Re: breaking out in technical communications

Subject: Re: breaking out in technical communications
From: MichaelHuggins -at- aol -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 13 Feb 2002 13:58:07 EST

> "Joan Wagner" wrote.
> > My name is Joan Wagner, and I am a junior majoring in
> > business and technical communications. I am running
> > into some problems gaining experience, which might
> > hurt me after graduation. I was wondering if anyone
> > had any suggestions for someone just starting out.

Joan, I agree with the respondent who suggested earlier that you get involved with your local STC chapter and seek volunteer opportunities. Technical writing was a career change for me, at a time when my ex-wife was expecting our first child, and I found involvement in the STC chapter the single best avenue to employment. I succeeded a fellow chapter member in my first, second, and fourth technical writing jobs, and still other members succeeded me when I moved on to other positions.

Moreover, one can often find either small non-profit organizations that need help with technical and business writing or even low-pay assigments to start out, from commercial enterprises. For instance, in Memphis, we have a publication called "Memphis Health Care News," which accepts articles from free-lancers on spec.

Andrew Plato wrote:

> Buy a copy of Windows 2000 Server on Ebay, use it to setup a small domain.
> Setup a small network and study up on systems networking. Add a
> workstation to your new domain.
> Take a Visual Basic or C course. Learn object oriented programming.
> Take a class on database theory. Not an Access course, a real database
> class on how relational database systems work.
> Take some science and math classes - hone those analysis skills.
> This will prepare you to be a good technical writer.

While I think there is something to this, I'm not sure I can agree completely. None of these things would have helped me edit abstracts of presentations from a nursing convention (my first job) or edit aircraft maintenance manuals in preparation for an FAA audit (my second job) or write about applications in the trucking industry (my fifth job).

> It will also allow
> you to sell your technical skills rather than your writing skills.
> Technical skills are always in higher demand than writing skills.

This strikes me as a very surprising thing to say to a would-be technical writer. If "higher demand" means that systems analysts are paid more, that is so, but after all, technical writing exists precisely because the writing skills of purely technical people are often seen as inadequate for communicating with anyone other than other technical people.

Joan, I have been doing technical writing since 1986. I have worked for a university, two multinational corporations (air freight and forest products), and a truck line. I now work for a defense contractor that does software development.

As far as I can tell, from reading this list, I probably no less about RoboHelp/C++/Unix/XML and the like than just about anyone else posting here. I do not mean that I am *proud* of not knowing these things and would be happy to learn any of them tomorrow, but I have had a rewarding and lucrative career even so. I can think of only one case in my entire career where knowing or not knowing a tool from the first day made a difference in my getting the job.

I feel that my career has worked as well as it has because, as a technical writer should be able to, I can take a mass of facts that others know better than I, but which they are too closely involved with to know how to communicate effectively, and can shape those facts into a usable body of material, understandable to everyone from diesel mechanics to boardroom types. Meanwhile, certainly, learning Visual Basic and C++ can't hurt, I'm sure.

Good luck.

Michael Huggins

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