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Subject:RE: permalancers From:Mary Ellen Schutz <me -dot- schutz -at- juno -dot- com> To:techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com Date:Thu, 31 Jan 2008 11:00:59 -0600
Technical Writer [tekwrytr -at- hotmail -dot- com] wrote in part:
If the technical writer actual understood the topic as well as the
engineer, why would he or she be writing about it rather than doing it?
Dori Green dgreen -at- associatedbrands -dot- com responded:
Still working on my guys here who think everything should have been taken
care of when they took me by the shoulders, pointed me at the 350-person
manufacturing plant, and said "There, Go Thou And Write Technically".
I do love a challenge, and I love the freedom and creativity possible in
this job -- and I like "my guys" a lot and I even respect them. ...They
still (often) have to be
reminded that while I am not a data entry clerk, neither am I a
manufacturing engineer and I do need some time with managers and the MEs
_and_ the people on the line...
Speaking as just one technical writer/editor, I had already been trained
to write, more than well enough to "satisfice," before I went back for a
second degree, magna cum laude, in electrical engineering. As luck would
have it, a recession had almost no one hiring engineers when I graduated,
so I took a gig as a technical writer with a computer company. I started
off with service documentation, known good circuit descriptions that
would allow, pin-by-pin, a depot service tech to troubleshoot a board
back in the days when they actually replaced chips on circuit boards,
devising troubleshooting trees, coercing the role of the individual
boards and major chips into language a tech could readily understand, and
the like. Before long, they had me doing the same for BIOS, DOS, drivers,
and the like for programmers. Then the whole package for end-users. Each
has its own mind-set.
The work was fast-paced and ever changing, like being a student, but they
paid you for the term papers. Since, I've had a chance to learn organic
chemistry; infrared, near-infrared, and Raman spectroscopy; microscopy;
project management; mechanical drawing; pet care and veterinary medicine;
rigging for 3D animation; the ins and outs of internetworking on a
hardware level; biodiesel production; all on the fly. I've worked with
clean rooms, oxygen-deficient atmospheres, explosive atmospheres,
biohazards, and chemical hazards. I've worked with small children meeting
their first dog or cat. I've worked with adults getting their first
understanding of the art of reading, an art which eludes 20% of our
population despite years of schooling. Were I "doing it" rather than
"writing about it," I'd still be staring at a computer screen designing
circuits for whatever.
One of the challenges is getting the information to write about. "Come
on, guys. I'm really good at writing about thin air. It's the
illustrating that's a bear..." is one of my favorite, and most effective
lines. Learning who responds to what is part of the job. I have
scientists who will answer any question you have, if you drop by the lab
for a chat. (Yes, that means leaving your cube, and walking down the hall
or to the next building, pen and pad in hand.) Engineers who prefer to go
through 87 individual e-mail questions at the end of the day, and deal
with one question at a time at 3 am. (Yup, you have to wait 'til the next
day for the answer.) Project managers who only respond to questions asked
during team meetings. (Their responsibility to answer showing up in
minutes is a very good thing.) The trick is to find out the method that's
least painful for each person you need to tap into to get the information
you need. Watch each source, try different approaches to getting your
answers. And keep track of what works best with whom. If you stay at the
same place for any length of time, you'll work with each source more than
You also have to keep your needs in their minds. Engineers and managers
are harried and working to tight schedules with tight resources, just
like writers. "Say, can you tell me when you'll get me XYZ?" with
glad-to-meet-you smile on your face as you pass in the hall or on the
manufacturing floor. Lightening up the urgency can help as well. On one
particularly tight schedule with particularly non-responsive proofers, I
made the office-to-office journey with a huge, blowup, red and blue
hammer. The threats of "great bodily harm" from a 5' 3" little old lady,
brought smiles and proof returns. Magnifying glasses and "gold"
certificates for proofers who worked long into the night eased tensions.
Knowing and appreciating your info sources as people can make a big
difference as well. One of my authors recently had a baby in the midst of
a mad rush on a book. Flowers and a small bear brought not only
manuscript returns, but a pix of the new addition to the family before
either of the grandmothers. Yes, I did admonish him not to let either
grandmother know that he sent a picture to his editor before them. 8~)
Whatever the job, working with people, seeing them as people, treating
the folk at work as people makes a tremendous difference. Celebrating or
There will always be a few curmudgeons and prima donnas who won't
respond, no matter what you try. The lessons of when to turn tail and
live to fight another day and when to run the issue up the flag pole can
be painful. Those are always a challenge.
Mary Ellen Schutz, your Gentle Editor
Gentle Editing, LLC
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