RE: Questions about the Technical Writing field
"Wilcox, Rose (ZB5646)" <Rose -dot- Wilcox -at- pinnaclewest -dot- com>
"TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Thu, 12 Sep 2002 11:02:11 -0700
I am a technical writing student at Virginia Tech, and I would really
appreciate it if any of you could take a few minutes to answer some or all
of the following questions about the field of technical writing. Please feel
free respond to me off-list at jumays -at- vt -dot- edu and thank you for your help!>>
1. How/why did you become a professional writer?
I have always been a writer ever since I was a little girl. It was "Harriet the Spy" (the book, this was what? 20-30 years before the movie?) that got me keeping a journal when I was about 10.
When I was in college, I switched from education (was going to do Learning Disabled / Behavioral Disordered ed.) to computer programming, in the hopes that I would make enough money to raise my daughter, having become a single parent. At that time, I started using the documentation of that era. I was convinced I would do it better.
I decided the combination of communication/English skills with technical skills would be a good thing, so I went to the School of Technical Careers and pitched them the idea. At this time (early 80s) there were less than a handful of tech writing Bachelors in the U.S.A., BTW. So I took an associates in Computer Programming and upper level courses in writing and training and made a degree called "Data Processing Training Systems". Graduated in 1984 and was very competitive for quite some time as I was competing with other writers who didn't have degrees specifically designed for technical writing. Now there are a lot of you young whippersnappers out there with tech writing degrees. <grin>
2. What is your job title? job description?
I have been called:
Technical Writing lead / manager
Currently my title at my consulting agency is "Technical Consultant". At work I am known as "Technical Writer" informally but my main boss (I work for many people here and have "internal clients") likes the term "Communications Specialist" (she was an English major) so I humor her and put it in my email sig.
In my current position, I don't have a true job description. I just do whatever they want me to... sigh....
3. What percentage of your time is spent writing, editing, or presenting?
Haven't done much presenting throughout my career. Throughout my career I've done more writing than editing, as actually I am a much better writer than I am editor. I think that's a preference/talent thing. If you like writing, you'll gravitate to jobs that require your writing skills and feel unhappy in jobs that rely on your editing skills. And vice versa I'm sure....
I have actually created presentation materials at time for trainers and for managers, but rarely have been asked to present with them. I did a presentation to a Regional STC convention once! I have done a little stand up training, but not a lot.
My current job is a mix of editing and writing. Probably 30/70 editing/writing, but it varies.
4. What types of writing, editing, and presenting do you do?
Oh sheesh. So many types. In my career I have written:
- many user manuals for both technical and non-technical audiences
- online help (starting with TSO panels back in the day, now Windows and HTML-based help)
- system administrator guides
- operator guides
- documentation / content plans
- requirements/specification documents
- press releases
- articles (web content or newsletter mostly)
- website plans
- test plans
- process documents / work flows
- instructions for status reports or other small tasks / job aids
- proposals and responses to RFPs
- internal email communications regarding technical projects
- processes for creating documents
- standards documents for technical teams
- standards documents for documentation
- as-built system documentation for programmers (based on reading code)
- training materials (in presentation form)
- whitepapers (internal) about database warehousing and summary billing systems
I have edited:
- other technical writers' manuals and online help
- QA department test plans
- my bosses' emails
- others articles
- resumes (yes, for pay)
- process documents
- presentations and training materials
- technical write-ups for a University computing center
- course brochures
- all types of software life cycle documents (Charters, Requirements, Designs, etc.)
Some of the subject matter I've written about or edited :
- accounting systems (many different types)
- CASE tools
- semiconductor manufacturing
- various computing languages
- laboratory testing applications
- MIS systems (mostly reports for engineers and management)
- statistical process control software for monitoring machines on the factory floor
- engineering proposals and studies in the petro chemical industry
- financial analysis systems for credit card companies
- Y2K project test reports and management presentations
- COBOL and VB coding processes and standards
- technical writing processes and standards
- inventory systems
- deployment (software/hardware) systems
- insurance company customized software for reinsurance and health insurance fields
- software to organize mail to save money with the Post Office
- power trading software
- database concepts
Some other non-writing tasks I've done:
Manage other technical writers / illustrators
Create tracking databases
Documentation management tasks including storing physical documentation and organizing materials on a LAN (sans real doc management tools)
Create and coordinate surveys on several topics
General research on a variety of topics
Create project plans
Mentor junior technical writers
Monitor email mailbox for other project coordinators
Teach HTML class to other writers
P.S. I used to not make copies for others, but in light of the current economy, would be willing to take on clerical tasks if it meant staying employed!
5. Who are your audiences and what are their needs?
My audiences have varied widely. I try to do audience analysis for each job, at least informally.
Audiences by roles:
- database folk
- clerical folk
- factory and transportation lab testers
- system administrators
- technical writers
- technical illustrators
- factory floor workers
- QA personnel
All of them need clear, consistent, well-organized and well-design documentation to do their jobs quickly. Educational levels and technical knowledge vary, so it's good to know that going in. Some speak English as a second language. Some work in environments where they can't have books (lab test environments) so have to look up stuff online. Some are afraid to learn to use computers.
Sometimes I am communicating new project information or processes to a skeptical audience who needs persuasion. Sometimes I am writing to a manager to try to get more money or funding for a project.
6. What things do your audiences expect from your documents or presentations?
Ha, well that varies. In organizations where there are technical writing departments with well-written consistent standards, they expect documentation that is organized and looks like the other documentation being produced by the group.
