Technical writing opportunities in South Africa – An opinion.

Technical Writing in South Africa is, in my opinion, very much in its infancy.

In my time as a self-employed contract Technical Writer, I have come to realise that some software development houses would appear to regard a Technical Writer as not dissimilar to that of a glorified typist who would produce something resembling a user manual. The practice of delegating the production of a user manual to the developer or to the marketing department is also one that is used quite often.

This user manual would have to be created in the shortest possible time and at minimal cost. Why is this?   Because, in many cases, it is usually as an after-thought and when the project is finished, there is a realisation that the client should have a user manual; however, project time is up and so is the budget so it must not affect the total cost of the original project. The software developer thus wants the typist or Technical Writer to create one — quickly and cheaply.

Now, please do not misinterpret this to mean that Technical Writers are in their infancy nor that all software development houses are guilty of this practice. The point I am trying to make is that cost and effort is sometimes put before the user experience. Not producing or producing a sub-standard user manual will at some stage raise the cost of the software because of support costs and possible user errors.

Thus, there appears to be a lack of awareness of what a Technical Writer’s skills really are, as well as a limited regard for the many high-end skills that are required to do this job properly.

My experiences with recruitment agencies also clearly reflect this ignorance quite equally, and I have encountered a few who do not quite know what a Technical Writer is. Now, this is not meant to be a discourtesy thrown at the Recruitment Agencies, but merely a reflection of the situation. Further experience with recruitment agents have also indicated that when there is a need for a Technical Writer by a prospective employer, the levels of remuneration offered is comparatively ±60% less than offered internationally. Obviously then, there cannot be any appreciation for the skills of a good Technical Writer as opposed to the appreciation shown for programmers, systems analysts, and the like, where skills are paramount.

However, for the purpose of this blog, I will not go into the specific details of this theory because it will appear to be unfair to many software companies and recruitment agencies. I would rather spend time on raising the value standing of a Technical Writer.

It will be appropriate to first elaborate on the type of technical documents that are actually written by Technical Writers and typically, what skills would be necessary for each type.

  1. User Assistance documents are usually produced in paper format or in an electronic format and sometimes in both formats. Here, there is a skill required of Technical Writers to produce documents in an electronic format, which may consist of many alternate electronic forms; Web-based, PC-based, PDF or even Word processor based.
  2. The documents could also serve varying industries, such as, IT, Engineering, Military, Construction, Manufacturing, Consumer Electronic, Medical, and so the list could continue. It is certainly not exhaustive. It is obvious then that specific background skills would be required of the Technical Writer for each of the industries to create the appropriate technical document. Sometimes a Technical Writer is good enough to function across these industry disciplines because of excellent communication and information analysis skills.
  3. Further skills are required in HTML or XML programming skills, although not pre-requisite, but extremely useful to produce more effective documentation when using one of the Authoring Tools that are available.
  4. Some people are of the opinion that Technical Writers spend most of their time just copy typing or copy/pasting text into a word processor. This is a complete fallacy.
  5. In fact, Technical Writers probably spend about 10 – 25% of their time writing. The rest of their time is used learning the applications they will document, and learning it quickly. This skill comes from a background in IT, especially in my case, where I boast about 20 years in IT and have covered a wide area of IT faculties, including digital telecommunications, software development, systems analysis, networking, system administration, IT support, IT consulting, IT training, Business Intelligence and, of course, Technical Writing.
  6. The Technical Writing skills armoury is long one and includes:

· project management,

· HTML and XML programming and development;

· some graphic design, manipulation and creation;

· researching;

· testing and publishing;

· learning authoring, simulation and graphic tools;

· interacting with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs);

· being a quick study and a self-taught learner;

· learning the applications to be documented;

· strategising help requirements;

· strategising help deliverables;

· structuring the content;

· writing the content;

· updating existing content;

· setting up various CSS style sheets;

· formatting and laying out the content to promote ease of use and fast access to information;

· training new users or the trainer;

· providing usability and error feedback; and

· occasionally watching rugby or playing ping-pong.

All this relies on a superior knowledge of technologies, information communication and learning methods as well.

In a nutshell, technical writers are communications professionals accustomed to working with highly technical information and complex subjects. The primary responsibility is to effectively communicate a technical message that is accurate and complete, but as concise as possible, and as easy for the intended readership to understand.

Further responsibilities include keeping up to date with the latest and most appropriate software choices for publishing or writing technical projects and is often challenging. Researching and verifying information is very important, which can take up over half of the technical writer’s daily work schedule. Time management and an ability to work under tight deadlines for work and revisions is another important part of the job. Good communication skills and an understanding of the process of writing is key.

Technical writers may be hired on a contract basis and may work within the various companies or may work on a contract basis from a remote location, simply transferring information and revisions through email or file sharing systems.