Every so often, I share a discussion about #techcomm that I have had with another tech writer. Here’s the latest, which was a chat with contract technical writer, Tess Walpole, who works mainly in the London area. She is a big fan of Confluence and has worked for some big names including Sony and Skype.
If you don’t fancy reading it all (and there’s quite a lot), click the links below to jump to the various questions:
- How did you get into technical writing as a career?
- In a recent survey, technical writer was ranked in the top 20 high salary, low stress roles. What’s your take on that?
- What’s your take on the ‘Needs technical knowledge’ vs ‘Generalist technical writer’ debate?
- When you were an employee, how did you cope with the inevitable groundhog day syndrome?
- How do you deal with that feeling that you need to know everything and have to keep up-to-date with everything
- If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self on day 1 as a technical writer, what would it be?
- Have you ever experienced a dismissive attitude from others about our work?
- Technical writing – labour of love?
- What about structured writing? Have you ever written using structured FrameMaker, Paligo, or DITA?
- What are your favourite tools?
- What is your experience with the technical writer’s career path?
- What’s your take on agile environments? Do you think they work well for tech writers?
- What are your favourite types of project?
- Any industries that you’d quite like to work in, but haven’t had the opportunity yet?
- Do you attend or speak at conferences? Which ones, and what do you enjoy about them/gain from them?
- When you retire, do you think you’ll still be tempted to get involved with the profession somehow?
- Do you work mostly through agencies or hired directly by the client?
- Working from home, working on site, a mix of both – what’s best and why?
- What do you like most about contracting and what are the worst bits?
- Are there times when you wish there were other authors on the job, and if so, what sort of things do you think they’d help with?
- What are the key things that make your alarm bells ring on a potential project?
Tess: I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was 7 and the children’s writer, Ursula Moray Williams, came to speak to my class. I revised that career choice at 12 when I realised that a lot of writers don’t make any money (I was a very mercenary child). Then at 13, I took the Jiig-Cal questionnaire. My answers were fed into a computer and it chucked out a bunch of jobs it thought I’d be good at (we had a lot of faith in computers to predict your abilities in the 80s).
One of those was Technical Writer, which I liked the idea of and it sort of snowballed from there. One Technical Communications degree later, I have a career in technical writing. The lesson here is that I’m very stubborn once I’ve made my mind up about something.
In a recent survey, technical writer was ranked in the top 20 high salary, low stress roles. What’s your take on that?
Was it?! I’m obviously doing it wrong then. There’s a slight possibility I take it all way too seriously but I certainly get stressed trying to force contributions out of unhelpful SMEs or in trying to meet unrealistic deadlines. Talking to other writers, they’re usually stressed out of their tiny little minds as well, so I’d be fascinated to know how those survey questions were written and who they asked!
Craig: It was on the Daily Mail web site, so must be true (ahem). Before people jump on my back, I only use the site because it is still free and the football coverage is all I’m interested in.
Back to the stress – I agree. On paper, this isn’t a stressful profession, not compared to health workers, and police, and social workers, etc. But you can make anything stressful if you care enough.
I once read a developer’s reply to a technical writer – “You’re not an expert in anything so you are a writer, not a technical writer”. What’s your take on the ‘Needs technical knowledge’ vs ‘Generalist technical writer’ debate?
Tess: Ah, one of my favourite arguments! For me, there’s no debate. As a Technical Writer, my best starting position for a new project is to put myself in the position of the audience, so honestly? The less I know the better. An SME can come with baggage that can sometimes taints the content, e.g. a passion or hatred for the subject matter, an overwhelming desire to ‘show off’ their experience in the one document, or an assumption that ‘everyone’ knows what they’re talking about.
Where a Technical Writer shows their skill is in learning everything they need to know about the subject, then filtering out what the reader doesn’t need to know and organising what’s left in a way that it can be found as easily as possible. My skills are judging the right format, style, tone of voice, words and images to best serve the end user of my content. A Developer’s skills are judging the right system architecture, server setup, code languages, UX design, test plans and graphics to use to best build a system that the customer wants. It seems to me that hardly anyone asks a Developer to be an expert in the sector in which they work, they’re more interested in their technical skills. So why ask a Technical Writer that question? I find it quite an insulting concept that ‘only an expert can write about this subject’. With the right research techniques, any writer should be able to become an expert and I’ve spent my entire contracting career trying to prove that.
Craig: I’m with you on this one. The curse of knowledge can really affect your work, and is probably why our jobs came to exist in the first place. The only time I think it helps to be an expert is if you are writing for an expert audience, but in that scenario, how much documentation do they really need?
Tess: Looking back at my last permanent role, I was pretty lucky in that I was given a fair few opportunities in training and with using different formats that a shocking number of perms don’t get. Having said that, on about the 4th time of updating the same documents, I was getting bored witless, so it’s probably for the best that I’m now a contractor.
