What Do Technical Writers Find Stressful?

Editor’s Note: The following piece by Warren Singer is part of our collection of “classics”–articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.  We thought ten years would be a good mile marker to see if the things that stressed us in 2001 have changed.  Take part our “anniversary poll.”

If you are new to the technical writing profession or are considering technical writing as a career, you may be wondering whether technical writing is a high-stress occupation. According to The Jobs Rated Almanac 2001by Les Krantz, technical writers are rated as having a “relatively moderate to medium level of stress” when compared to other professions. The Almanac ranks 250 professions based on a range of job demands that are considered to cause stress; the stress ranking for “technical writing” is based on the large workloads, tight deadlines, stringent demands for quality, and the exposure to criticism characteristic of many technical and marketing writer jobs.

At a more practical level, though, how do those in the technical writing profession rank the stressfulness of their jobs? Part One of this two-part article summarizes how technical writers surveyed rank the stressfulness of their jobs and describes some of the aspects that technical writers mentioned as being stressful.

 

How Stressful is Technical Writing?

Stress occurs when you perceive outside demands as being greater than your resources; stress is the physical and psychological reactions you have to these “unbalanced” situations.

In an August 2001 informal poll conducted on the TECHWR-L site, TECHWR-Lers were asked to rate how stressful they found their jobs. The results, as of the time of publication, indicate that 23 percent found their jobs to be extremely or very stressful, 36 percent found their jobs to be somewhat stressful, and 39 percent found their jobs to be slightly or not at all stressful:

Extremely stressful 7.69%
Very stressful 15.38%
Somewhat stressful 36.69%
Slightly stressful 22.49%
Not at all stressful 16.57%
Other/none of the above 1.18%

The stress reported by technical writers is based on the subjective and personal perception of what is considered stressful. As Bill Swallow notes, “Stress is relative. Some people sweat bullets at night dreading the [stressors in their jobs]. Some consider them a welcome challenge that comes with the job. Sometimes these things bug me, sometimes they don’t. Usually several need to be happening at a time to get my tension level up.”

Yet others find technical writing not stressful at all. Darren Barefoot considers technical writing to be one of the least stressful professions: “Typically, you work in a safe, danger-free environment. Your work is not on the critical path of a product release. Relative to other parts of the company, your work has only a small impact on your company’s health and for the most part, if you get something wrong, it’s not going to result in catastrophe.”

What do Technical Writers Find Stressful?

In a survey I conducted in August 2001, I asked technical writers from the TECHWR-L and Techshoret discussion lists to name the five most stressful aspects of being a technical writer (and the strategies that they use to cope, discussed in Part Two of this article). The rest of this article examines some of the aspects that technical writers perceive to be stressful:

  •  Work overload and time pressures
  • Last-minute changes
  • Difficulty with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
  • Problems with managers
  • Ongoing learning challenges and limited access to a product
  • Poorly defined and managed projects
  • Computer and tool problems
  • Workspace environment
  • Job security
  • Lack of control over the work environment

Work overload and time pressures

Technical writers commonly work in an environment characterized by high workloads and tight schedules. Documentation projects need to be completed in time for product delivery dates, and insufficient time may have been budgeted for this. And often, as companies tighten their belts and cut back on staff, writers are expected to handle more tasks and work longer hours.

Jane Carnall expresses it succinctly when she states, “Too much work to do in too little time. This can mean something like six months to do a 12-month project, or one person working on a project that has work for three.”

Sella Rush lists “last minute deadlines” as a major stressor, and goes on to explain, “I’m talking hours, sometimes; for major projects, less than a week; or what’s worse, the ASAP [deadline], which means someone’s constantly breathing down your neck.”

For contract writers, the need to bring in additional projects may result in committing to more tasks than they can handle, which can create additional deadlines and even tighter schedules. Telecommuters and contractors working at home, where “home” and “work” are often not physically separated, sometimes need to juggle deadlines and schedules with kids underfoot or with household projects going on. As Paula Stern, an independent contract writer, notes, “As a working mother, I’m expected to take care of the kids, maintain the house, be a partner to my husband, etc. etc. and yet deliver the manual when the customer needs it.”

Last-minute changes

In addition to tight deadlines, technical writers are also expected to handle constant changes to product features, often at the last minute before a product needs to be shipped. This happens for a number of reasons, but it sometimes happens because the writer is involved only at the last stages of product development or because reviewers respond late to their deadlines for reviewing the documentation.

Jane Carnall lists as her major job stressor: “Last minute-changes to the software entailing last-minute detailed changes to the documentation, which usually means the documentation going out hastily proofread, which sometimes means humiliating small errors creep through.”

Difficulty with SMEs

Problems with Subject Matter Experts is a commonly-cited source of stress for technical writers, and the kind of problems can vary. Geoff Hart indicates some problems with SMEs: “SMEs making undocumented changes in the interface or underlying algorithms, SMEs forgetting an agreement to keep me posted about such changes, and lazy or careless documentation reviews.”

SMEs’ communication skills can also cause problems for writers; an SME may not have the skills to explain a concept to the writer in a clear and coherent manner. Rebecca Downey describes this problem as, “[SMEs sometimes being] bad teachers (people who think that an explanation means repeating the same definitions over and over again).” Part of the problem with SMEs may lie in the perception of the contribution and status of technical writers, especially if you are a new writer. Mary Jane Shubow notes that, “Tech writers are sort of second class citizens in high-tech companies.”

In general, technical writers must often compete with an SME’s pressing projects and deadlines to get the information needed for a documentation project. SMEs are sometimes not willing to invest the time in explaining concepts and reviewing documents, which are often both necessary for writers to do their jobs.

