Re: Questions about the Technical Writing field

Subject: Re: Questions about the Technical Writing field
From: surfer924 -at- ameritech -dot- net
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 12 Sep 2002 19:23:28 -0600

1. How/why did you become a professional writer?
What else can an English major do? Seriously, when I was in the service,
and computers were new, anybody who knew how to turn one on was considered
"technically proficient." I was tasked to build a database in dBaseIV and
tried to learn how to use it by reading the manual that came with the
software. After about two days of frustration, I threw the manual away and
taught myself how to use the software (a long and painful process). When I
finally got it to do what I wanted it to, I documented everything (mostly
because I was afraid I would forget how to use it). My boss was so
impressed he put me in for an award. It wasn't until years later that I
discovered that there were actual technical writers who did this for a
living. Besides, technical writers make a lot more than unpublished

2. What is your job title? job description?
Technical Writer/Editor. I work for a defense contractor that provides
custom software solutions mainly to the Air Force. I'm responsible for the
CDRL (Contract Data Requirements List) documents for the software which
usually consists of a System Design Document (SDD) Software Test Plan
(STP), Computer Operation Manual (COM), Operational Concept Description
(OCD), Software Version Description (SVD), (don't you love all these
acronyms)User Manual, Training Material, and online Help.

3. What percentage of your time is spent writing, editing, or presenting?
Depends on the project. Usually about 20% writing, 40% editing, and 40%
attending meetings, installing software, helping developers figure out how
to use Word, helping prepare PowerPoint slides, taking minutes at
meetings, and other things that come up in a "normal" workday.

4. What types of writing, editing, and presenting do you do?
See above. I've also done proposals, configuration management plans, press
releases, Automated Information System (AIS) security accreditations,
Intelligence Information Reports (when I was in the service), memos,
minutes, letters, and resumes.

5. Who are your audiences and what are their needs?
My audience is the users of our software products, usually Air Force
personnel. Their needs vary depending on the product and the user.

6. What things do your audiences expect from your documents or
When you produce documents for the Department of Defense (DoD), each
document has a Data Item Description (DID), a form that is basically an
ourline for your document. It tells you what, exactly, needs to be in the

7. What is your biggest writing-related challenge on the job?
Getting information from the SMEs.

8. What about deadlines? How do they influence the way your write on the
Deadlines are great. They help me plan my work, and I know what's expected
and when. However, when working with the government deadlines have a
tendency to get pushed back often due to changing requirements, budgets,
etc. I'm currently working on a project where my deliverables were
originally due in August 2001.

9. What standard and predictable processes (writing techniques,
organizational templates, heuristics for brainstorming, etc.), if any, do
you employ in profession-related writing?
See #6 above.

10. What are the frustrations/rewards of your work?
Working on a project for months and producing literally reams of
documentation, then having the government cancel the contract.

11. What advice do you have for students?
Acquire a secondary skill besides technical writing. In my experience,
experts who can write are valued more than good writers who know a little
bit about a lot. The debates are endless on this list on the subject of
"Technical" Writers vs Technical "Writers." Technical writing as a career
these days is about as stable as the stock market. But, if you have other
valuable skills besides TW when layoff time comes, you'll probably


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