What is it?
Although most of us would admit to never reading a software manual, bad documentation can limit the use the customer can make of a product, swell helpdesk overheads, sour relations between supplier and customer and can lead to lost business. Yet user documentation is at the same stage as software testing before Y2K: it is often done late and badly, if it is done at all.
Where did it originate?
Early systems documentation was written by IT professionals for their peers for use in future development and maintenance, or for technically literate operators or administrators. Technical specs were simply restructured into something more accessible.
End-user computing demanded a different set of skills. The next generation of technical writers were outsiders who came to a project with the same need to understand as users did.
With the rise of online documentation and web-based help, technical writers are once again expected to offer professional IT skills.
What is it for?
Technical writing involves identifying everything a user may need to know, presenting it in a language appropriate to the user's level of technical ability, and organising the information in a way that meets the needs of both the rare user who doggedly works their way through, intent on understanding everything before they begin, and of the user who needs to find a particular detail in a hurry.
What makes it special?
Online documentation and manuals provide the everyday face of the software supplier, perhaps the only face the end-user encounters.
Poor documentation means extra pressure on IT support, which adds to ownership costs and influences future buying decisions.
How difficult is it to master?
You will need to be able to write clearly; to organise complex information into a coherent structure; to persuade busy and often prickly software developers to explain things to you; and to work alone against tight deadlines. Some people will not see the point of you, so you will need a thick skin.
You may need to be familiar with publishing packages such as Adobe Framemaker and online help creation tools such as Robohelp, Winhelp or Homesite.
There are proprietary methodologies for structuring documentation such as information mapping and PTA's Docutools.
Where is it used?
Technical writing skills can be used in other industries including oil, finance or aerospace. You could also break into marketing or IT journalism.
What systems does it run on?
Hypertext is ideal for online help, but prolonged reading from a screen is at least 30% slower than paper and can cause eyestrain.
What is coming up?
This year sees the publication of a new international standard, ISO 18019: "Guidelines for the design and preparation of user documentation for application software".
There are lots of free online sites offering varying quality of information, but TechScribe has some good information.
Try the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators for a list of courses. Universities and colleges offer diplomas and City and Guilds qualifications, but beware of pseudo-academic "institutions" offering unrecognised qualifications. Some technical writing agencies also offer training.
Rates of pay
Large companies have permanent writing teams who receive £20,000 to £35,000, but most writers work on contracts or through agencies where fees can vary widely.