Where I live, there are not a lot of tech writing departments internally. In my current job, they haven't consistently hired technical writers, and most of the ones they've hired have produced a few quality documents, then left. (I find their tracks in the LAN. In a sea of badly written, inconsistent, incomplete documentation, suddenly I find a little trove of documents obviously created with standards and shining with the internal light of quality. <sniffs back tears>).
Most of my audiences expect either no documents or badly written documents, so are rather amazed at the quality I can produce. I guess that makes it too easy. I miss you guys (other tech writers)!
7. What is your biggest writing-related challenge on the job?
Hmmm... how do you define writing-related? Some of my challenges include:
- management that doesn't believe in the importance of documentation. This leads to documents half-written or not finalized due to lack of reviews and/or cut off of funds before I complete them.
- lack of response for reviews. This is also related to a lack of management support. This is the only place where I have tried all other methods (bribes, walk bys, informal, formal) and nothing worked... and the management refused to step in. Most places I have been able to, simply by hanging out and being the cool person I am, gradually win over the development team. <sniffs back tears> I miss you guys (cool techies who like me)!
- misleading or changing information from top-down
- lack of communication from teams I work with due to geographical or cultural aspects -- currently I sit in one building and my sources sit in two other buildings, one across town. And in the past, I have worked on projects where my sources sat in other states or even overseas!
In terms of my own problems with writing, I do work alone and so have no one to proof my work. People expect me as a writer to write perfectly without any errors, and I just don't. I write goodly, but not perfekt.
There are ways around all of these challenges, but they are challenges that I do live with.
8. What about deadlines? How do they influence the way your write on the job?
First of all, they make me complete the work. I tend to be perfectionist, so it is good to let go at some point in time, even with the imperfections!
Deadlines also affect my planning and my quality. Knowing a deadline going in (around here sometimes even deadlines are sketchy!), I can plan content and schedule so that I can succeed. Changing deadlines need to be accounted for... moving something up can affect both content and quality poorly. Getting more time mostly is going to allow me to finish with more quality, but sometimes has a mixed effect. For instance, if I decide to add content at the last minute, but we don't have time for as many reviews.
9. What standard and predictable processes (writing techniques,
organizational templates, heuristics for brainstorming, etc.), if any, do you
employ in profession-related writing?
In teams, we have worked together to create sustainable processes, standards documents, templates, etc. Of course, it would be too long to present all of those here!
I am not currently in a team of writers, so I create my own, based mostly on everything I liked from past jobs, within the confines of the tools I am constrained to use by my client, by deadlines, and by audience needs.
I use a standard way of planning for each internal client. I have a list of things I go over when starting a new project. (For example, who is the audience, what is the purpose, when do you need it by, what tools do you want to use, etc.) I create templates for self use where ever I go. Templates save so much time; it's worth it to take the time to create new ones for each company.
I also have had in my current job to be willing to let it go and work any which way due to the lack of process here. For instance, I have had to start documents without really good audience analysis. After I get started, usually the team or management allows me to get more information defined based on my specific questions as I work.
10. What are the frustrations/rewards of your work?
My biggest frustration currently is the shakiness of my job. I have been contracting here for two years, and the money runs out of my contract at the end of the month. I am also currently "piecing" for work, having no big long-term projects in the works. Currently I have one process manual to copyedit, a new project of unknown tasks starting that was estimated by the management of that project as being about 30 hours, and a few short documents to finish up for my last project. Probably about 1 1/2 weeks of work. However, everyone tells me not to worry! I find that frustrating.
Also I find that many managers within do not feel that documentation is important. Recently my biggest project was getting completed. It is an internal software project for which I did a whole slew of documents, including some technical documentation and some user documents. The support manager did not want to pay the fees for the hours to complete the documents! So with my main boss, we did work out a compromise, but to me, the manager was short-sighted. The company loses the entire investment in the documents if they are not accurate, updated for the final code changes. However, the manager had to make a decision based on his budget, rather than for the good of the future of the whole company. So I guess my frustration is more of a corporate problem. If the decision to not complete had been based on the whole corporations needs rather than one department's needs, I could accept it better.
Rewards? Dang, I love writing. I love words. I love the weird humans I get to interact with. I love new complex subjects and the learning thereof. I love the tools, the software, the printer humming away in the background. Free coffee. Pay checks izzz good too!
I do not plan on retiring, per se. I write other stuff besides tech writing, so I can write that stuff. I wouldn't mind always tech writing as well though. I know it's only rock n roll, but I like it! I want to write until my fingers fall off. Then, I hope my progeny and friends kindly wrap them up and bury them with me, shaking their heads at my folly. And then I hope they listen to some good rock and roll and have a life.
I write, therefore I am.
11. What advice do you have for students?
Get as strong as a technical background as you can
Understand psychology of organizations
Hone your writing skills
Know how to organize material, not just edit material
Learn about yourself and your preferences -- you will do better in jobs that make your skills and proclivities
Keep your sense of humor intact, you'll need it
Be flexible and open minded
Expect the business world to make sense
Expect your education will stop after you graduate
Let the current economic climate get you down -- it'll bounce back and good writers will still be needed
Rose A. Wilcox
Projects and Deployment
Communications Specialist / Technical Writer
Rose -dot- Wilcox -at- PinnacleWest -dot- com
"I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better."
- A. J. Liebling (1904-1963)
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