Column: Technical writers float on tide of demand

Advertisements for technical writers pop up in the IT employment pages every now and then--not frequently, but regularly enough to have career potential.

Advertisements for technical writers pop up in the IT employment pages every now and then--not frequently, but regularly enough to have career potential.

So what does a technical writer do and what skills do they need?

Brian Dooley is a technical writer and freelancer based in Christchurch. “A good technical writer needs to be a capable technologist and a proficient writer. This combination is not easy to find, as a lot of technologists can’t write and a lot of writers don’t understand technology," he says. "Skills needed include the ability to research and understand technology quickly, the ability to communicate with and interview engineers and the ability to make complex concepts understandable.”

“Project management and organisational skills also help. A computer background can help, but is not always essential. Not all technical writing is about computers--after all, the work includes manuals for consumer electronics, testing equipment, industrial equipment and business procedures, among other things. However, computer word processing skills are often required and graphics or multimedia systems are increasingly coming into play.”

Nick Cardwell, of Auckland’s Itec Recruitment, says technical writers are in demand but not continuously.

“We’ve experienced constant occasional demand for tech writers. So they’re not always in demand, although the demand is always there.

“Technical writers tend to be contracted to smaller organisations, where it’s usually part of someone’s job, but the larger organisations will certainly have full-time technical writers.”

Murray Todd, of The doughty Group, in Wellington, says many technical project managers in control of large development projects are assigning specialist writers to take on both technical and end-user documentation tasks, to ensure a higher quality end product.

However, consultants spoken to at Wilson White Associates say there is little demand for dedicated technical writers because most companies do in-house jobs.

“Most do it in-house and they do it badly. Most of those who do the technical writing have a technical knowledge but don’t have a writing background”, said one.

They say many applications are self-documenting and have online help built into them, reducing the need for documentation. The contract work that remains mostly involves modification of documents from legacy systems don’t have online help, Wilson White says.

“It is now part of the development life cycle. Businesses now stipulate that technical specifications are one of the deliverables and documentation is now part of the actual code itself. Many large projects now will not live until the documentation is not only delivered but accepted by users”, said the consultant.

For anyone wanting to get into technical writing as a career, the picture is unclear.

Says Cardwell: “It is a specialised field; there is not always work for everyone who wants it. We’ve had a few people who have wanted to get into technical writing but there were not enough jobs, and they gave up. But it’s the same as any job. If you’re good at it there’ll always be work for you.”

Wilson White Associates says the kinds of people who get into technical writing don’t usually have Dooley’s publishing and writing background.

“Usually they’re internal IT people at a company who enjoy writing about the processes. Most technical writers have to come from within IT with a bent for writing about technical things”, one says.

Murray Todd, of The doughty Group, says several industry people have seen the opportunity to specialise in a niche area which has seen a steady demand for these skills.

“Many have gone further to establish their service to incorporate printing and publishing, taking advantage of the available desktop publishing tools and technology.”

“I’ve only come across one journalist trying to do it”, says Nick Cardwell. “It is a good career if you enjoy it, but it is specialised.”

Contract rates vary a great deal for technical writers according to background and experience, says Todd.

“The track record and references received from previous assignments is key to determining the market value of this service.”

* For those interested in learning more about technical writing, Christchurch Polytechnic has introduced a certificate programme in technical communication which is moderated by a board drawn from local industry and supported by the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication.

(Ria Keenan is Computerworld's careers specialist. Contact her by email at Ria_Keenan@idg.com.)

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