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Subject:Re: degreed professionals From:nash -at- MUDSHARK -dot- SUNQUEST -dot- COM Date:Wed, 1 Jun 1994 12:09:54 PDT
Joan Miles Smith writes: "I usually read this list and don t get too emotional
over anything . . . I am concerned about . . . what a non tech writing
person should do to become a tech writer."
I sympathize with you, Joan. Although I don t have a degree specifically in
technical communication (in the early 1970s, such a concept was almost
unknown), I am a degreed professional (BA English, ESL Certification, MA
Linguistics) with over 20 years working as a tech writer. Since the idea of
"technical communication" was much less congealed back then, many of us
currently mid-life challenged technical communicators got our start via the
back alleys of the profession. We proofed doctoral dissertations. We taught
undergraduate engineering students which two grammatical elements were
necessary to make a complete sentence in English. We wrote ad copy for
university continuing education programs. A few of us of even had to document
formal procedures for cranking up such items as a PD-1011 main frame. And why?
Because we were English majors? Partly.
Although I lacked the prestige of a degree in technical writing, I consider my
first real technical communication job as the one where I received regular pay
checks for more than one year by sitting in a room full of lab coats and an IBM
Selectric; teaching post-doctoral Burroughs-Wellcome Fellows how to write
abstracts and drug study presentations as they checked their laundry in and
out. That job paid $5.00 an hour. The Burroughs-Wellcome Fellows went on to
entry level positions ranging from $75,000 to $85,000. That was my first clue
that well-honed language skills were probably worth more than $5.00. In fact,
that same position still exists, but now it carries the title of "technical
editor" rather than the cache of "research assistant." It addition, it now
requires a warm body with a masters in rhetoric, instead of a work study
student majoring in English. Considering university wages, however, it most
likely still pays the same.
So, why do I rant on this theme of the good old days when we had to type
through snow that was six feet deep without any gloves and nobody appreciated
us? Because I m getting long in the tooth and simply tend to rant? Well,
partly. Ms. Miles continues in her posting that she s frustrated as a writer
when a "beginner" asks if courses on technical writing are "worth it," or when
a hiring manage doesn t check if an applicant is "degree/qualified with courses
for writing." I think a good answer for that beginner s question is "Well, duh!
Not all writing courses are created equal and if you re going to have any kind
of success as a technical writer you ll be able research which courses and
degree programs are worth the price of admission. If you lack the skill to do
that kind of research, you ll also fail at researching and documenting the
ideas of engineers, programmers, the US Forest Service, or the telephone
As for her frustration with the hiring manager, it s not unlike the chip on my
shoulder I cultivated when I thought I had lost a contract or promotion to
someone younger and eager with their new degree in technical writing. That chip
appeared about 1982, at which time I served as the publications director for
the College of Communication at a nifty university in central Texas. The dean
of the college asked if I d consider teaching a course on printing basics for
their new technical communication curriculum. However, since I didn t have a
degree in that specific field, the college could only grant me the salutary
status of an Associate Educator (AE) -- the same status of a grad student.
Imagine my chagrin when I learned that after I left Texas the college replaced
me with an ABD in Technical Communication from New York. A person who has since
become a dear friend, but who had no hands-on experience of paper, four-color
process, graphic arts, budgeting, nothing . . . zip. She did, however, have a
MS and therefore started at 2.5 times my final salary. That was a hard
experience to absorb.
Had there been such a undergraduate or graduate program during my salad days, I
would have taken it ( though it would now be a degree miserably out of date
with the current trends in technical writing methods gleaned from recent
psycholinguistic research). But there wasn t. So I didn t. Too bad.
Fortunately, despite a certain amount of brain death that relentlessly
accompanies age, most human resource people still regard skill and experience
with a little respect. I no longer worry if a prospective client is going to
consider me "degree qualified" when I pitch myself for a job. I ve got a solid
portfolio and reams of professional references. They can tell when I meet with
them whether or not they need or can afford my services. As for those parasite
level managers who are worried only about keeping what s left of their buttocks
intact, screw em. You wouldn t want to work in their environment. Believe me.
So what s my point? Well, how many people on this list remember IBM
Compositors, Mag Cards, Wang, Merganthaler printers, or Display Writers? My
point is hidden in there somewhere . . . maybe . . . I think.