How do you deal with that feeling that you need to know everything and have to keep up-to-date with everything?
Tess: I’ll be honest, I don’t feel that especially. I come back to my belief that any Technical Writer should have the research capabilities to upskill themselves pretty quickly, with minimal support. If I need to know a subject, I learn it, if I need to use a particular tool, I learn it, if there’s a particular format or writing style that’s currently trending on the job boards, I learn it. Systems and ways of working fall in and out of fashion all the time – if I jumped all over the newest and latest every time, I wouldn’t have any time to do any actual work.
Your safest bet is always to periodically look at what work is being offered and in which sectors, then judge which trends are popping up time and again. And you should do that even when you have work already. Some writers wait until the work dries up before making those assessments because they have more time to do the training but that’s a pretty risky way to approach your career, as clients may move on to the next latest thing.
Craig: That’s a healthy outlook. I might nick it. If my brain will allow me to think that way, that is.
If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self on day 1 as a technical writer, what would it be?
- Keep those overly long sentences you love so damn much to your personal emails and letters. And interviews apparently.
- Despite what college told you, hardly anyone knows what a Technical Writer is and how they work until they need one, so have a standard answer ready.
- Don’t just search for ‘writer’ on the jobs boards because agencies and HR departments LOVE making up job titles for your profession (see point 2).
- Some people will assume they could do your job as ‘everyone can write’ – please stop arguing with them, they’re idiots and it seems to be contributing cause to your high blood pressure.
- Trust your instincts. If you think a client or the project has ‘gone bad’ or is persistently ignoring a massive issue, just run for the hills. Don’t repeatedly bang your stubborn head against that particular brick wall in the vague hope you’ll get a different result this time.
- Become a contractor sooner, you will be a lot happier.
Craig: Thumbs up to Number 6. If only I had known that too. I stayed in my first role a good 10 years too long.
I sometimes feel our work is undervalued. Have you ever experienced a dismissive attitude from others about our work?
Tess: Show me a Technical Writer who’s been shown only love, praise and admiration and I’ll show you a liar or a raving lunatic. I’ve been dismissed by SMEs, managers, even other Technical Writers with a bizarrely over-inflated sense of self. I think the key here is if you’ve done everything in your power to prove them wrong and demonstrate your abilities, just step back or leave.
I used be a lot more ‘fighty’ about this kind of thing but you know what? Doesn’t change much. Some idiots stay idiots, and for every bad experience, I’ve had more good ones. Plus I find if I give it a few years, the really stupid ones will eventually do something so spectacularly dumb in their career they can’t fob it off on someone else. So do challenge it but once you’ve done that, let it go. You’ll be proven right eventually.
I chose this profession when I was 13 and have stubbornly refused to change careers. So, I’m going with yes. Although, I also like the money (again, still slightly mercenary).
Yes, I’ve used structured writing methodologies, languages and associated tools in my work. Like a lot of writers, I’ve learnt a few XML markup languages, including DITA and XHTML, partly because there is a solid need for it out there and partly because I’ve sometimes needed to write about those languages for developer documentation (e.g. SAML, SCORM, SOAP, XQuery, etc.).
However, I don’t get asked to use XML very often and it’s often been rejected when suggested as being appropriate for a particular project. I suspect that’s because a fair amount of my past work has been for clients who’ve wanted something they can then easily take over themselves without upskilling and the person I’m going to be handing over it over to usually isn’t a writer or a developer, so they need a format they’re more comfortable with and that won’t impact their departmental budget with training costs.
So it depends a lot on the different formats your clients want, what’s most suitable for the product and the end audience, and whether you get a significant say in how you go about it. I’ve successfully sold the concepts and methodologies around structured writing to a fair few clients in terms of it aiding consistency, accuracy and clarity, but the desire to employ those tools and languages designed to more easily facilitate structured writing largely hasn’t been there (excluding in developer focused projects obviously).
Tess: This is a difficult one for me as there are some Technical Writers who have a strong love for a particular tool and I’ve ended up arguing with them because they’ve insisted on sticking with it forever to the exclusion of everything else. I prefer the flexibility of using whatever’s available to me as it forces me to develop workarounds and strategies that stand me in good stead for future work.
I personally like using Confluence and most things Atlassian (when done right and set up correctly), as I’m a big fan of collaboration and immediate user feedback that can be responded to quickly. I prefer LucidChart to Visio simply for being less of an all-round faff. I’ve also always been a big fan of InDesign (big believer that the look of a guide needs just as much attention as the content – you have to make people want to read it). But as I say, I honestly don’t care what tools I use, as long as I get the right result for the reader at the end of it.
