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Friday, June 21, 2019

Barriers to Entry

DISCLAIMER: This post is not authoritative. These barriers are merely one that I have encountered. These barriers (or perceived barriers) are based on my own interactions and the solely the opinions (possibly the mad opinions) of this writer. 

Photo by Travis Saylor

There seems to be a lot of technical writing jobs out there. But, it seems many technical writers, such as myself, are spending more time trying to get the next contract or job more than we have work itself. Many times, it seems we're either very busy documenting away or in between projects looking for work. Sometimes, it's for a very long time.

It would seem technical writers, such as myself, would get a job or a contract right away with the plethora of supposed opportunities out there. But, this doesn't seem to be the case. 

I've seen the same jobs or contracts posted for months. I've also ran into other technical writers who have been out of work for extended periods of time. Based on my interactions, it's not because they're bad at the what they do. There seems to be other factors. It seems to be there are barriers to entry for us technical writers to get a job or a contract.

Despite a few articles on the Internet that say technical writing is dying, that doesn't seem to be case. If any organization based their decisions to let technical writers go because of this, then they're sorely mistaken and misinformed. Actually, it would seem to be the opposite.

According to the The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), technical writing is growing. According to their projections, technical writing is growing faster than some other occupations.  Also, according to the US News and World Report, technical writing is one of the best jobs for 2019. But it's quite possible these projections are flawed.

But the fact there are abundance of jobs, especially in tech, seem to show us technical writing is far from dead. Also, the fact there's a constant deluge of products, services, and innovations flooding society, so the possibilities to documenting them seems endless.  So, what's going on? What are the possible barriers?

Ever Growing List of Requirements

One barrier would be an ever growing list of requirements to get a technical writing job. Some of these newer jobs seems to be either something for programmers or the scientist. This would be acceptable except the technical writer is just a writer at the end of the day. Though, I believe writing what you know is very important, when did the technical writer become the sole realm of the academic elite. I would like to know when that was.

If technical writing is really belongs to these elites, then I guess I have been blessed whenever I got jobs. If one from such a priest class wants to explain me that I must have X,Y, Z piece of paper or I must an engineer or a scientist or whatever role of you approved of, then I will gracefully bow of out technical writing. But don't expect me to give up on writing all together.

Misunderstanding the Role

There seems to be a misunderstanding what technical writing is. It's not a scientist or a programmer who write. It's a highly trained writer, regardless of education or background, who break down complex highly technical information into easy-to-read prose. Unfortunately, many technical documents are so murky that nobody understands them. And throwing scientists or programmers into the task of documenting them muddies this even further.

Why do I say this? It's because SMEs might overlook some critical information when creating step-by-step information.  They assume their audience will know what they mean or imply. You can't do that with technical writing. You need to spell out each step. You may not need to define the terms because of the audience you're writing for should know, unless it's something new.

When you're showing someone how to do something, you need explain this clearly and one step a time. SMEs can miss needed steps and so can the technical writer. To see how daunting a task it is to document something step-by-step, check a previous post called Count All the Steps.

As a technical writer, you need to be the independent pair of eyes to break this information down, so you can catch the blind spots the SMEs overlooked. In my experience, though interviewing SMEs help give me information on creating a document, there are still gaps in it before it's complete. What the SME gives you is a starting point. You need to go through the software or the product yourself to document how to use it before you say the document is done.

Also, there are many different name for technical writer. Sometimes, they are called documentation specialists or even document engineers. It also doesn't help it seems organizations are using Instructional Designers to do a technical writer's job.

No disrespect to the Instructional Designers out there, but they are not technical writers. While the two occupations overlap quite a bit, they pursue two different goals.  I have had some who asked me if I have done instructional design and I had to say no. I'm a technical writer, not an instructional designer. So, this adds to the confusion.

Too Niche Orientated

It seems technical writing jobs are getting very niche orientated. But how can you get into them unless you get the experience? Even if you have the degree of that niche, there's no guarantee you're going to get that job.

Let's talk about tools. It's a tall order for companies to expect technical writer to know every tool out there. It's impossible. And if a company wants to shut good writers out because they don't know some arbitrary tool that not everyone uses, then they will be looking for a long time. (I guess that's the point with some of these folks.)

I feel the SMEs are dictating the terms of what they want as a technical writer and want a carbon copy of themself rather than looking for a good writer. You kind of have to wonder why many instructions and technical documents are horrible.

Any good technical writer will pick up any tool, programming language, or subject that comes their way. It's intrinsic for technical writers to adapt to any situation. If any technical writer tells you otherwise, then they need to get out of the field. Give us a chance!

All About Keywords

As for resumes, what many organizations or recruiters is look for certain keywords. Some say they don't seem to looking at cover letters either way. However, some say they do. Who's telling the truth? I have no idea.

In any case, many just use Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) to scan for keywords. So, they don't bother to look at the resume. The simple fact of relying software for certain keywords rather looking at someone's experience is another barrier.

They are reducing us to keywords rather than treating us as people. You even have articles that encourage you to use keywords in your resume so you can picked up by software. While using the right keywords will help your resume stand out, keywords aren't everything. We should be looking at the person's experience. A resume is a story of that person's experience. To simply look for keywords is degrading people and their story. This is wrong! But the moment we refuse to be reduced to mere keywords, the moment this barrier will come down.

Enough with NDA Fears

There's a bigger barrier and that's the problem of Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). While I understand why an organization would want us to sign an NDA, it's also not helpful for us because we, technical writers, would like to use samples of our work when you kick us to the curb at a moment's notice. (That's for another blog to expound why organizations are cold like this.)

We would like to show our work when other organizations are asking to provide samples. One time, I was speaking with the recruiter for a prospective contract and he was asking me for a sample, I told him I couldn't provide a sample because of NDAs. He told me the technical writers he interviewed said the same thing. 

While an NDA may not prohibit from sharing a sample, we also don't want to take the chance of getting sued by a company. Though the company may not have a leg to stand on from barring us from sharing a sample, an NDA is uncertain territory on whether we should have samples. I don't want to take the chance of finding out. My peers have seemed to have also taken the same overcautious road.

Unless you're writing internal or confidential information in an document, there's no reason for us to be barred from sharing a sample.

If you have a user guide going to your customers, then we should be able to share this since this is external communication. Perhaps, when technical writers have to sign NDAs, then there should be some exceptions for those who are in communications positions (such as copywriters or technical writers) in an organizations that we can share samples when our employment or contract ends. As for internal (not confidential) communication, we should be able to share this document with important information redacted from it. 

And from the organization's standpoint, I understand why they would want samples. They want to see how we do our work and if it's quality to them. I get it. A resume isn't enough. How can they trust we can do the job if they can't see it. 

Journalists, writers, photographers, and freelance copywriters have portfolios to show their work, why can't we. (There might be some technical writers who do have portfolios. And if you're one, then what I said doesn't apply. If you haven't gotten harassed for a portfolio, then I guess most of us are probably operating under unfounded fear and hurting ourselves in the process.)

Rethinking the Entire System

While this last point may not be a barrier per se, it might be causing problems. The whole idea of contracts and in-house technical writing might be adding to the barriers. 

These companies get to dictate the terms, make us fit their mold, and when there are done with us, they are discard us like we're trash. As far as independent contract gigs go, let's just be honest. It's really a nice way of calling us temp workers or you're a worker where the labor protections don't apply.

These companies are trying to make us feel like we're independent but we are really exploited by them. It's a devilish illusion!

It also doesn't help we have to compete with cheap labor from content farms or the like. Makes me so angry that they writers pennies for a lot of work. (But that's another post for another time.)

So what do we do? Let me offer some suggestions. Perhaps, technical writers should be in the realm of self-employed artisans. We should also somehow band together to form cooperatives or guilds so we can have the power to break down these barriers. Some might point out The Society of Technical Communication but it's just an association. It's not a force with teeth. 

If we band together in an organized fashion, like many workers have had to in the past, then we get to tell these organizations what it means to be a technical writer. It's not because we are the end be all. It's because we are ones doing the writing.

Though we need to serve our audience by creating the documentation that meets their needs, we also need to set up clear boundaries what's required to be a good technical writer. And what's required to be a good technical writer is this:

  • Excellent written and oral communication skills.
  • A willingness to learn new things, 
  • A servant's heart.

I don't know. Maybe it's time for us technical writers to rise up peacefully yet boldly to smash all these barriers to entry.

If someone is reading this, I hope you can get this conversation going. If you can better identify different barriers or better articulate them, more power to you. I'm trying to do my part to save technical writing.

Writing is a craft, including technical writing, and we should guard it as such.

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