VocationVillage.com interviewed Technical Writer Jude Chosnyk about her technical writing career.
How would you describe the main functions of your job in your technical writing career?
I’m a full-time employee of GrandMasters, LLC. They have me working inside Microsoft as a Vendor. I interview Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to write various types of documentation. I research topics, read legacy documentation when it’s available, and write and edit documentation. I typically have a project management role in most of my assignments, so I organize and setup meetings with key players to drive deadlines for documentation schedules for publication.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Depending on the needs of the firm and the department that I’m assigned to, a typical day in my job can look very different compared to another firm or department. In my current position as a Sr. Technical Writer where I’m a Vendor at Microsoft, I am focused on writing one Infrastructure Planning and Design Guide at a time. I work with one technical lead here to get feedback for the guide I’m writing and I also research the information on an internal MS website as well. This isn’t typical, though. At most of my other assignments in other firms, I write and edit several (10-30) documents simultaneously and work with many subject matter experts to provide me with feedback. I’m not the project manager in my current position, but typically I’m acting as a Project Manager and Technical Writer. I typically must create a documentation project plan to keep the documentation project on schedule and must be very persistent in my need for feedback from SMEs.
What do you like best about your work?
I love what I do. It provides me with a wide variety of challenges because I usually work on a contract basis and I change jobs often so I’m always going to new companies and learning new software and tools. My skills are always fresh by changing jobs and I never get bored. I get to meet new people at every new assignment and make new friends wherever I work. I typically work in Information Technology, so I get to work with extremely intelligent people.
What are the most challenging things about technical writing?
My biggest challenge is also what I like most. I must constantly learn new software and tools at every new assignment. There can be a bit of a learning curve for each new assignment. I enjoy learning new things, so it’s a good challenge for me.
How did you land your current job?
I applied for my current position via Monster.com and got the position.
What was your professional background before you chose a technical writing career?
In my first job, I was an electrical draftsperson. I drew lines and circles on paper. So, it seemed like a natural progression to become a Technical Writer. Actually, there’s no connection there. He-he-he. I’ve been a technical writer for about 18 years. I’ve been a consultant for about the last 12 years. I’ve worked for Honeywell, Wells Fargo, SAFECO, AT&T, Washington Mutual, T-Mobile, Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, DHL/Airborne, The Port of Seattle, to name a few.
What is your educational background?
I have an associate degree in applied science with an emphasis in Technical Writing and Business Writing. That’s my formal educational background. After 18 years in the business, most of my educational background is on-the-job experience and the school of hard knocks.
What skills are most important to succeed in technical writing?
Hard skills, such as knowing the industry-standard software programs, for example, the Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, Visio, Outlook, and Project) is important but I’ve found that soft skills are just as important to succeed as a technical writer. You have to be very organized and you absolutely must be proactive. What I mean by that is – you must seek SMEs and key players who can provide you the most “bang for your buck.” You must find the people who have the knowledge about your subject in their head, or know where to send you to get legacy documentation. You must produce documentation out of thin air, so it’s important to be ambitious and not be afraid to be horribly off-base on a subject. As long as you produce something, anything, that a SME can see and “shoot darts at” you’ll be way ahead of the game. Another important skill for success is flexibility. You will always have deadlines, sometimes short deadlines, and you might have to stay up all night writing that next chapter or an entire guide for a review early the next day because your SME didn’t provide you the information until 5:00pm the night before.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a technical writing career?
I started out by taking an introductory class at college when I was living in Illinois. Take an “Introduction to Technical Writing” class and see if it’s something you might like to do. I talked to some Technical Writers that were already in mid-career for advice. Ask yourself if you like to write and edit because that’s most of the job. Be honest with yourself about how you feel when someone critiques your writing because you’ll get it from many folks in an organization and sometimes it’s good feedback and sometimes it’s completely wrong. If you’re easily offended by others’ feedback on your writing, this career is not for you. Also, be aware that you will spend a good part of your day reading documentation. Depending on your field, it could be very dry and boring!
If a mid-career professional decided he/she wanted to become a technical writer, what are the steps he/she should take to make a successful transition?
Take an “Introduction to Technical Writing” class and see if it’s something you might like to do. Talk to some technical writers that are in mid-career for advice. Join a professional writing association like the Puget Sound Society for Technical Communication. Read as much as you can about what’s happening in the technical writing field. My motto has always been, “Knowledge is power.”
(Note from VocationVillage.com: There is a good subreddit about technical writing here.)
What is the income range for technical writers?
Right now Senior Technical Writers in the Seattle area are earning $75K-$85K. To find current info, Salary.com is a good resource.
What are your long-term career goals?
I started out as a Technical Writing Intern at a company nearly 20 years ago, so I’ve reached my long-term career goals as a Senior Technical Writer. I’ll keep doing what I do as long as someone likes my work.
Any other comments?
Yes, good luck to any aspiring technical writers that might read this article. I hope by sharing my experience it’ll help someone who is trying to make a career decision.
Thank you, Jude!
For the record, Jude completed this interview via email more quickly than any other interviewee has ever done – she is a fast writer!
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