Less than a month ago, I began transitioning from ‘head in the clouds’ B.A. student to TECHNICAL WRITER (and now I’m shouting it from the rooftops). Many people want to know ‘what is a technical writer’? After my describing it as a writer that works in any industry creating documentation (articles, websites, user guides, reports, specifications, and endless other documents for consumers and people in the industry), they then ask ‘why not be a journalist?’ While it is true that I’ve dabbled in journalism, and continue to do so, this is because of three elemental similarities it has to technical writing:
1. It’s still writing. As a writer, I need all the practice I can get obeying word limits, using proper punctuation and wording, and making a document look good on a page, online, or on another medium.
2. They both involve researching heavily. I don’t feel ready to start any writing project until I have at least 50% of the word count down as an outline or research notes. Through working in journalism, I have interviewed, done fieldwork, and searched through sometimes tens of thousands of pages of research.
3. They both involve catering to the masses. I can never write without many other people in mind anymore. Even a simple Facebook or Twitter post I tailor to friends, enemies, family members, teachers, and future employers who I think may possibly read it. When I’m writing for the Internet or printed documentation, this skill will prove invaluable to me. Now, however, I feel like Mel Gibson’s character in Conspiracy Theory.
As for why I chose technical writing instead of journalism:
1. The money. Yes, I admit it. It’s simple math: the average annual salary for an entry-level journalist with any degree is about $29,000 (not much more than minimum wage in Canada). The salary for an entry-level technical writer is $60,000 on average, and with a B.A. and postgraduate training in technical writing, this increases exponentially. After ten years in the industry, successful journalists can make about $50,000 annually. Successful technical writers, on the other hand, can make well over six figures. My sources? http://www.payscale.com/research/CA/Job=Technical_Writer/Salary, http://www.payscale.com/research/CA/Job=Journalist/Salary, and http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/Investing/Forbes/10SurprisingSixFigureJobs.aspx.
2. The job satisfaction. Now, this might have to do something with money, but I think it has more to do with job stability, benefits, and levels of stress. Journalism, I have to admit, gets me very stressed, annoyed, and exhausted at times. This is, of course, not unavoidable in technical writing, but I think the worst parts of journalism are padding what should be 50-word articles into 500 words and not knowing where my next news story will come from. Technical writing usually doesn’t have either of these problems, because as soon as there’s a new product on the market, it’s up to the technical writer to research every possibly useful or interesting detail about it and send it along to marketing, the public, and anyone else who may need to know about it. More satisfaction comes after the completion of such a writing project. News stories, after all, are considered ‘old’ after a week, but technical documentation may be read by hundreds to millions of people for as long as the products it comes with stay in use.
3. The benefits. While I do have a few “I have a friend who became a technical writer” stories, I’ll stick with the more consistent benefits of being a technical writer. It all depends on the employer and how much they want you, but gauging from job research, it’s not uncommon for technical writers to: play around with the product they’re writing about before the general public, have employers pay for additional training and higher education, interview highly educated and intelligent individuals on a pretty regular basis, decide if you’d rather telecommute than work 9-5 in an office, and the list goes on.
4. The technology. This is my favorite benefit and my ‘niche’, so to speak. I’m pretty handy with computers, cellphones, telescopes, hardware, and software and aware that this is very rare for a writer. Writing and technology tend to be on opposite sides of the knowledge spectrum, so I consider myself quite the nerd. Other proof of my nerd-status includes having astronomy for a hobby, an obsession with all things sci-fi, considering organization an art, and having over 300 books in my personal library including several large volumes of software documentation.