Re: how does one become a techwriter

Subject: Re: how does one become a techwriter
From: Charles Good <good -at- AUR -dot- ALCATEL -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 15 Dec 1995 15:02:49 GMT

I work in the telecommunications business. A decade or so ago, when
many large telecommunication corporations were downsizing (some still
are), there was an intense effort to retain people (who were targeted
for layoffs) by retraining them and assigning them to jobs they would
not normally consider. Many senior technicians and customer service
engineers were saved by becoming training material developers and
technical writers. However, this was an interim measure since many of
theses salvaged souls were simply trying to stay on-board for a few
more years until they could retire.

Nowadays, technical writers in the telecommunications business typically
come from two backgrounds. One scenario is the design engineer who has lost
his edge or the systems engineer who cannot find work. They become writers
who need a lot of writing style and grammar coaching. The other scenario
is the college trained technical communicator. This might be a 2-year
associate degree graduate or a 4-year bachelor degree grad. These writers
tend to need technical coaching, unless their college program also included
a lot of electronics training. Just as the engineer-turned-writer depends
on the help of a good editor, the non-technical communicator relies on
subject matter experts.

Occasionally, we do see a hybrid... someone who has strong communications
and writing skills combined with strong technical expertise. These folks
are usually the 10+ year veteran writers who have a diverse background.

Wannabe writers are people who do not match any of these scenarios. They
usually have the desire, but neither the training nor the experience. They
find an inroad by learning a computer tool that is in demand (like Interleaf
or FrameMaker). They apply to contract labor firms who supply temporary
staff to companies that need extra bodies during large projects. These
folks learn by doing (OJT) and if they get enough work exposure from enough
companies then they graduate from writer's assistant or production assistant
to a full fledged writer.

This is a simplification, but it basically states how people have accomplished
this transition into the business.

I should add that each industry has its own idiosyncracies and standards.
In the telephone business, you must know how to write documentation per
Bellcore standards. With small products like modems, it's not a big deal.
However, when documenting a digital switching system, intimate knowledge
of the standards and styles is essential! It can literally determine
whether or not customers will buy your product.

Unfortunately, many companies have their own interpretation of such
standards and some companies only choose to be semi-compliant because
full compliance is considered unnecessary and cost-prohibitive. Some
companies maintain their own style guide for writers; some do not.
Therefore, it is difficult to buy a book or get copies of the various
standards and study them. You must actually implement them on a
day-to-day basis.

This is why many industries have a small circle of technical writers
and everyone knows everyone (if they have been in the business very
long). It's like advertising for a torpedo warfare expert with 10+
years of gyro design experience... the qualified applicants list is
very short because the nature of the industry only permits a small
number of people to have the opportunity to gain such experience.

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