Re: Tech Writing as a career

Subject: Re: Tech Writing as a career
From: "Doug, Data Librarian at Ext 4225" <engstromdd -at- PHIBRED -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 24 Oct 1994 11:54:25 -0500


This is in reply to your questions:

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

Track down project leaders and others who know how data is or will be
organized. Write definitions for undefined or poorly-defined data
elements. Discuss data definitions with project leaders, process data
administrators, and other interested parties. Record the agreed-upon
definitions and "sell" the idea of using them to development teams.

Act as the "scribe" in data design sessions. Mold ramblings from data
design sessions into coherent documents that will guide the next round of
decision making.

Record data design decisions for new development and circulate them to
interested parties.

Support the WinHelp authoring tool.

Try lots of stuff that doesn't work.

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

By telling the President of a small agricultural software company that I
knew how to fix the vacuum pump on a liquid manure spreader.

Actually, having three years of writing experience working for Air Force
Public affairs, plus two years of supporting the base paper's computer
system probably helped, too.

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

1) I could use a word processor without supervision.

2) I knew enough about Midwestern production agriculture to ask
intelligent questions.

3) I had basic MS-DOS skills, and knew a little about hardware.

4) I could write coherently.

5) I knew how to live on what they were willing to pay me.

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

Know a couple word-processing or DTP packages. Have a basic grasp of
whatever industry you're interested in. Know basic document design and
organization. Have good, basic English skills.

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

Best: Creating a document that is so good that you get unsolicited
thank-you notes in e-mail from people you've never met. Substantial
raises run a close second. (Very, very close.)

Worst: Being trapped producing seemingly endless documents that no one
appears to be using.

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

(I assume you mean technical writing as opposed to writing in general.)

1) If you're interested in money, power, fame, etc. go starve with the
fiction writers for a while, and either make it or don't.

2) If you're interested in a solid middle-class income in a growing area
but don't care if anybody, anywhere, ever recognizes your American Express
card (i.e. grown-up reality.) you've come to the right place.

3) Know writing very well, but don't be a fanatic about it. Laying down
on the tracks to stop misuse of a semicolon probably isn't worth it.

4) Learn as much as you can about the industry you are in. Learn as much
as you can about industries you're not in. Throughly learn the tools you do
use. Learn about all the tools you might use. Study organizational
behavior and cognitive theory. Acquire completely useless information,
just to stay in practice. Always know some selected, current technologies
very well, and know a little bit about some emerging ones.

5) Go to STC meetings and schmooze.

6) To thine own self be true.

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

Well, nobody ever made Executive Vice-President based on writing skills
alone. I think in most companies there's a "ceiling" somewhere in the
$35,000-$45,000 range (depending on geography) for plain-vanilla tech
writers. People with specialized technical knowledge or specific skills
(like multimedia) can do better, at least for a while. However, I think
it's possible to "roll" from one interesting new project to another,
basically forever, as long as you keep learning new things.

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

Write stc -at- tmn -dot- com and ask about he salary survey. It varies by geography,
experience, and industry.

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?

Go for a small company that can't be quite as picky about who they hire.
With your background, I might hit one of those "customer survey" places
that work out of malls. Somebody has to design those questionnaires and
tell the people administering them how to do it; might as well be you.

Probe around in related fields--marketing consultants, advertisers, etc.
who may need somebody who knows which end is up to organize some of their
in-house documents.


Doug "There are no small projects,
ENGSTROMDD -at- phibred -dot- com just incredibly bad initial

PS I find this topic entirely appropriate to the list and have enjoyed
reading the responses.

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