A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”
The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”
The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”
I see many technical writers in a great hurry nowadays. Within three years, they want to be called Senior Technical Writers. Within five years, team leaders and within 7-8 years documentation leads. Seriously, I have been a technical writer for the last 20 odd years, and I still find myself learning so many new things everyday.
There is DITA, XML, SGML, so many other MLs, I have even lost track of them. There is RoboHelp, FrameMaker, Flare, HelpStudio, Wiki, DITA Open Toolkit, Arbortext, Notepad X et al. Then there are domains. You could specialise in Aviation, Engineering, Software, Healthcare, Telecom, Banking, the list is endless.
Writing without knowing the domain is like dancing without understanding the music. Your writing will not have any soul. Most technical writers today are glorified formatting experts. They get the data from the engineering team, they put it in a tool which nobody wants to use or touch, format it a little and generate the output. Nobody cares to understand what they are writing or delivering!
Formatting is not technical writing. Which does not mean to say that formatting is not something we should not do or consider demeaning. But, even while you are formatting a document, you must read it, understand it; only then will the reader understand and appreciate it.
Sometimes, I feel an entire lifetime may not be enough to be a complete Technical Writer. The more I learn, the less I seem to know! Twenty years is nothing in Technical Writing. Maybe forty years is…I don’t know. So, when somebody comes up to me and says, I am a Senior Technical Writer, I ask him/her, “Since how many years have you been writing?” If the reply is anything less than 20 years, I ask him/her to first sit down and have a cup of tea with me!