Ongoing learning challenges and limited access to a product

 Technical writers are usually not experts in a technology or product–at least they’re often not at the beginning of a documentation project. Nonetheless, they are expected to understand a technology within a short period of time. Sella Rush describes this: “In contrast to SMEs who are experts in a single field, technical writers must have a solid understanding of many fields. But it isn’t possible for the technical writer to be an expert in all pertinent fields, so as a result, everyone the technical writer talks with is more expert in their field than the technical writer, and the technical writer is always at a disadvantage.”

Compounding this problem is that technical writers may also have limited access to the product. Tracey Houston describes this as “not being allowed access [or] having limited access to ‘play’ with the software/machine/product you are writing about.” When access to the product is limited, the writer may have to rely more on the SME for accurate information, thus compounding an often already-stressful aspect.

Problems with managers

Technical writers frequently cited micro-management–when managers attempt to limit independence and control every aspect of your duties–as a source of stress. While as a new writer, you may benefit from having the continual guidance and feedback from an experienced writer, you may find such guidance limiting if your manager expects you to always “do things her way,” without any leeway for ingenuity and initiative.

At the other end of the spectrum are managers who provide no support or guidance. Jane Carnall notes “lack of support from management, lack of respect, and lack of acknowledgement of the hard work you put in” as a source of stress.

Poorly defined and managed projects

Technical writers sometimes encounter poorly defined projects, where ownership of responsibilities is not clear and where features and deadlines are constantly changing. This may be more characteristic of beta version products still undergoing development or of companies where processes have not been clearly defined. Ami Isseroff describes such projects as having “contradictory requirements and instructions, and vague and ambiguous information.” Such projects seem to hang in limbo and demand constant energy and time, prolonging stress.

Computer and tool problems

Technical writers use a variety of tools and technologies to do their jobs. Document development tools such as FrameMaker and Word, graphics development tools such as Paint Shop Pro or PhotoShop, and project management or editing tools are just a few that technical writers may use in their day-to-day jobs. With that variety can come several related problems, which technical writers report to be frustrating and time-consuming:

  • Installing new applications and managing upgrades
  • Learning a tool, including learning its capabilities and limitations
  • Encountering, troubleshooting, and fixing software-related problems
  • Dealing with network, file management, and related problems
  • Converting documents to other formats
  • Printing documents in online or paper formats

A related problem for technical writers may simply be getting the tools needed to do the job. Laura MacLemale writes, “Tool limitations can affect the quality of your output. Sometimes a technical writer has no choice but to use the available tools, whether or not they are the best tools for the job. Limitations may be based on budgetary restrictions or company-wide access to documentation.”

Workspace environment

Technical writers rely on their office and desktop equipment to complete their tasks. Your monitor, mouse, keyboard, and chair can all play an important part in body stress. Inadequate or ill-fitting equipment can lead to eye strain, back problems, and carpal tunnel syndrome, among other problems. A monitor that is not positioned properly can cause eye and muscle strain. Incorrect use of the keyboard and mouse can lead to repetitive stress on wrist and fingers. An uncomfortable chair can result in back strain. And sometimes technical writers don’t always have a choice or say in what equipment or arrangement is available.

Sandy Noymer indicates one such physical stressor: “Typing for many hours, often at a desk and computer that are poorly designed [can cause stress]. Frequently, this leads to RSI/CTD (Repetitive Stress Injury/Cumulative Trauma Disorder), which can be painful, disabling, and very, very stressful.”

Job security

The current economic situation has many technical writers worried about their positions. New or junior writers may be the first to be let go when a company downsizes. For contract writers, companies can sometimes cancel contracts with little or no notice. Adjusting to a new job or contract, or to layoffs and restructuring within your company, can also be stressful.

Mary Jane Shubow states that “the instability of the current economic situation is stressful for all high-tech employees at all levels. It’s hard to see your friends fired, and you always wonder when your turn may come.”

Says another technical writer (who requested to remain anonymous): “I worry if my deliverables are not considered essential, how much job security do I have…?”

Compounding job security issues, technical writers also need to keep up with the changes in their profession, as Mark Levinson explains: “While you’re mastering one technology, another technology is becoming fashionable and making your skills obsolete.”

Lack of control over the work environment

 New technical writers and even experienced ones often have little control over their office environment or tasks. The inability to influence the environment can be reflected in specific areas, or this may be a general problem. Often, technical writers cannot control which projects they are handling, the people they work with, or their deadlines. Lack of control could also be reflected in a combination of the other stressors discussed in this article. Jane Carnall describes this as a “feeling of futility: Nothing you accomplish is worthwhile or getting anywhere.”

 

Conclusion

Although technical writing as a whole may not be a high-stress profession, technical writers working in the profession do find some aspects stressful. Heavy workloads, last-minute changes, difficulty with SMEs, project and management difficulties, workspace aspects, and lack of control…any one of these may be stressful, depending on other aspects of the job. What’s more, you may encounter more than one or several of these aspects, which can add up to on-the-job stress. As a writer new to the profession or as someone interested in the profession, learning about some of these stressors can help you understand and prepare yourself for what you might encounter.

How about you? How Stressful is your job?

How stressful do you find your technical communications job?

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 Additional Reading

Books
Cooper, C.L. and Palmer, S. 2000. Conquer Your Stress, London: Institute of Personnel and Development.
Hartland, D. 2000. Understanding Stress, Caxton Edition.
Patel, C. 1996. Complete Guide to Stress Management, Vermilion.

Online
American Institute of Stress: http://www.stress.org
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/stress/

Warren Singer has several years of experience as both a permanent and contract writer. He currently runs Targeted Writing Solutions, a private consulting business. He can be contacted at warrends@netvision.net.il.

Read more articles from Warren Singer