Transitioning from the military to tech writing?

Subject: Transitioning from the military to tech writing?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 30 Apr 2001 08:26:22 -0400

Tracy Gies wonders: <<I plan... to retire from the military in about six
years... I have been in the Army for about 14 years, and I am considering my
options for a new post-Army career. I think that tech writing would be the
best choice for me.>>

>From the various educational projects you've either completed or are in the
process of completing, you're making me feel like an underachiever. <G> It
doesn't sound like you'll be wanting for lines on your resume, that's for
sure. Just one big piece of advice: unless you plan to work for the Postal
Service, you'll have to remember to leave your weapons at home. <evil g>

<<Other careers I have considered are marketing and human resources.>>

Read several of the various Dilbert collections before you consider either
career. Both areas serve valuable roles in a company, but the scary thing
about Dilbert is that most of the cartoons are based on true stories
reported to him by people suffering under the characters working in these
departments. So while there are undoubtedly honest, humane, helpful
marketing and HR departments (like the one where I'm currently working, for
instance), there are also many that are deeply unhealthy places to work.
I've worked for one such company (government, actually), so I can tell you
from personal experience that Scott Adams isn't exaggerating as much as one
might think.

<<I am most interested in writing for the software industry. I don't have a
background in writing software documentation. Most of the time, I write
memoranda, training schedules, planning documents, standard operating
procedures, presentations, lesson plans, and that sort of thing. I use
active voice, as passive voice is shunned in the military these days. I
have a few of these documents at my disposal to use as writing samples, but
most of them are stored on various floppies at various places across the
country. I do have training in writing technical reports, but I haven't
actually done it on the job, except for the rare occasion a few years ago.>>

When you write a cover letter to introduce your resume, you should always
explain the relevance of the bullet points on the resume. From what you've
listed, it sounds like you've got most of the basic writing and planning
skills required for a technical writing career, and now all you need to do
is explain how all these skills come together to make you employable as a
techwhirler. Do that in 2 paragraphs in the cover letter, and you'll impress
someone enough to at least get an interview, and the rest is up to you.
(Note: Bringing weapons to an interview has only a short-term persuasive
effect. <gdrlh>) In the meantime, you suggested you're planning to retire in
6 years. This should leave ample time to identify some software that needs
documenting (either some common technique for working with your intranet or
something non-classified that is specific to the military and that they'll
give you permission to include in your portfolio). When you find it, propose
to your bosses that you take on the task of producing the documentation
(perhaps as part of your school work, so you can kill two birds with one
stone), and get to work adding those docs to your portfolio. If you can
clearly define the difference between (say) officers and enlisted personnel,
or military and civilian personnel, and can find software to document for
each, you can bring this to the interview and explain the audience
characteristics that led you to make different decisions for the two
documentation projects. That ought to impress the heck out of your

<<the kind of reports we were writing were really just summaries that
included technical information.>>

Which is a pretty good description of a typical user manual, isn't it? <g>

<<The Army has contracted with a company, called Smart Force, which offers
computer-based training classes for free to soldiers.>>

Have you ever considered working for them? Much though I enjoy the software
documentation I do, it's only a small part of my overall job; I think it'd
drive me nuts documenting the same application year in, year out, for the
rest of my career. Training, on the other hand, offers lots of perks, not
the least being the fact that you get to work on a wider variety of

<<Because of the realities of military life, and raising a family of six, I
will choose to find a degree program that can be completed entirely by
distance education.>>

Which (combined with your current B.S. degree) will give you ample
experience with telecommuting. You indicated you want to work in Texas, and
were uncertain about local job opportunities, but by the time you've
graduated, you'll have enough knowhow concerning working online that you can
probably set yourself up as a freelancer and work much farther afield than
in Texas. For instance, I'm currently doing freelance science editing for a
client in Japan--and I'll never meet that client or the scientists he
represents unless I'm fortunate enough to make a trip down there some day.

<<The best distance program I have found is the Master of Arts Degree in
Technical Communications from Texas Tech University.* I am leaning towards
TTU, rather than Utah State, because the former will probably be more
well-known in West Texas than the latter.>>

Credentialism is a tricky thing; the people who know better than to simply
look for a degree will be more interested in what you can do than in what
letters you have after your name, whereas those who are looking for a degree
rather than skill wouldn't know the difference between Degrees'R'Us and
Harvard. I don't know anything about TTU, but I believe that Carnegie-Mellon
and Rensellaer have well-respected distance education programs, and they
might be worth looking into as well. I also don't know what your military
benefits package covers, but anything that pays partially for your education
or gets you a lower tuition might be worth using as a criterion for choosing
a school.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"How are SF writers like technical writers? Well, we both write about the
things we imagine will happen in the future!"--Sue Gallagher


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