RE: Journalist to tech writer

Subject: RE: Journalist to tech writer
From: Walter Crockett <walter -dot- crockett -at- informix -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 11 Jan 2001 07:08:17 -0600

I was a daily news reporter for 10 years and a weekly magazine editor and
columnist for five before switching to tech writing two years ago. The first
thing I heard from tech writers was how difficult it was to work with
engineers, and how little respect engineers give you. I have not found that
to be the case (though there may well be one arrogant SOB wherever you go).
In fact, the part of my job I like best is dealing with the engineers. I
think the people skills I learned in journalism help me there. Once you've
knocked on someone's door uninvited to ask them how it feels now that their
kid is dead (and we had to do an awful lot of that in the '80s) it isn't so
hard to approach a taciturn engineer.

I think good journalists make good tech writers because the following skills
* The ability to talk to all kinds of people, to develop relationships with
them, and to get them to give you information.
* A respect for deadlines and what it takes to meet them.
* The ability to write quickly and clearly once you have the necessary

Excellent journalists make excellent tech writers because they also have
these skills:
* The desire to get to the bottom of the story, to make that extra call, to
really understand what it is you're writing about.
* An exceptional ability to organize information and write for the reader.
* The desire to turn out excellent work, not just adequate work.
* A certain pride or adrenalin rush that comes from doing the best possible
job as part of a team.

That said, many journalists are down-trodden and cynical, partly because of
the abysmal state of the newspaper industry. On the tech writing side, many
writers seem to believe that there's no way they can ever learn all they
need to know about the technology, so they just give up and edit what the
engineers spoon-feed them. The best writers in both fields, however, are
enthusiastic about their jobs and are dedicated to constant learning.

Technical writing does demand one skill that I didn't really learn in
journalism, the ability to maintain a positive attitude and a sense of
purpose in the face of one's bottomless and terrifying ignorance of much of
the subject matter. Every time I change jobs I feel like I just parachuted
into China, or Turkey, or some other place where the language, the customs,
and all the shared knowledge are totally foreign to me. In journalism you
visit these foreign places for a day or a week and do the best you can. In
tech writing, you must become a native.

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