Journo to tech: a new way of life for sub-editors

June 2017

Shelf of attractive technical communication tomes

It’s never going to be the newsroom. But for the right ex-journalist, technical writing can offer a satisfying new way to make a living. Especially if you’re a sub, according to Brigid Kelly.

It’s often said that nobody understands what sub-editors do until they’re not there, and this quality of being unobtrusively indispensable also applies to the technical writer. Tech writers have the same sharp eyes and passion for clarity of language as subs, and our ability to turn unwieldy material into readable copy at speed is a real advantage. Qualities that make an excellent sub – critical thinking, fact checking, copy wrangling, eye for detail, good spelling and grammar – are valued in this field. Experience negotiating with stressed news editors and soothing overly-attached reporters also comes in handy.

During my short time as a technical writer/content developer for Streamliners, I’ve noticed many parallels with my old subbing job at Fairfax Media.

Today, instead of scouring news desks for business leads and placing sharemarket graphics, I work producing an interactive manual for health professionals. Much of what I do each day involves reworking information provided by specialists into a format that’s easy to use and understand, without introducing errors. My colleagues and I pick each other’s brains on gnarly writing issues and check each other’s copy. I work with clients in a variety of locations, and chat with them about their needs via internal messaging or phone. I build pages, write, edit and upload to the web using a specialised content management system. The work varies between intensive copy-editing and rewrites, and daily live production tasks. In some ways it feels like a cross between newspaper copy-editing, templated layout, preparing for typesetting and editing for the web.

The pace of work is different, but that’s going to be the case wherever you end up. My new workload is a lot steadier and more predictable than the typical drought-and-deluge of a newspaper shift. It’s not as creative, in the conventional sense, as newspaper subediting could be – there aren’t so many opportunities for witty word play – but there’s nothing stopping you from writing and publishing in your own time. The slower pace of production may be frustrating to someone used to throwing pages together half an hour before deadline, but spending time crafting a really good product is very rewarding.

The work is not as viscerally exciting as news – and if writing or editing news stories is your grand passion you may not like this work - but it has its own challenges and rewards. I’ve never had so much workplace training, my office is much healthier, and I’m still getting used to having statutory days off and weekends free. I enjoy a happy workplace that feels full of opportunity and earning good money. Crucially, technical writing lets me continue to deploy my hard-won subediting skills in a field of work that’s growing, not dying.

Technical writing may be for you if:

  • you love to create clean, unambiguous copy
  • you value communication
  • you like turning reports and statistics into readable articles
  • other people’s jargon and disciplines intrigue you
  • you like taking time to produce a high-quality product
  • you enjoy production tasks
  • you like working within the limitations of a style guide
  • a missing hairspace or awkward orphan makes you sad
  • you like bullet points.

You may not enjoy technical writing if:

  • you thrive on the buzz and unpredictability of the newsroom
  • you live and breathe breaking news
  • puns and witty headlines are your favourite part of the job
  • you prefer working on design and layout
  • you chafe at style guide restrictions
  • you’d rather beat a deadline than fix a widow
  • you find production tasks a chore.

Read more in our Journalism series: