wasn’t anything I could do to change it, and let it go. The next morning I got a call from the man at the pharmaceutical company and he said that he couldn’t see the point in talking to the other candidates. After all, I seemed to know what I was doing, and could I just come back up there and meet with the clients and get their requirements. I started that job the next day, and he and I worked together for six years building a team of writers as we went along. By the time I left he knew quite a lot about tech-writers and became quite adept at interviewing them.
Do you have any advice for those interested in a technical writing career?
Be flexible. Granted, when I started out the field was new and we were expected to do many things besides just write technical copy, but even now I find that the more flexible I am, the better I can serve my clients. Most clients think they know what they want, but trust me, they don’t. You have to be able to bend like a tree to accommodate their ever-changing needs and wants, and you have to be able to adjust to moving deadlines. Be creative and imaginative. Because the users aren’t always sure what they want, you need to be able to read their minds and come up with ideas that spark their interest and convey the message(s) that they’re trying to get across. Sometimes they need you to be a graphic artist, and other times they need you to simply take their dry, overly-technical copy and turn it into something interesting and provocative – something that tells their users how wonderful this new application is. You need to be able to see through their eyes, and find creative and unique ways to present information. Love words. If you don’t like words or writing, then you won’t like this job. And if you don’t like the job, the clients will be able to tell. One of my favorite pastimes has always been writing – short stories (blogs now), poems, research papers, and white papers. This job is just an extension of what I love doing anyway.
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