Technical Writing: Look Before You Leap

To many aspiring novelists, poets and journalists, working as a technical writer seems like the perfect stepping stone to their dreams. After all, you’ll be paid to put pen to paper–something every wannabe writer dreams of. So what if it isn’t the Great American Novel? You’ll still have time for your own writing in your off hours. Or will you?

If you are thinking about transitioning from your current non-writing position to technical writing because it’s a hot market, you like technology, and/or you want to round out your freelance portfolio, you’re on the right track. But if your main reason for considering the technical arena is that you enjoy writing, then re-evaluate your decision.

Developing and editing user manuals, data sheets, and technical bulletins can be a huge drain on your “writing muscle,” leaving you with little energy to do the kinds of writing you truly love. As a technical writer, you must direct your energies toward demanding, word-related tasks that pay the bills but don’t necessarily feed your soul.

So before spending a lot of time, money and energy metamorphosing into the ideal technical writer, here are five questions to ask yourself.

What energizes me?  A sure path to job burnout is to choose a field that demands all your life essence and gives little in return. With regard to technical writing, people fall on both sides of the fence: some would rather clean the bathroom grout with a toothbrush than write about computers or other high tech subjects. Others find that learning and writing about up-to-the-minute technology gets their synapses firing. A first step in deciding whether you’d be happy as a technical writer is determining in which camp you belong, especially if you intend to pursue other writing projects in your off-hours.

Many technical writers find that after sitting at the computer all day, they have little energy left for anything other than their job. Serena Gordon, a writer from Croton, New York, agrees. While writing a manual for her company’s new Oracle database system, “I was so exhausted by the end of the day that I’d get home and wouldn’t even look at my computer!” she says. “I found it to be very dull and surprisingly, very draining.”

Of course, there are those who find that technical writing fans the flames of their creativity. Carlie Vanwilligen of Montezuma, Iowa, discovered that engaging her brain in writing about technical subjects made her more creative. “I find that, when doing technical writing projects, I have a lot more creativity and energy for other types of writing projects,” she says. Vanwilligen, who has been a technical writer on and off for five years, explains that by absorbing her left brain in the technical part of the writing process, her right brain is “freed up” to pursue more creative endeavors.

Others feel that technical writing has gotten a bad rap as dry and unimaginative. Deborah Ray, a Colorado-based writer and co-author of more than 20 computer books such Mastering HTML 4.0 and UNIX Visual Quick Start Guide, believes that writing about technical subjects calls for more creativity than people think. “Technical writing…in a lot of ways requires a lot of creativity–and problem solving,” she explains. “For example, many projects require creativity to get and keep readers interested in the material. Some require or benefit from humor, nontraditional designs, or creative ways of presenting information, all of which require creativity.”

What skills do I have to offer?  Any technical writer worth his or her copy of FrameMaker will tell you that it’s not enough to just have a way with words. Good technical writers possess a multitude of specific skills that set them apart from other communicators.

Those earning top high tech dollars have knowledge of specialized software packages such as FrameMaker, PageMaker, CAD and QuarkXPress; graphic design, illustration and page layout capabilities; and proficiency in HTML, Java, or other programming or authoring languages. Which of these skills do you already possess? Which can you acquire? And how much time and energy are you willing to invest in filling your bag of tricks? All these are important questions to consider and answer before making the decision to leap into technical writing.

What do I want to spend my time doing?  “Technical writers have a wide variety of jobs, working on a wide variety of projects,” says Ray. A typical day may find you designing Web pages, developing multimedia presentations, creating and/or editing articles, brochures, ad copy and direct mail pieces, and more. And don’t forget the hours of meetings with the research & development and manufacturing engineers, marketing staff, and quality assurance team as you gather information for your projects, verify its accuracy and discuss it with your team members. If you chose the field because you wanted to spend your time at the computer finessing your syntax, you may be frustrated when your time is pulled into other, less literary pursuits.

What kind of worker am I?  Before making any kind of career change, it’s essential to evaluate your work style, strengths and weaknesses. Technical writing can be a great field for self-motivated, flexible individuals with a knack for taking the complicated and making it clear. But it also requires dedication, attention to detail, and the ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

Unlike the world of fiction, where you (or at least your characters) are in control of your writing destiny, technical writing is rarely cut-and-dried, especially when the topic at hand is software or new products. Specifications, functions, even the product name can change multiple times between revisions–and you are expected to keep pace, even if it means scrapping every page of the 15,000 word manual you’ve written so far, or pulling all-nighters so the product can ship on time.

“If you’re lazy, don’t become a technical writer,” warns freelance writer Daryl F. Mallett of Phoenix, Arizona. “It is very demanding, very time-consuming, and you must learn a great deal in a short period of time.”

How much of my writing energy do I want to invest?  There are advantages to technical writing: it’s a hot field, the pay is good, the work is plentiful, and you’re on the cutting edge of information. “If you want to make a lot of money, enjoy learning and don’t mind the grind, technical writing is a great place to hone your mechanical writing skills,” says Mallett, who has written a variety of technical articles and manuals in his ten years as a freelancer.

But there are drawbacks as well. It may take concentrated effort, energy and money to get your knowledge base and skills to the level necessary to secure high-paying jobs. And tech writing can usurp resources from your other writing projects, leaving you frustrated, tired and unpublished. “If you write a lot already, are submitting, and know that’s what you want to do, I would hesitate to promote technical writing,” says Vanwilligen. Mallett agrees, “If your goal is to be the next Stephen King or James Michener or Anne Rice or Diana Gabaldon, don’t become a technical writer. Stick with your craft,” he urges.

After considering these questions, you can now evaluate whether technical writing will mesh well with your long-term writing goals. If so, you’re in for the ride of your life as you navigate the cutting edge of what makes your computer–and the world–tick. And if these questions revealed that technical writing isn’t the magical path to fame and fortune you thought it would, you’ve saved yourself a lot of heartache. Either way, you can rest in the knowledge that you did your homework and came to a well-though-out conclusion–just as a good writer, technical or otherwise, should.


Lain is a freelance journalist who has written on topics as diverse as hybrid fiber/coax telecommunications systems and massage therapy. A former technical writer, she now authors The Parent Trap, a nationally distributed parenting column and can be reached at Lainie9@aol.com.

Read more articles from Lain Chroust Ehmann