When the writing gets too technical

Ever wondered who produces that fine prose in those IT company brochures, websites, etc? It may be a journalist, but often it is the technical writer.

Ever wondered who produces that fine prose in those IT company brochures, websites, etc? It may be a journalist, but often it is the technical writer.

The New Zealand Technical Writers Association has about 70 members, but believes there are about 70 more technical writers scattered around the country, mostly-based in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Apparently, demand for technical writing is growing, as companies raise their marketing standards, increasingly use public relations firms, and their products become more complex.

A US book, “Jobs Rated Almanac”, by Les Krantz, published in 1999, ranks technical writing as the 14th best job out of 250. Top job was website manager and bottom was roustabout.

The job was ranked 80th for income, with the percentage of growth from the bottom to the top being 272%. This is because “writing is not a homogenous occupation in terms of required skill, experience and knowledge. Thus, earnings vary widely depending on these factors.”

But the downside is the work can “occasionally be tedious” and “publications deadlines can be a major stress factor”.

Beverley Stevens, managing editor of Auckland-based Documents by Design, says these US findings apply to New Zealand. Here, technical writers earn salaries of $30,000 to $80,000 or more. Hourly rates for contractors are typically $25 for juniors or trainees to $80 or more for consultants.

Stevens says a typical technical writer spends just half their time writing, which is why many prefer to be called documentors, documentation specialists, information designers or technical communicators.

Documentation project management looks at estimating, resourcing, project planning and reporting. The writer needs to identify the purpose, intended audience and what should be included/excluded in the document.

Design is planned, the information is gathered, the article is written and formatted, with headings, subheadings, diagrams, cross-references, hypertext links and tables. The work is then edited and reviewed.

Stevens says many experienced technical writers moved in from other careers, such as teaching or IT sales management, or found their job increasingly involved technical writing. Stevens came to it from software support and training roles. A focus on documentation by companies such as Telecom New Zealand and IBM provided early opportunities for today’s senior technical writers.

While some technical writers have no formal qualifications, the information mapping methodology is widely recognised as a key component of a technical writer’s training. It provides a research-based structured methodology for analysing, organising and presenting written information to communicate effectively.

Tactics New Zealand runs courses in it, and tertiary institutes increasingly run technical writing courses.

Stevens says technical writers also need skills in analysis, interpersonal communication, and an ability to assimilate new technical information. They should also be highly computer-literate, have an attention to detail, be able to see the big picture, be flexible with changing schedules, and be pedantic to ensure every query is resolved and every document checked. Expertise in a particular field, like IT, is “helpful but not essential”, she says.

In the IT world, technical writers are developing online help, installation guides, user and training guides and release update notes.

The New Zealand Documentation Developers Conference will be held in Auckland during September 6 and 7, presented jointly by the New Zealand Technical Writers Association and the Society for Technical Communication (STC) New Zealand Chapter.

Greenwood is Computerworld’s HR reporter. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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