Introduction and Tech Writing Horror Story [Long]
Chris Schweda <schweda -at- WWA -dot- COM>
Thu, 28 Aug 1997 12:44:44 -0500
I'm new to this list and thought I'd both introduce myself and give a few of
my tech writing experiences. I've noticed a couple "I'm fresh out of grad
school and want to be a tech writer posts," and I thought I'd give my own
version of a "Here's what happened when I got outta grad school and became a
tech writer" tale.
First, my background. BA in English, MA in English, MFA in English/Writing.
I've always had a strong interest (and a fairly substantial but
unstructured) background in computer programming and theory. My original
goal in college was to write fiction and teach. I managed this for a while
as a grad student and then later, even outside of grad school -- teaching
English for my pay, publishing short stories when I had the time to write,
and eeking out a humble existence. At first this seemed a good way to live.
But it turned out to be a pain in the ass. The teaching pay was always
miserable, and my constant quest for cash (and by 'cash' I mean basic cash
-- cash to pay rent, pay bills, eat food; forget about saving for the
future, paying off the college loans, and minor ?fun? expenses) meant I
never had time enough to write.
It was hand to mouth, and I found I had barely any time (or energy) to
simply sit and write. And of course the fewer things I wrote and published,
the fewer awards/grants/fellowships/stipends I won, the lesser my chances
were for moving from 'adjunct faculty' (slave labor, basically) to
'full-time tenure track.' (fat chance!)
I moved to Chicago and decided it was time to be a real writer. I was gonna
write and get paid for it. So I started thinking about tech writing. I knew
the salaries were fairly good, the jobs were out there, and there would
always be a need for someone who could think critically, write clearly, and
communicate effectively. Oh boy.
Four months I searched for a job. Lots of interviews, but most of the
interviewers were less than impressed with my academic background. Because
my 'professional' emphasis was in English and teaching rhetoric and fiction,
they looked upon that as me spending my school years and first years out of
grad school as years spent in 'la-la' land. In fact, several interviewers
were indignant -- no kidding -- when they discovered I'd gotten an MFA from
Michigan in 'fiction.'
"Fiction?" One interviewer stared at me. "You've got to be kidding." I was
interviewing for a customer service job with a local Internet Service
Provider. The writing involved a weekly newsletter. The pay was abysmally
low, but like many people trying to find work, I was in need of cash, and
was more than willing to do what I had to do.
In all the interviews I stressed my technical background -- my programming
(C, C++, Pascal, even VAX Assembly), my success with training materials for
all of my courses, my ability to handle the normal software packages --
Quark, Frame, Pagemaker, Illustrator, etc. etc -- and of course my ability
to take complex information, simplify it, and present it in a way that
end-users can understand. I always downplayed my personal fiction writing as
the 'necessary evolution' to arrive at this particular place at this
(As an aside, I look upon those first unsuccessful interviews, however, as
pretty telling forays into the world of 'corporate tunnel vision.' And
although it could be written off as educational snobbery - or just snobbery
in general on my part - I was unimpressed with the people interviewing m
(perhaps they felt the same about me -- who knows?) They looked as though
they knew their 'stuff' and they knew it well. But anything outside of this
'stuff' they were incapable of appreciating, let along understanding. At the
time of the interviews, I was willing to say, well, this is how it is. In
retrospect, I realize that my own 'personality impressions' of the
interviewer were as crucial as his or her impressions were of me. There's a
lot of narrow-minded dummies in the high-tech industry, and I felt battered
by what I perceived to be pretty damn fierce ?anti-intellectualism.? Today,
I know that this 'narrow-mindedness' or corporate tunnel vision to be more
the exception than the rule. But for a long time ? and especially after I
was chastised and made to be feel like a dummy for my academic choices ? I
was convinced this not to be the case.)
Anyway, after several months, I scored a real tech-writing job with a small
(three people counting myself) firm in Chicago writing documentation for a
large (and I mean *large*) local corporation whose cellular division was in
drastic need of easy-to-read product documentation. Ahem.
Here's where the horror stories come in. Because it was my first real job
outside of academia, I got suckered. Big-time suckered. I agreed to work for
a time on freelance hourly basis with the assumption that because the firm
was new and small, our 'salaries' would come later. However, because I was
*promised* a salary, it was assumed that I was, in fact, a salaried worker
-- even though I was still getting paid by the hour. So I received no
overtime, was expected to work 9-10 hour days, and given no days off. No
sick days, no personal time, no nothing. My boss was playing it both ways --
she was getting full-time work but us giving freelance wages and absolutely
no benefits. I worked there for 14 months.