Craig: I agree. If you become too specialised with one tool, you lose sight of other ways of doing things. Paligo’s probably my favourite for structured content, but I like Flare too. When we worked on Confluence, I could see why you like it (even though the cloud version sucked wind).
Something I’m often asked about is the career path of technical writers. For me, it was tech writer > senior tech writer > career path blocked. There was only one more step to go to lead tech writer, and to be honest, it just involved a small level of management that I don’t really care for. Have you experienced other paths/problems?
Tess: Pretty similar – Junior Writer > Writer > Senior Writer > God, the corporate ladder is boring and annoying and I don’t want to do this anymore. I think all writers reach that point where the choice is a. Documentation Manager, b. contractor, c. switch to a different profession.
There was a time where I was 100% convinced it was going to be Documentation Manager for me but I hated everything that came with management – budgets, interviews, people problems, office politics, etc. Writing on any subject in an endless variety of ways is infinitely more interesting for me.
Craig: Same here. I’ve no interest in being a documentation manager. To be honest, I think tech writers are better off working in development teams anyway.
Tess: I’ve worked in one agile environment done well (although they could’ve given all the hugging a rest, sorry Barclays/Radical) and several done badly (handy hint: just having a daily stand-up is a huge old waste of everyone’s time, it is not your company being ‘agile’). Agile’s not completely ideal for us as we depend on others to build the thing, test the thing, then show us the thing before we get to write about the thing and if the sprint is short, we get royally screwed over in the retrospective.
However, if the devs don’t think documentation is important, it doesn’t matter what methodology you use, your writer will end up walking out on you. So, it’s about good mutual professional respect and a proper understanding of Agile. And slightly less hugging. Seriously people, stop hugging me, it’s weird.
Craig: Nobody has ever hugged me at work, but I’ll say now – don’t do it. I don’t do touchy-feely, I don’t go on team building events, and I don’t go out with colleagues after work. I come to work, do my job, am friendly and polite with everyone, and that’s where the line is drawn.
Tess: Something I’ve never done before, with talkative SMEs, with a management fully engaged in wanting the best support possible for their end users and the budget to prove it. Nothing annoys me more than the ridiculous concept that good documentation or help adds no value to a product, so let’s knock it out on the back of a cigarette packet, hope for the best and sod the customers, they already paid for it. I don’t need a client to like me personally (I’m not that needy), but if they’re not taking the support seriously, then what’s the point?
Tess: I’m playing a big old game of Job Sector Bingo in my head the entire time I’m offered jobs these days. Have I tried all types of banking? Have I done all types of telecoms? I’ve only covered one form of transportation so far, so I might give the other forms a go (done air, need road and water).
I’m desperate to work for a religion – I was once offered something in that area and it wasn’t the right time. I’m not religious in any way, just think it would be a cool addition to my CV. I haven’t written for a charity or in construction yet, so I’d like to add those to the list.
This is why I love my job and I’m so insistent that you shouldn’t specialise – it’s one of the few professions where theoretically you can work anywhere on any subject. It’s also why I’m always a bit amazed other people think my job must be boring – I’ve written about banking, telecoms, games development, aviation, on-demand TV, conveyancing, consumer goods and other things besides…what’s boring about that?!
Craig: That’s the best thing about contracting and freelancing – the variety of work. Working on the same project for years on end would do my head in now.
< a name=”conferences”>Do you attend or speak at conferences? Which ones, and what do you enjoy about them/gain from them?
Tess: Attend? Yes when I have the time. Speak? Dear God no. I’m a terrible nervous public speaker.
I’ll be honest, I went to a number of different technical writer focused conferences in my 20s and I didn’t really enjoy them all that much. The social/networking aspect was great but after a while, it felt like the same topics were being covered again and again and there wasn’t enough engagement in exploring new ideas or attracting younger writers into the profession. It’s probably changed a lot but I prefer conferences that have a bit of a wider scope now personally – the Agile Content Conference, for example, or Learning Technologies – conferences that are linked to my profession but aren’t exclusively focussed on it. Also, wider events like London Tech Week are great for getting a feel for what’s coming up in technology and the kinds of businesses that are being set up.
Tess: Wow, that’s a good question. Don’t think I’ve ever given that much of a thought before – I’ve mostly focussed on the opportunity I’ll have to sleep for 20 hours a day!
I suspect I’ll probably be the kind of person doling out abuse on the LinkedIn technical writing group discussion threads and getting myself banned across the Internet. I seem the type.
Craig: I think you are the sort that will still be involved, even if it is just creating content for a voluntary organisation or something. That’s assuming that a) we even get to retire and b) content created by humans is still needed/wanted.
Tess: Mostly through agencies, although in the last 5 years it’s swayed a little more towards potential clients contacting directly. I slightly prefer the direct approach as so many agencies have no idea on rate, skillset needed, etc. but it all depends on the agency.
