The Plight of the Technical Writer

I’ve been a technical writer for over three years now.  It’s a career I kind of fell into and while it’s been disappointing for satisfying my creative needs and urges, it’s been great for paying the bills.  It’s also been tremendous for making me sound more intelligent than I am (sometimes).
I saw a meme about technical writers today, so I decided the right my own version about how people perceive what I spend the vast amount of my time doing.
What my family thinks I do:
I am an experienced professional in a growing career.  I am also a woman in tech which makes companies more inclined to hire me.  Gotta meet those diversity ratios.  They usually make me sound way more impressive than I am.  But who am I to stop them?
“My daughter works in tech.  She’s a technical writer so she works with engineers and explains how complex technologies work to any audience*.  It’s a really fast growing career and she already has three years of experience, so yes, she’s doing very well.”
What society thinks I do:
No f***in idea.  I think once someone knew what a technical writer does.  The conversation usually goes something like this:
Person: So what do you do?
Me: I’m a technical writer.
Person: A technical writer?  I’ve never heard of that before.  So what do you do?
Me: I write user guides and manuals about how to use different technologies.  I mainly work with different different types of soft…
Person: Wow that sounds really boring.
Me:*sighs*…it is.
What recruiters think I do:
Depends on the recruiter, but most of them seem to have at least a general understanding of what technical writers do.  However, I was interviewed by one lady who had clearly never even heard of a technical writer nor was she aware her company had them.
“So I see you’ve been technical writing for over three years.  That’s really great!  You must be a genius with computers.  I’m terrible with computers, I can barely turn them on!  How’d you get into technical writing anyway?  It seems like a super specific skill you’d had to study for years.”
*Note: I had no idea that technical writing existed until three years ago when I was explaining what I did to someone and they said, “Oh you’re a technical writer!”  Occasionally people are impressed.
What developers think I do:
They assume I’m an engineer or have engineer-like abilities.  This is false.  I’m about 90% writer, 10% technical.  They seem to assume that they don’t need to explain certain things to me, and that I can simply just look up the code and know exactly what they’re talking about.  This is also false.  Word to the wise for newer technical writers – do not lie about your technical abilities on your resume or during an interview.  It will be assumed you can be left to your own devices to do things like write in XML and understand how to use a variety of developer tools.
“You want to know how the API works?  Just go into (insert name of developer tool I’ve never head of) and look up the code.  It’s super simple.  You can’t read code?  No problem, the API al;sdkjfa;kbweihrpwoenfwkfnejfao;whef.”
Note: that was not me having a seizure while writing this.  That’s literally what it sounds like to me when developers try to explain certain things to me.
What I think I do:
Read spec sheets, sit through demos, and play around with software to write detailed, yet concise instructions for external and internal users.
“I’m a technical writer.  I translate engineer.”
What I actually do:
Pretend I understand what people are talking about and try to write instructions.  And panic.  There is so much panicking.
“Ok so then the user…what?  I can’t read algorithms, what the hell does that mean?  I can’t ask the engineers a fourth time…I can figure this out.  So you do this then…you…f***. *Rocks back and forth.*

One thought on “The Plight of the Technical Writer

  1. Grant Hogarth says:

    As a fellow Technical Writer, my usual gloss on my title/job is “I’m a Professional Explainer”. I also have been known to say that “I translate from geek to normal, and from Geek A to Geek B.” Feel free to borrow either one.


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