Some time after I got out of graduate school, I joined a site called StudentsReview. Every once in awhile, I get emails from prospective college or graduate students, people who are either interested in attending my alma mater or studying the same subjects I did. This morning, I got an email from a young man who is about to start his college career at the "other USC". He noted that I'm a technical writer-- or, at least I've worked as one-- and he wanted to know what being a technical writer entailed.
The young man explained that he has a knack for writing and has done well on standardized tests of his writing skills, but didn't want to give in to studying English because he doesn't want to be a teacher, principal, or writer, etc. Instead, he wants the career opportunities and salaries afforded to people who study engineering or economics. Alas, he's not very good at math and science... a weakness that I also share and with which I can empathize. He was wondering if technical writing was a combination of writing and technology.
Well... this guy's email charmed the dickens out of me, so I wrote him a nice response. First off, I have to give him credit for taking the time to ask, rather than just making an assumption about what technical writing actually is. A lot of people don't make that effort and end up getting into fields they know nothing about. I was an English major back in the day, mainly because I like writing and am good at it. But if I had it to do over again, I might have considered another field... and not been so afraid of math and science classes. I also let this fellow know that just because someone studies English or any other field as an undergraduate, that doesn't mean that he or she is locked into that as a career. English degrees, for example, make excellent foundations for preparing for other professions like law or business. A degree in English may not be obviously marketable, but it does teach one a certain way of thinking and communicating that is valuable in most fields.
One thing I learned in all of my schooling is that an ability to write and communicate well is always appreciated by professors and bosses alike. There are plenty of people with technical knowledge, but there aren't so many people who can easily communicate what they know or things that need to be taught to others in a way that others can easily understand.
As far as the money question goes... well, technical writing, especially when it's combined with consulting, can be quite lucrative in some situations. In other situations, it can be less financially rewarding. Sometimes the work is not very steady and it's a field that is often competitive. I like it because it satisfies my desire to learn new things and assignements tend to be short term and project oriented. I get bored easily and relish my freedom. I am also lucky enough to have a spouse who is less constrained by full time work that requires commuting to an office every day.
In any case, I was impressed by this guy's initiative. Most people his age aren't necessarily thinking about what happens after graduation. Of course, if I were there with him, I'd tell him that he shouldn't engrave anything about his future in stone, either. Things change... and a lot can change in the four to six years it will take him to earn his degree. He may feel very differently about his career aspirations when he's older and, in fact, would be wise to be both flexible and versatile. But it's a good thing to think ahead, too. And it was my pleasure to send him a little insight... even if I am just an overeducated housewife.