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Interview with a Technical Writer
This level 4 Technical writer shares insight into her career writing for the health care industry. If you are considering a career in technical writing, be sure to read how this professional has mastered the art of translating technical jargon into everyday English.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: My official job title is Technical Writer IV, and I work in the health care industry in the area of product development. Specifically, my company makes and markets medical equipment targeting those who have mobility issues for virtually any reason. Those who can control a motorized wheelchair using their hands have many options available to them. Others such as quadriplegics have fewer options available to them, but it is my company’s mission to broaden those options and decrease their dependence on others and enhance their quality of life. Adjectives I would use to describe myself include focused, motivated and detail-oriented.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am a white female, which I cannot say has either helped or hindered me in my career as a writer. Being of reproductive age did interfere with one career move that I wanted, but in retrospect, later I was able to secure a better position than what was denied to me.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: I truly love my job. The bottom line on what I do is to “translate” engineer-speak into common, everyday language. Though engineers read what I write, so do marketers, sales people, executives and other non-engineering individuals. I like to think that my contribution avoids confusion and reduces total cycle time in product development.

One misunderstanding about technical writing is that it likely is boring and unexciting. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my experience. Effective writing contributes to shortened cycle time and therefore lower cost, but it also highlights the need for the product and humanizes the individuals that comprise the target market.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would place my general job satisfaction at about a 7 level. It has been my experience that others see technical writers in one of two general ways. The first is as “the help,” people who may be necessary in some respects but are not worthy of much attention. The second – and also the most common – is as “miracle workers” who can take concepts in varying stages of clarity and reduce them down to an understandable written form. It would be nice if “the help” faction would change their perspective, but their perspective has no bearing on my own satisfaction.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: This job does indeed move my heart. Many non-engineers look on the stereotypical engineer almost as an unfamiliar life form. I am able to translate engineers’ visions and what they mean to basic language that nontechnical people can understand easily, ensuring focus on the problem at hand rather than on terminology.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: I have heard many people say that they truly dislike the “politics” of the corporate world. As a technical writer, I have only limited exposure to that side of business, which I don’t like, either. Sometime I do have to wait until political struggles are resolved, but I almost never have to be directly involved in them.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: I only backed into technical writing! I was a biology major in college and went to work in a crop science laboratory after graduation. Initially, I helped the lead chemist write some sections of journal articles. Later, I ghostwrote all of the articles that the chemist and his collaborators submitted for publication. I was working on campus and returned to the English department to gain certification in technical writing. That was where I gained my initial experience and what provided the foundation for future technical writing positions.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: In the early days, I thought that writing something truly was an accomplishment. I expected to see my name on the finished product. A well-written piece always is a positive accomplishment, but the reward has to be in the job done, not in the byline awarded.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: The single most important thing I have learned outside of school is that we ALL still work for grades. We work for positive reactions to our work; and we work for accolades that lead to raises and increased responsibility. Only a few of us are able to work solely for the personal satisfaction of a job well done. We can do that in cleaning a sink or leaving only perfectly straight lines when mowing the lawn. People want to be appreciated. Truly appreciating the people who help the technical writer to “translate” jargon to English works for the benefit of all involved.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me in this position is being accused of plagiarism, and then learning about the concept of “self plagiarism.” I was accused of plagiarizing a refereed article that plagiarized me, then learned that I could not use a snippet of text that I had written in the past. The bottom line was that the plagiarizer was largely ignored, but I was disciplined for using the text that I had written, that the plagiarizer had stolen. That’s alright, it took me a while to understand, too.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: My primary job is translating engineering technology into language that is quite clear for executives, marketers and sales people. I deal in clarity, which contributes to getting technological advances to the people who need them.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: Sometimes, the process of translating from engineering jargon to plain English can be quite challenging! I do get frustrated with those who believe that the strength of an idea is the obscurity of the words used to describe it.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: There are times that my job’s stress level increases, but that does not happen with regularity. I am an effective project manager, so very few “emergencies” arise in the writing process. I am able to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but that might not be the case without strong organizational skills and close attention to impending deadlines.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: In my area of the Southeast United States, my position pays between $60,000 and $90,000. The difference appears to lie with the size of private-sector companies, with the largest companies paying the highest salaries.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: Perhaps no amount of vacation time would be enough without strong organizational skills and solid scheduling practices. I possess both, however, and my company gives me the freedom to use both. The result for me is that my three weeks of annual vacation time is more than enough and quite satisfying.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: As stated, I have a university certification in technical writing. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in business. Employers seem to appreciate competence in the foundational discipline as well as a firm grasp of business needs.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: I would recommend that my friend consider the choice with great care. Much writing appears to be moving to “committee” level. This means that there are fewer technical writer positions, but those that do continue are more valuable than ever.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: I would like to be doing the same thing. Every project is different, so the work never gets old or dull.