RE: breaking out in technical communications

Subject: RE: breaking out in technical communications
From: "Andrew Dugas" <dugas -at- intalio -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 13 Feb 2002 15:40:57 -0800

All good points. Certainly you don't need a virtual CS degree or a secret
life as a computer geek to start out on the tech writing road. Also true is
the simple fact that technical writing extends to subject and fields that
are outside that realm with which one might more readily assocate the word
"technical." Writing skills go a long way.

However, beyond the starting-out point, my own TW experience (coming up on
four years now) agrees with Andrew Plato's advice, at least if you wish to
proceed beyond the general user/admin manual work and ascend to that
rarified altitude of the development environment.

The reasons are compelling:

* Personal Growth and Intellectual Challenge - Let's face it, the day goes
by faster if your work bends your brain a little.

* Greater Job Security/Opportunity - High level skills are scarce and
scarcity creates demand. In the depth of last summer's job market blues,
Java API TWs were still in great demand (at least in the SF Bay Area). And
with the economic dive yet to flatten out...

* Mo' Money, Mo' Money, Mo' Money - Scarcity creates demand, demand drives
up price.

The best news is that your present position offers opportunities to build
those higher-level skills. The engineers love your curiosity and sometimes
wrong-headed questions, and are more than happy to teach you a thing or two.

I started out very technically-challenged (what's a file server?), but have
since gone from basic user guide writing (learned Frame, Acrobat,
PhotoShop), to Web development (WebWorks, HTML, JavaScript, hints of OO
programming), to Java-based apps (intro to Java and XML), and am now
learning more about XML and Java in business and B2B applications. And yes,
I am taking a Java class at night and a basic, long over-due DB class
probably is up next.

Each additional set of skills has been instrumental in getting me that next,
better-paying job. And that counts getting laid off TWICE in 2001.

Good luck!

-----Original Message-----
From: bounce-techwr-l-88324 -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
[mailto:bounce-techwr-l-88324 -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com]On Behalf Of
MichaelHuggins -at- aol -dot- com
Sent: Wednesday, February 13, 2002 10:58 AM
Subject: Re: breaking out in technical communications

> "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

Good luck.

Michael Huggins

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Re: breaking out in technical communications: From: MichaelHuggins

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