A day in a tech writer’s life

In a typical day of my working life, writing takes a backseat to collaboration and communications. – This article first appeared as an “A day in the life” column in ISTC’s Communicator in the Spring 2011 issue, page 58. I really enjoy the “A day in the life” pieces, because they’re like chatting with fellow tech writers about their day at the office. So I was honored and proud to write one of the instalments, and I hope you enjoy it.

A day in the life

It’s an ordinary spring day, and I wake up in Frankfurt, Germany. When I’m lucky, the sun shines into my apartment to greet me. My morning routine is woefully brief, and I take a train to Bad Homburg shortly before 8am. The commute is pleasant since I live in the city, but work in the suburbs.

Frankfurt skyline, as seen from the Main river bank

Frankfurt skyline from the Main river bank

I’m a Senior Technical Writer for SimCorp, a Danish company that develops and markets the investment management system SimCorp Dimension to banks, insurance and fund companies.

I arrive at the office around 8:30am. I’m the only full-time writer in the German office, though a tester across the hall writes part-time. Ten writers are based in Copenhagen and Kiev.

I start up the PC and get a cup of tea. I receive an email from a colleague who has found an error in the online help. I check with the developer; my colleague is right. I check it against the Release Notes. This is embarrassing, they contain the same mistake, nobody had caught it. The Release Notes have gone out already, but at least I can correct the online help for the next release.

Next, I check the Solutions database, which is what we call our FAQ collection. We technical writers are responsible for editing the entries and aligning them with our documentation. A consultant has created an entry with a workaround. That’s odd: the Solutions entry does the trick, but we should really just fix that exception! I consult with the developer who will fix the bug. We will publish the Solutions entry for the time being and delete it in the next release.

It’s 9:30am, and my testing colleague asks for my opinion. She is about to finish her first manual and has created a list of index terms and wants my opinion on them. Also, the Word template for manuals has become corrupted somehow, so we need to fix the page headers, which are supposed to show chapter numbers, chapter headings and page numbers. Her index looks good, so we agree on it very quickly. Then we wrestle with Word for a while.

At 10am, it’s time for a video conference with the Copenhagen headquarters. I’m one of four people developing the future documentation strategy. We’ve already sketched out the processes on how we want to work in the future to implement structured and topic-based authoring.

Today, we discuss a design for an information model that I’ve drafted. I’ve basically taken a subset of DITA 1.1 and mapped its topic types and elements to our documentation contents. My colleagues have been reviewing it before the meeting, and they point out some parts that are inconsistent or confusing. Also, our model is still missing a couple of metatags, which means that my task until our next meeting will be to clarify some sections and to add the metatags. The video conference ends at noon, so I can catch my German colleagues as they head down to the cafeteria for lunch.

After lunch, I find an email by a colleague writer. I’ve agreed to review his manual, and here it is. The review is tricky since I don’t know a lot about the module he describes. SimCorp Dimension is a fairly large and complex wall-to-wall system, so not every writer knows all modules in detail.

We had agreed that he’ll need another reviewer for the actual contents, but I can still help him with the chunking of topics and the manual structure. I propose to change the nesting of topics in a couple of places. Also, the topic headings aren’t fully consistent yet. I hope he will find my suggestions helpful.

Reviewing the manual reminds me that I still need to find reviewers for my own manual that is just about finished. I can always count on the product manager (if he can find the time), but I like to have one of the implementation consultants review it as well. They know our customers and their workflows best from implementing the product on site, so their reality checks are invaluable.

At the same time, it’s often tricky to find someone who can spend one or two days away from a project. It helps that they find the manuals generally useful. I approach the team leader and tell him when the manual will be ready and that it will take 6 to 8 hours to review. He has a couple of colleagues in mind, but needs to check their schedules. He will get back to me.

It’s 3pm, and I start to actually write documentation. I continue to write Release Notes for the upcoming release. That means I go through all the development efforts in the tracking system and briefly document the enhancements and their benefits.

In between, I come across one enhancement where it is not clear yet whether it will actually be included in the upcoming release. I contact product management and, indeed, it’s not been decided yet. That makes me nervous: in the previous release, some of these decisions came awfully late and required some last-minute editing.

Though I started writing rather late, I make some good progress. Around 5pm, I call it a day and take the train home. When I’m lucky, I can see Frankfurt’s skyscrapers shimmer silver in the setting spring sun.

Your turn

How much time to do you spend writing, as opposed to communicating? Is this similar to what your days look like? Feel free to leave a comment.

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7 Responses

  1. Hi Kai. I read your article in the journal and was trying to picture what the Frankfurt skyline looked like. Now I know. Beautiful. Thanks for that.

    • Hi, RoboColum(n), you’re welcome!

      I should point out that the only picture I had shows the skyline from the river bank – which is not where the train goes. But the train also has a nice, if more distant view. The skyline is just as beautiful… 🙂

  2. Hallo Kai

    That’s a very nice article. It’s kind of comforting to hear that so much of your time is spent not writing. Many of my days are like that too, and I really treasure those days when I can get in the zone and do a lot of writing.

    I do feel a sense of accomplishment from achieving other goals, but the greatest satisfaction still comes from producing that well-crafted and fit-to-purpose document.

    Do you think that most tech writers feel the same way?

    Cheers, Sarah

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah. I must say that I really appreciate the hunkered-down writing in the zone as well as the collaboration with others to advance the strategy or evangelizing good documentation throughout the company, though they don’t always come when I’m most ready for them… 🙂

      I don’t dare to speak for many, let alone all writers, but it seems that many favor either the intro- or the extroverted side of our jobs, at least at certain times?

  3. Hey There!

    Great read. I’m almost finished an MA in Technical Communication at the University of Limerick, so posts like yours above make excellent reading for me. *subscribes*

  4. You’re lucky to be able to travel by train to work. I drive about 22 miles, but it can take me over one hour in clogged traffic to get to work and back home again.

  5. Hi,

    Very nice article. I used to be a typical technical writer before I became the CEO of a company that provides technical writing services.
    Your day reminds me of my days as a tech writer and brought some very pleasant memories to the foreground.
    Keep up the good work Kai. May the Force be with you…always.

    Regards,
    Narssimhan

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