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Giving Direction & Getting Paid For It
by Elsie Walker

If you are comfortable working with a PC and are good at giving directions, writing user guides may be a way to add to your income. User guides are "how to" manuals which instruct employees in using software and systems developed by their company. (For example, a manual might explain to claim examiners how to use a certain software package on their PC to process insurance claims.) Though you may be thinking that it sounds like the kind of job that would take a lot of high tech expertise, it doesn't.

Although user guide authors are considered a type of "technical writer", the typical qualifications for the job are mostly writing-oriented. A good user guide author is someone who knows how to present material in an easy-to-understand manner. Also, you need to be a good interviewer and researcher (quick learner). For the job, you'll need to talk to a variety of SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). Generally these SMEs are the people who developed the software. (In some ways, you are translating what they tell you about the software into language that the layman can understand.) In addition, you need to be able to research the software. This means learning to use it and then writing down clear instructions for others. In some cases, there may already be an existing guide but it needs revision. If so, editing comes into play, too. Because of the skills needed for this job, companies tend to look for someone with a degree in English, Journalism, or Technical Communications (or a Computer Science major and strong writing skills). Also, you should know at least one major word processing package such as Word or Word Perfect. In addition, knowledge of publishing software (like PageMaker or Framemaker) or a web designer (like FrontPage) is useful.

A variety of industries utilize user guide authors and generally offer a number of work options. Insurance companies, payroll processing firms, telecommunications companies… any company that would use computers to process their information are possible employers. You'll find employment ads under the headings of "technical writer" or "computer" in the classifieds. Because of the independent nature of the work, many user guide authors are telecommuters or work flexible hours. Another perk is that you are usually exposed to a variety of new technologies since you are on the fringe of a software development area. This new knowledge adds to your professional worth.

Because some companies view guide work as a one-time need, many use consultants rather than hire someone as an employee. You can place your resume (for free) with consulting firms that will try to match you up with clients for limited term assignments (3 months and up). Once matched up, you are either paid by the client or become an employee of the consulting firm. Consultants can make 25 - 35 dollars and more an hour writing user guides (see Writer's Market's "what to charge" for more details.) However, you don't want to overspread your resume when contacting consulting firms. Some writers open up the yellow pages and list themselves with every firm they see. But, if two firms put in your resume for the same job, that could be embarrassing for them and turn them off from you. I'd say placing yourself with 6 firms is about right.

If you think that you would like to do user guide work, learn more about the field by checking out the website of the Society For Technical Communication. (http://www.stc.org) Working with PCs and showing people "how to", writing user guides might just be right for you.

© Copyright 1999, Elsie Walker

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