Re: Journalist to Tech Writer

Subject: Re: Journalist to Tech Writer
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 10 Jan 2001 14:17:27 -0800

Chantel Brathwaite wrote:
> I've noticed that several tech writers on this list were former journalists.
> I've often wondered how the two fields compared ... what do you find to be the
> biggest similarities/differences? What attracted you to this field? And, what
> skills (other than being able to write concisely) have been particularly useful
> as a tech writer? I'm not doing a study or anything ... I'm just curious ...

I've gone from part time journalist to tech writer, and then
combined the two fields. Since my journalism has always been
computer-related, I don't see much difference in the two fields.
Journalism attracted me first when I was an academic. I was already
poking around computers and giving my opinion on news groups, so
doing it professionally between semesters was an attractive idea.
>From there, the move to tech writer was small. A year or so ago, I
returned to journalism, largely because I had just quit a job and
wanted to secure an income fast; as things were, my unemployment
lasted all of 14 hours.

When I review, I act in much the same way as I would when looking at
a product that I am trying to document. I work systematically
through the menus, try all the tasks I can think of or are suggested
by the menu items, and, sometimes, have a look at the code behind
the interface and the directory structure. Often, I see if I can
crash the program. As I work, I take copious notes that I try to
organize when I'm done. As I organize, I check the program again,
and often think of new tasks to try.

The main difference is in how I present the information. In tech
writer mode, the presentation usually has as little personality as
possible. By contrast, in journalism, I have to entertain as well as
inform, so more personality creeps in. That's especially true at
Maximum Linux, which prides itself on attitude. And, unlike tech
writing, in which a reference guide is sometimes useful, computer
journalism is always task oriented.

A peripheral difference is the fact that, in journalism, you're not
anonymous. Your name is on what you wrote. People will let you know
when you make a mistake, and won't be shy of letting you know their
opinions of your work. So far, I've been lucky, but I suppose it's
only a matter of time before someone reacts negatively to my
journalism, especially since one of my regular gigs is an opinion
column. After all, the audience for journalism is much vaster than
the audience for most tech writing.

Other differences: as a journalist, I travel more, work from home
more, and start with an income comparable to a senior tech-writer's;
usually, doing an article pays $US65-$100 / hour, depending on the
market, my writing speed, and the revisions I'm asked to do. The
trick, of course, is to get the pay steadily - something I could
probably do, but haven't tried, since I like the variety of
combining the two professions. But, probably, Norht America supports
no more than a couple of hundred full-time computer journalists, as
opposed to tens of thousands of tech writers. Nor is there much room
for increasing the pay, although editors for whom you write
regularly can be very good about giving proven journalists more
assignments or a slight increase in pay.

I also notice that journalists get more respect at trade shows than
tech writers, possibly because they do more help or harm.

All that sounds as though I prefer journalism. However, I don't
think that I do. For one thing, each career has helped the other.
More importantly, for me, writing is writing. I'm happy to make a
good living doing what I enjoy, and I think myself lucky to have the
variety I prefer.

Bruce Byfield, Outlaw Communications
Contributing Editor, Maximum Linux
604.421.7177 bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com

"Oh play me a blues song and fade down the light
I'm sad as a proud man can be sad tonight,
Just let me dream on, just let me sway,
while the sweet violins and the saxaphones play."
- Richard Thompson, "Waltzing's for Dreamers"

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