Day-in-the-life of a Technical Writer

In January, we discussed how to get a job in technical writing: how to search for a job, craft your resume, write a cover letter, and build your portfolio. Graduates of professional technical communicator programs tend to have a sense of ambivalence about what to expect in their new careers. Several questions flood their minds. Is the work world really like the picture my lecturers have painted it out to be? What can I expect? What should I really be looking for? This article chronicles a day in my life as a technical communicator. I hope that sharing my experiences will help you better understand what to expect when you enter the real world.

Starting the day right

Preparation for my workday begins the night before. I follow the Getting Things Done (affiliate link) method by David Allen for planning out my week and workdays (detailed blog post here). By the end of my planning session, I know the meetings I have the next day, which deliverables are due (if any), and what documentation project I need to focus on that day. I juggle several projects, so it’s important to have a focus project for each day to reduce context-switching.

I then break down the focus project into tasks I need to get done that day. Some of these tasks include: meeting people to get information, drafting, editing, reviewing and publishing.

This night-before preparation helps me start my day right. My morning routine begins with a nice, relaxing cup of coffee, cereal with oats, nuts, and apples/bananas, getting ready for work, and a half-hour commute.

Deep Work

I am lucky to work at a company that understands that every individual has different work environment and timing preferences, and encourages us to figure out a schedule that works best for us. For me, I love getting my writing tasks done in the morning even before I reach the office. Most workdays, I go to my favorite cafe at Union Square, get myself a Chai Latte, and put in an hour of Deep Work (affiliate link) (detailed blog post here). In this hour, I work on tasks that require a fresh mind and focus: drafting a technical document or studying how a piece of technology works. I time myself in Pomodoros (detailed blog post here). Once I get at least 2 Pomodoros of the most important task of the day done, I walk to my office at around 11 AM.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve
View from my favorite writing place in NYC (Peet’s Coffee – Cap One at Union Square)

At the Office

The first thing I do when I arrive in the office is pour myself a large glass of water and sift through emails and Slack messages. I adjust my task list based on these emails and messages, if required.

I then do some “shallow work” for an hour at noon. Shallow work includes editing something I had written before, processing GitHub issues, and publishing stuff to our Docs site.

At around 1 PM, I have lunch and check my emails and forums such as Reddit and Hackernews. All my meetings are usually post-lunch. This is the time to socialize, meet my colleagues, discuss work projects with them, get information, and so on. The 1 PM to 4 PM time slot is when my energy is the lowest in the day. So, I don’t do any writing tasks then. I leave work around 5 PM and head home for another Deep Work sprint.

Free Fridays

At Cockroach Labs, we have a thing called Free Fridays, which basically means you can do whatever you choose to do. You can continue working on your work projects, or put work is placed on the back burner and work on any personal projects, or just take the day off. I usually do my most difficult writing tasks at home on Fridays, and also get in an hour at the gym.

This is just a basic outline of my work day. Each technical writer may have a different experience. Following are some day-in-the-life blogs of other technical writers that I found interesting. I hope that sharing my routine and the routine of other technical writers gives you a clearer picture of what it is like to work in the industry:

https://heroictechwriting.com/2017/11/13/whats-a-day-in-the-life-of-a-technical-writer-really-like/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2007/12/21/could-you-please-tell-me-what-the-job-of-a-technical-writer-is-like/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2016/09/02/the-never-ending-list-of-tasks-to-complete/

https://kaiweber.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/a-day-in-a-tech-writers-life/

Now that we have discussed what a technical writing job looks like on a daily basis, let’s move on to how to succeed at a technical writing job. In my opinion, the most important skill for a technical writer is figuring out the scope of work and planning it well. And that’s what we will discuss in detail in next Wednesday’s blog post. Subscribe to stay tuned!

Building your technical writing portfolio

A portfolio of relevant and professional technical writing samples can be the deal-sealer while applying for technical writing jobs. Check out the following posts from Tom Johnson’s for ideas to build your tech writing portfolio:

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/18/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-1-learn-the-basics-of-technical-writing/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/19/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-2-get-real-experience-doing-technical-writing/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/20/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-3-learn-some-tools/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/21/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-4-put-together-a-portfolio/

Bonus tip:

For every sample document you create, add a cover letter that describes what the document is about, who’s the audience for the document, which tools you used, and which of you skills does the document demonstrate.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process, but the techniques here might be useful for other students as well.

A cover letter is an essential component of your job application that helps you discuss why you should be considered for the position and demonstrates your communication skills.

The keys to a good letter are selectivity and results.

  • Select two or three points of greatest interest to the potential employer and develop them into paragraphs.
  • Emphasize results.

Elements of a cover letter:

  • Introductory paragraph:
    • Identify your source of information: State about how you heard about the position.
    • Identify the position you are interested in.
    • State that you wish to apply for the position.
    • Choose a few phrases that forecast the body of the letter so that the rest of the letter flows smoothly.
  • Education paragraph:
    • Focus on the courses, projects, and extra-curricular activities that are relevant to the job you are applying for.
    • Discuss the skills and knowledge gained from advanced coursework in your major field.
    • If you haven’t already specified your major and your college or university in the introductory paragraph, be sure to include that here.
  • Employment paragraph:
    • Like the education paragraph, the employment paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and develop into a single idea.
    • Choose only the relevant employment experience.
  • Concluding paragraph:
    • A reference to your resume
    • A polite but confident request for an interview
    • Your phone number and email address

Examples of good cover letters:

http://www.ccp.rpi.edu/resources/careers-and-graduate-school/cover-letters/

Update: As Larry Kunz (technical writer extraordinaire) advised in the comment below, the first sample is of the appropriate length, but the second one is longer than optimal.

Good resource:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/698/01/

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Stuff I want my students to know

Me at GPACW
Me at GPACW 2017 (Image credit: Dr. Dawn Armfield)

While pursuing the MS degree in Technical Communication at Missouri S&T, I taught a section of the technical writing service course for three semesters. In the course, we discussed all the essentials of tech writing – audience analysis, research and information gathering, drafting, editing, getting feedback, and so on.

Several of my students were interested in pursuing technical writing as a full-time career. They often asked insightful questions about how do you get a technical writing job, what does a tech writer’s typical day look like, what skills can I learn now that will help me succeed in the job and so on. I enjoyed our lively discussions, but more often than not I had to cut the conversations short to focus on the assignment at hand.

Even now, when I am back in the corporate world, I find myself wishing I was still teaching so I could share the techniques and skills I learn at the job with my students.

So this blog series is my attempt to carry on the conversation and open up the discussion to a larger audience.

Every Wednesday, I will post about one topic that I want my students to know about applying for and succeeding at technical writing jobs. In January, I will post my experience of getting a job at Cockroach Labs, resources I found useful, and sample documents. The posting schedule is as follows:

  • How to conduct an effective job search in technical writing (Scheduled for 01/10/18)
  • Crafting your technical writing resume (Scheduled for 01/17/18)
  • Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job (Scheduled for 01/24/18)
  • Building your technical writing portfolio (Scheduled for 01/31/18)

Once we discuss how to get a job, we will move on to things to do on when you land a new job, productivity techniques for surviving at a technical writing job, and so on.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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