Re: Tech Writing as a career (LONG)

Subject: Re: Tech Writing as a career (LONG)
From: Ad absurdum per aspera <JTCHEW -at- LBL -dot- GOV>
Date: Fri, 21 Oct 1994 13:00:27 -0800

> a. What do you do over the course of a day as a writer?

I spend about half my time as a writer. This means
various combinations of writing; doing background reading
and "just visiting" to keep up with what's happening (a
lot of what you might call "research" in my job consists
of being able to quickly determine what scientists really
want and why they really want it); doing slightly more-
formal interviews; selecting or commissioning illustrations;
and performing edits that range from light to heavy. Fairly
trivial (but top-priority) chunks of my time are used for
checking proofs. Every once in awhile I fly to Washington or
some field site to do a week or two of editorial support
for some special review our funding agency is conducting.

In the other half of the job I'm a bureaucrat.

> b. How did you get your first job as a writer?

Even as a child I was impressed with books and wanted to
write them someday. My first job came in high school. Our
tank-town newspaper was an embarrassing bit of work in some
ways. I wrote a nice letter to its publisher asking for a
part-time job as a proofreader (qualifications: state spelling
championship from a few years before and a notorious inability
to keep my nose out of other people's business). Nothing
happened. One day a girl in the next row in my English class
who was related to the publisher mentioned that they needed
somebody to cover high-school sports, and so I did, for a dime
a column-inch (a payment scheme that did nothing to solve my
verbosity problem) and a press pass with whose powers I was
unduly impressed.

After a couple months of being paid (though not much) to watch
football, the person who normally covered city-council meetings
went away, so I got a raise to $40 per story and learned what it
was like to listen to the second officially required reading-into-
the-record of a 12-page flood control ordinance. At this point
I got my first modicum of guidance on how to conduct myself as a
journalist from the Birmingham Post-Herald lady assigned to the

Then I went to college, majoring in physics and working as an
electronics tech. My boss, a fortysomething grad student, had
the idea that he was going to settle down with a premed student.
She had other ideas. This had an effect on the pleasantness of
being around him. At the end of the year, all of us techs quit

At large that summer, I wrote to the school's PR office asking
if they had a need for a student intern, and sent them some clips.
They decided that maybe I could, say, direct the administration
computer to spit out the more trivial news releases (Jan Klaapidjin,
a sophomore petroleum engineering major from Overthrust, Wyoming,
has been named to the fall honor roll...) and help out in the print
plant. Schedule crunches led them to give me a heavier story now
and then, and eventually I got a real science piece to work on. It
became obvious that being a physics student (and, well, male) gave
me instant cheap credibility with the scientists, solving a
longstanding problem. Things went downhill from there.

During the summers, I kept drifting back to physics. Over the
course of a few years, a book idea that I'd had began to jell, and
I started working in the laboratory that would be its subject.
Starting as an unpublished manuscript, that book has been the
number-one icebreaker for me ever since. It's probably already
been forgotten except by scholars in one obscure branch of physics
and/or of local history, but it's an eye-catching bit of proof to
potential employers that I can write something besides a resume.

> c. What kind of skills did you have starting out?

Subject-matter expertise and the ability to unleash a torrent of
words. With time, I learned to harness the words to do various
jobs in a more effective way. I also got familiar with computers,
mostly as a physics student, which later got me a couple of jobs
in the industry (and, even now that I'm out of the computer
business, appears to have gotten me indelibly designated as the
local bit-wrangler of whatever office I work in).

> d. What kind of skills are needed now starting out?

The ability to figure out what's going on, both in the big picture
and in the details, based on partially complete and partially
accurate information. That and the ability to meet deadlines that
look impossible and to negotiate priorities when your tasks for
the day add up to 26 hours. (Especially in my business, which is
mostly proposal writing these days, the workload swings wildly.
Sometimes you can sneak off to a ballgame and other times you don't
get home in time for supper.) The ability to use computers seems to
be a given in most writing jobs these days. Some openings demand
deep specialized knowledge of some system.

> e. What's best/worst part of being a writer?

Best: Being accepted as a contributing member of, or at least
a significant and useful assistant to, a technical that's doing
something new and exciting.

Worst: Waiting for a draft to get marked up and returned.

> f. What advice would you give someone thinking about writing as a career?

Read. That, and find somebody who impresses you as being both
skillful and a real pro, and learn everything you can.

> g. What kind of advancement opportunities are there as a writer?

Up a few levels; then into a comfortable rut, or into management,
or into a new field that takes advantage of your communication
skills but isn't called "writing." Or out into contracting. A
lot of technical and science writers, after taking the measure of
their skills and developing a good network of contacts among the
markets and the subject-matter experts, find that they have some
desirable combination of higher pay, more flexibility, and greater
variety as contractors.

> h. What kind of money can be made at entry level? After 1-3 years?

Check out the Society for Technical Communication salary survey
and remember that even within its categories it represents the
average of many different kinds of people.

> i. With strong writing skills, a BA in sociology and much clerical type
> experience, but next to none in programming, what kind of chance do I
> have getting a job as a tech writer?

Emphasize the writing skills. Steer discussions of the clerical
skills toward highlighting your familiarity with the tools of the
trade (no slur intended toward secretaries, but "glorified secretary"
is the La Brea Tar Pit of tech-writing career advancement). Look for
openings in end-user documentation or marketing rather than what you
might call technical technical writing (documentation of hardware or
code internals, writing manuals for engineering tools, etc.). The
term "tech writing" covers a wide range of jobs, and the skills mix
will vary accordingly. Learn not to gag, nor to be haunted by
memories of fine-arts-oriented writing teachers whose counsel you
cherished, when you realize that a pair of hands connected to your
mind has typed an expression like "skills mix."

And oh, yes, join the STC and attend local chapter meetings.

Good luck,

"Just another personal opinion from the People's Republic of Berkeley"
Disclaimer: Even if my employer had a position on the subject,
I probably wouldn't be the one stating it on their behalf.

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