September 2018
Text by Leah Guren

Image: © deepblue4you/istockphoto.com

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.


leah[at]cowtc.com
www.cowtc.com

What are you worth?

When was the last time you really thought about your worth? I don’t mean your intangible value as a human being, but the monetary value you can place on your professional skills.

With any profession, the prices that can be charged or the salaries that can be demanded are dictated by the same factors:

  • Geographical area: Obviously, salaries in Zurich are going to be very different than salaries in Bangalore.
  • Industry: TCs (technical communicators) in high-tech fields usually earn far more than those in a public domain, such as a university or hospital.
  • Special skills: TCs who can write API documentation or who have technical background in a specific industry can usually demand more than generic TCs.
  • Experience and reputation: A TC with ten or more years of experience and knowledge is worth more than a novice.
  • Market availability: A tight market with a shortage of TCs means different salaries than a glutted market.

But this does not mean that there is an algorithm that can calculate all of these variables and determine the exact amount that each of us is worth. In fact, one of the hardest things to calculate is the subjective value that people outside of our profession place on our skills.

Let's look at some of the myths and stereotypes about our profession, and what we can do to improve both our individual and collective value.

Myth: "Anyone can write!"

How many times have you heard someone say this? How many times have you worked with a client where the documentation was written by engineers lacking training in technical communication? This happens because people think that what we do is "writing", very much like writing a report or an essay in school. They are painfully unaware of the amount of analysis and critical thinking that goes into producing the right content for the required audience. In fact, TCs who do their job well do much less writing than analysis.

The solution is outreach education. This requires a professional society, such as tekom, to invest in public relations to educate industry about what technical communication is, and what TCs really do. When companies understand how a skilled, educated TC can help improve customer satisfaction with their products and services, they are more likely to value our services.

Myth: "Editing is easier than writing."

Nothing could be further from the truth! Most experienced TCs can create a rough draft of a topic (such as procedure) quickly. But it takes far more time and effort to refine the steps, add the right amount of structure and layering, add the right illustrations, etc. As a corollary to this myth is the confusion between editing and proofreading. I find that many people outside of our profession do not understand the distinction, and often ask us to edit something when they really want us to proofread it. Because of this lack of understanding, they think that editing is merely looking for typos, rather than looking at the organization of the material, the structure, the writing style, and more. A good editor makes suggestions about adding and removing content, not just fixing small mistakes. This makes our clients think that they can give us a 200-page document at 3 pm and expect to have it back at the end of the day.

The solution is to talk more to clients about what their expectations are and what we can do. I always make sure that they know the difference between a quick proofread and a thorough edit for content and organization. When I start asking them questions about the audience, the purpose of the document, what problems they are trying to solve, what results they want, etc., they begin to understand the complexity of a good edit.

Myth: "You should do this for free."

Most of us have had someone ask us to "take a look at" something, with the implication that this is such a minor effort that we should do it as a casual favor. To be fair, I have friends in other professions (a doctor, a lawyer, and a tax consultant) who have been cornered at a social gathering and asked for free advice by some rude person. But I do think that it happens more to us, partly because of how people undervalue (and misunderstand) our skillset. Giving away work is a very tricky thing; on the one hand, it allows you to create good will and build up a relationship with a client. On the other hand, it may lead to a long-term undervaluing of your services.

The solution is to be direct with clients. I don’t mind looking at something and giving feedback if it just takes a few minutes. But if something looks like it is going to take more than 20 minutes, I remind the client of my hourly rate, let them know my estimate of time required, and ask them if they want to proceed and issue an invoice.

Myth: "You do word processing, right? / You're a translator, right?"

I have no idea why so many people are stuck in a 1980s time warp, but when was the last time any professional TC did "word processing"? And while many TCs are involved in localization, those of us who are content developers are not translators (apart from translating information from the SMEs into meaningful content for the end user). I think that people latch onto a profession that sounds familiar. Again, this is why doctors, lawyers, architects, and professionals in other "recognizable" fields do not have to spend so much time educating the public about what they do.

The solution is to develop an elevator story. The term comes from the idea that you are sharing an elevator with some influential decision-maker in your company. You have only the time it takes the elevator to reach the top floor to pitch your idea to this person. The term has come to mean any short (30–60 second) explanation of who you are or what you do. We all need to have an elevator story ready for those instances when we meet someone who asks what we do. But we also need them for internal conversations within our companies or with our clients. Rather than say something like, "I write the documentation that goes with product XYZ," try to think about what you do in your job that is exciting, new, different, helps your company’s bottom line, or has a human interest. For example:

  • "I help companies make their product documentation useful and easy to understand, thus making their technical products usable."
  • "I provide a voice for creative, intelligent, innovative engineers who need help communicating their ideas."

Myth: "You are just English majors or former English teachers."

This myth occurs because of people’s fixation on the writing and editing side of TC. And while many TC professionals came from those academic areas, that does not mean that they don’t have strong technical skills.

The solution is to be proactive and develop the technical skills that will give you credibility and help you in your career. This may be specialized subjects in your industry (medical subjects, programming, engineering, etc.). It may also be learning the latest tools and content development trends, even before you may need them. Most of the tools that professional TCs use require some fairly serious technical skills, as they are massively complex and have steep learning curves. Don't downplay your technical knowledge. Work hard to keep your skills up-to-date.

Conclusion

By valuing your own work and thinking about how you would respond to these and other common myths, you can help educate your clients about the true value of TCs.