Re: How did you get started in tech writing?

Subject: Re: How did you get started in tech writing?
From: sintac -at- home -dot- nl
To: "Techwr-l" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 16 Aug 2008 11:10:31 +0200

At school I was equally strong and equally interested in sciences and humanities.
I dreamed of becoming a pure mathematician, but without really having an idea
of what that entailed. Because of the lack of focus in my graduation subjects, I
could only get a mixed degree study (mathematics, statistics and computing;
this was 1972, in the middle of the mainframe days). I detested statistics, so
at the end of the year fell back on my other direction and switched to English
and French literature.

During my college years I discovered skydiving, which for me was like a
heroine addiction. I dropped out in the final term to do it full-time, and then
discovered that you couldn't really do that with the UK climate. Out of
desperation, I tried various jobs (london underground station manager,
production worker in a brick factory), but I was living on the edge of poverty
sleeping on the floor in a local farm. I'd been in the army reserve for 4 years
(recently commissioned and gone airborne, of course) and so on one
depressing raining day I signed up as a private soldier. They had no clue
what to do with me, so sent me on technician training. I learned all
about avionics and got sent to Germany.

The early 80s were a watershed in German history; it was the peak of
German New Wave and I got caught up in all of it, working as a roadie
in my 'spare' time when I wasn't jumping. When I got posted back to the
UK for advanced electronics training (TOW missile systems, Apache),
my tiger-stripe jeans and unconvential lifestyle rather ran foul of the
regimental types and a certain sergeant-major decided that he wasn't
going to have me as a sergeant in "his" army. Before I knew what was
happening, they'd fixed an administrative discharge and I found myself in
the UK, which had by then become a foreign country, with no money, no
friends, no job and nowhere to live.

I stayed with family for a while, and then discovered a government
retraining course in technical writing. It turned out that I had a "natural
talent". I worked in aerospace in the UK as a support engineer for a few
months before being offered a freelance contract on the Dutch/German
border (I desperately wanted to go back to Germany, but figured it was
close enough). Since then, spending alternate periods in the Netherlands,
Germany and the USA, I haven't really looked back.

I've had 25 years in tech writing; seen the introduction of PCs, word processors
(at Dunlop they still used pencil and paper), DTP, multimedia, and the Internet.
It's been an exciting ride, and I feel blessed that I have been able to have a front seat
for most of it; working on multimedia in the early days, then electronic manuals
(IETMs), online help, intranets, SGML, HyTime, XML (when I got to write some books),
followed the last years of the Internet craze when I worked in Silicon Valley during
the 90s, Semantic Web, Topic Maps, and now I'm having fun with wiki, blogs, user
interface design and usability while waiting for social networking to get its act together.

I'm now holding my breath watching what's happening in the user interface world
(multi-touch interfaces, VR); despite the fact that in many ways we seem to actually
be going backwards rather than forwards. However, if anything, I expect the next
25 years to be far more exciting than the last, and I hope to be there to see it.

I 'fell into' technical writing, but in the sense of a square peg fitting into a square
hole, and it's been a wonderful experience.

My only regret is that, having no business sense and being pathologically shy, I am
still poor and totally unknown despite having seen most of these events coming
long before they did. I suggested online recruiting to the MD of an agency in 1993 and
got laughed at, I built my first intranet in 1993 and someone else took all the credit,
I saw XML coming, predicted the current change in technical writing in 2002 ... it's
all in my sporadic postings to the techwr-l and still there in the archives ...

Simon North.


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How did you get started in tech writing?: From: Nancy Allison
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