Craig: I’ve only ever worked through two agencies. The first one was a horrible job that was impossible to do – it was more of a documentation collation role, but loads of the project information hadn’t been kept or wouldn’t be available until some time in the future. The second one went well and led to a lot of work later on, even though it was a regular recruitment company, not a specialist documentation agency.
Tess: When working from home, I’ve tended to reach a bit of a tipping point in terms of not having people to talk to face-to-face, yet at the same time I’ve found it vaguely ridiculous to spend thousands a year to sit at a desk where at least 50% of the time I’m lost in my own little writing world. I’ve done 2 contracts where I’ve had good, balanced mix of both and I think that’s probably what works best for me – some quiet time to bang out the words without the distractions and some office time to stand slightly menacingly/tragically at people’s desks while I ask them questions.
Craig: As much as I hate to say it, I think a mix is best too. I don’t need the social interaction of work that some people do, and I definitely don’t get as much done when on site. But when you are at home, you can miss out on things – prototypes that are being considered, discussions on the best way to label an interface, etc.
I like the variety and the fact I don’t have to engage in office politics. I hate doing my accounts and all the paperwork that’s sometimes involved in a new contract (especially all the checks involved in banking contracts – some of those forms are just incredibly time consuming, monotonous and sometimes very badly designed).
Craig: I’m with you on the paperwork. I hate doing it, too. The best bit for me (apart from the financial side) is that feeling of being able to say no.
When I worked with you, I found you to be a great sounding board for when I was in two minds about things. Especially with ways of structuring the content, when there were pros and cons to different approaches. Are there times when you wish there were other authors on the job, and if so, what sort of things do you think they’d help with?
Tess: Oh you sweet talker you.
Craig: Well, you say that. It took me ages to think of something positive to say about you 😉
Tess: I do love the sound of my own typing, don’t I? I like to blame it on my family’s love of politics – work both sides of the argument, then come to a decision and argue everyone else into either submission, silence or tears 😉
Successfully working in a group of writers really depends on the job, project scope and the people involved. Sometimes it’s good to have other writers to talk through tricky content and to support each other when the leadership is prioritising tight budgets or timescales over user needs. I also think it’s great to have other writers constantly peer reviewing your work. It’s the one real drawback to being a sole author – you can get the SME to technically review your writing and that’s fine, but a good writer will point out when you’re wittering on, drifting away from the style guide or just not making any sense.
Craig: You’re wittering on.
Tess: On the other hand, sometimes groups can turn problematic. I’ve worked in large groups where sub-groups have formed within the wider team and that tends to end quite badly for the documentation as bickering ensues. I also attended one memorable interview where I was interviewed by a group of writers and it became very clear very quickly that they’d formed into a very specific clique with very specific set of views. I turned that job down, even though we all got on well, because I could see there was no swaying them from their approach, which meant they wouldn’t be open to new authoring concepts or change. Writing groups should never become so pleased with the status quo, they become closed off to new ideas, methodologies or technologies.
You’ve worked for some big companies like Sony. How does that differ from working in smaller companies?
Tess: That’s a hard one. I’ve worked in big organisations that have love-bombed me and ones that have ignored and/or belittled me. Same for little companies – some were good, some were terrible. Ditto with the rate and budget – I’ve had big companies pay me badly or suddenly run out of budget and little companies pay me well with a seemingly endless budget, and vice versa. The biggest difference is usually that my mum’s heard of the big ones 😉
If I have a preference, it’s probably for larger companies but I think that’s purely because the worst contract I ever had was at a little start-up. But to be fair, there’s a huge organisation that takes second place. The point is, you never know. The size of the company doesn’t matter, it’s the corporate culture they adopt that matters.
What are the key things that make your alarm bells ring on a potential project? What sort of thing makes you think ‘no, that’s going to be a messy one’?
Tess: When you tell people there’s a fundamental issue with the project and management either ignores you or makes a big deal of telling you off for pointing it out. That’s happened twice now. The first time I tried to ignore the alarm bells until it just got too ridiculous to keep wasting my time, the second time I ran screaming from the job. Both projects ultimately got canned and wasted millions.
Any job spec or agent who tells you their job will ‘help your career’, ‘give you more exposure’ or in any way implies you should be grateful for the opportunity. Trust me, it either means terrible money, no money or they’re worked their way through a dozen writers in a year. It always does.
Any job where the documentation estimate has been decided by someone who’s never done a documentation estimate before. It’s always too short, always underestimates the tasks required and for some reason, they always blame you for not meeting it.
Thanks for the discussion, Tess. You can find Tess at www.walpolewriting.com.
Craig Wright is an experienced technical writer based in Chesterfield, UK. Professional technical communicator since 1997, BA Hons Technical Communication. Hates writing about himself in the third person, so I shall stop now.