Becoming a TW from a technical background

Subject: Becoming a TW from a technical background
From: Leif Wennerberg <leif -at- KUDONET -dot- COM>
Date: Sun, 17 Dec 1995 14:49:26 -0800

I am interested in further comments on Charles Good's recent classification
of Technial Writers. Particularly I'd like to hear about personal
experiences of people who have made transitions from purely technical
careers to TW.

To summarize briefly, and perhaps roughly (I quote from his post below),
after describing his observations of telecomm downsizing a few years ago,
Good described three prospective TWs:

1) engineers who "lose their edge", and typically are, roughly speaking,
weak writers.
2) TW students, who tend to be weak technically.
3) TWs with a lot of experience, who thereby gained some technical savy.

He also described the experience of TW wannabes: learning software as an
entry, and then parlaying "on the job training" into career advancement.

I worked at the USGS until the recent "reinvention" of government, and am
currently attempting a career shift. As part of my research work in
earthquake hazards I wrote and puplished papers, pre-publication reviews,
abstracts for meetings, and reports. My education is in mathematics and
physics. I have thought that I am in a reasonable postion to get into TW,
and have had some encouragement for this idea. I find the prospect
attractive. TW seems to fit reasonably with my "generalist's" interests. I
have a web page,, if anyone wants more detail
on my experience.

I have particular difficulties assessing, and selling, the value my
experience. I have been told by one hiring manager that I could say I have
10+ years of tech-writing experience. On the other hand, I've never
written a manual. I am anticipating taking some TW courses to, at least
partially, compensate for this lack.

Speaking bluntly, Good seemed to characterize Tech writing as a plausible
dumping ground for fading scientists and engineers. Is this a widespread
perception? I have had one contractor strongly encourage me to essentially
bury my academic degrees and play down the content of my career thus far. I
have heard repeatedly that I need to learn essential tools, like Frame. The
implication seems to be that I might go along the usual path of Good's
wannabes. If I had to choose from Good's short list, I suppose I should
have to be put either into his first catagory: engineers, and presumably
scientists, who lose their edge (why else was I laid off? From a gov't job
no less!); or perhaps in the group he mentioned first in his posting,
victims of downsizing who are biding their time till retirement. But I have
a few too many years left to consider my next career merely a stop gap.

Good has presented some useful, not always pleasant stereotypes. I am
interested in further elaboration and other perspectives.

Menlo Park, CA


The relevent parts of Charles Good's posting:

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.

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