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Computer Software Documentation Writer Job Description, Career as a Computer Software Documentation Writer, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: College

Salary: Median—$53,490 per year

Employment Outlook: Very good

Definition and Nature of the Work

A computer software documentation writer is the most common type of technical writer. Computer software documentation writers research and write the instructional guides, online and desktop help guides, reference manuals, and job aids for computer software. Software is a term for the computer programs that run on a computer. The documentation ranges from descriptions of complicated systems software installations to an on-screen help guide for a word-processing program. Software documentation writers try to make sure that the documentation is clear enough to help the beginner and detailed enough to be useful for advanced users. The increasing trend toward more types of new and sophisticated software necessitates writers who can produce manuals and help guides in very short time frames.

To prepare documents, software documentation writers work closely with software developers. The writers compose the manuals in a logical format on word processors. They often are required to find graphics, pictures, or illustrations to go along with the documentation. Writers are usually responsible for posting documentation on the Web or directly into a computer program as well. As such, they may need to know basic programming languages. In some small offices they may prepare a print publication by using a desktop publishing software package or electronic typesetting.

Large organizations may have several levels of software documentation writers. Those at the top are the senior writers. In addition to writing documents, senior writers may manage the activities of several other writers. Copy editors check the text for grammar, correct spelling, information accuracy, and punctuation. Copy editors also make sure that the usage of computer terms is correct. Depending on their technical knowledge, copy editors may check the technical content of the document. Production editors oversee the preparation of the camera-ready copy for the printer. They work with writers, artists, customers, and sometimes the printer and electronic typesetters to design the document. In smaller companies, the software documentation writer may perform all these tasks.

Computer software documentation writers make sure that instructional guides and reference manuals for computer hardware and software are clear enough to help beginning users and detailed enough for advanced users. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

Education and Training Requirements

Most software documentation/technical writers have at least a bachelor's degree in technical writing, communications, journalism, or English. Some companies now require technical writers to have a technical degree and experience in programs and programming languages, such as RoboHelp or XML, that are typically used by software documentation writers. Extra courses in book design, page layout, and readability requirements are extremely helpful. Many companies send their writers to seminars and courses for this training.

Software documentation writers must have a good technical understanding of the system with which they are working. They need excellent communication skills to gather useful information from the developer and to present the information clearly to the user. In addition, writers must have a knowledge of book design, page layout, readability requirements, and graphics.

Getting the Job

Companies employ writers either directly or on a consulting basis. Consultants work for an agency that signs a contract with the firm that needs the writer. This contract specifies the amount of money that the writer will make and the length of the assignment. For example, a writer may be employed only until the documentation is delivered to the customer. However, the writer is still employed by the agency, which usually finds the writer a new assignment quickly. Prospective writers can check the classified sections of their local newspaper for job openings.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

The next step up from a software documentation level is usually a supervisory position. Writers can also go to other departments in a company to use their communication and organizational skills. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fifty thousand technical writers were employed in the United States in 2004. Due to expected increase in computer applications, employment of software documentation writers was expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2014.

Working Conditions

Most software documentation writers work in a pleasant atmosphere in an office with high technology equipment. The hours are normally advertised as nine to five. When there are deadlines, writers can expect to be asked to work overtime. Because software documentation writer positions are usually management positions that are exempt from the requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, company policy will determine if this overtime is paid or unpaid.

Where to Go for More Information

Institute for the Certification of Computer Professionals
2350 E. Devon Avenue, Ste. 115
Des Plaines, IL 60018-4610
(847) 299-4227

Society for Technical Communications
901 N. Stuart St., Ste. 904
Arlington, VA 22203
(703) 522-4114

Earnings and Benefits

Technical writers made an average annual salary of $53,490 in 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. According to the Society for Technical Communicators, entry-level technical writers made a median annual wage of $42,500 in 2004. Writers who are directly employed by a corporation full time will receive vacations and benefits. Consultants are paid at a daily or hourly rate, which can be substantial. However, consultants normally must supply their own benefits, which can be very expensive. In addition, if an agency finds the writer a job, the agency can collect a flat fee or a percentage of the salary from either the writer or the business that hires the writer.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesComputers, IT & Telecommunications