(On the one day in 14 months I called in sick, I was given a list of things
to do and people to call. She wasn?t paying us to be sick, I was told. "We
all have to work extra hard, gang!" She had the annoying habit of calling us
"gang" and trying to be the savvy leader. "We work hard and play hard, don?t
we, gang?!" "Gang, let?s be a better team, huh?" "Remember, gang, when we
make money, *you* make money!" Which was a load of shit, since none of us
ever saw a nickel more than the original figure we were ?quoted? in our
My boss drove a BMW, refused to keep regular hours, and brought every
personal event in her life to the workplace, thinking that she?d impress us
with her life in the fast-lane. Golf courses, parties, jetting off to the
Caribbean, etc. etc. She was, however, the boss and signed our paychecks, so
for this reason I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I figured this was
corporate life. This was the way the office culture worked. She made me feel
important by calling me ?brilliant? and a ?wonderful writer,? but it was all
for her self-interest. Like anyone new, green, and deeply in debt from
college, I felt that I was getting someplace ? or at least poised so that
once I got someplace, there I would be, glad that I?d been where I was.
Anyway, even though she mentioned at the time of my first interview I would
sign a contact, I never signed anything. Everything was all in her head. I
even had the sad experience of hearing her 'quote' me one salary figure, but
giving me another salary figure -- nearly five thousand dollars less than
what I was quoted. The first paycheck was shock. She, however, wrote it off
as temporary, as a fact of working for a new company on-the-rise. (Which,
later, turned out to be far from true. Where my paycheck money came from, I
had no idea. I got paid, yes, but since we weren?t doing any work, and
hardly getting paid for the work we *were* doing, I had to wonder where our
money was coming from. I alternately worried about this and told myself I
didn?t want to know.)
I was hired with the understanding that I would receive health insurance.
But I later found out that until we were put on 'salary' we would receive no
I was hired with the understanding that after a three month probationary
period, my salary would increase by five thousand dollars. But after three
months, nothing happened. And because I had no contract -- no sheet of paper
listing out the rules of employment -- my boss claimed that she never quoted
me any such figure and that I was full of it. (But my work, she assured me,
I was hired with the understanding that I would be 'senior' writer and would
supervise a staff and be responsible for the writing of nearly 600 product
documentation transactions a year -- new manuals, revisions, etc. For the
whole 14 months I worked there, I wrote 1.5 manuals. Yes, one point five. I
quit before I finished my second manual.
I understand now that my desperation for work led me to accept less than
satisfactory employment conditions. And I understand that I should not have
stayed there for as long as I did. But debt and family responsibilities
always brought me back every Monday morning, always with the hope that at
some point, the job would (a) get more challenging and (b) I would finally
receive the benefits I was initially promised.
The job never got better and in fact got worse. My boss was constantly
arranging presentations to this large electronics company (ahem) to 'close
the deal with the manuals.' When I was hired, I was told this 'manual deal'
was closed. Turned out, it was barely ?open.? Most of the higher-ups in the
company didn?t even know that their manuals were outsourced.
I soon realized that this large company had no intention of letting our
small company do *all* the manual transactions. They simply used us because
they liked what we did, and they knew that because my boss was desperate to
get all the work, she would bust her ass (or, rather, bust our asses) to get
the work done on time. I don't blame the large corporation. I?d do the same
thing. My boss underbid so low that the company couldn?t believe it. She
tried charging more, but they refused to pay until she charged what a normal
vendor would pay. And then, they said she needed to go lower than a normal
vendor. And she did. And they liked it. And so it went.
Because I could write well ? and write quickly under pressure -- I soon
became my boss's little memo/proposal/presentation person. "I got a
presentation with Blah blah on Friday," my boss would tell me. "Let's
kick-ass with the figures." She'd sit beside me, ask me to write a letter,
and then -- I'm serious -- yell at me if I put in a wrong word or one that
she didn't think sounded right. I was to read her mind. If I read wrong, I?d
get grief. If I read right, I?d get to keep sitting there with her. Whoopee.
Which brings me to my last experience: my boss made sure to hire people just
like me. Young, out of college, and first-timers to the work world. She knew
we'd be unsophisticated and naive ? and we were. She knew we'd be so happy
to get the job -- and get a paycheck ? and that we'd do anything. And we
did.And because of it, we all learned the hard way.
She tried to indoctrinate us into the cult of "you must dedicate your life
to this company and me" philosophy. If we had to learn a program, we were
expected to learn it on our time. That wouldn't be bad, I suppose, if there
was some sort of light at the end of the tunnel -- but, remember, we were
freelancers getting an hourly wage, no taxes taken from our checks, but
working under ?salaried? conditions. If we griped about the lack of
benefits, we?d be assured they would come. (They never did.) We were
expected to stay well past the end of the day and were frowned upon if we
left at 5pm.
But here's the big rub: All this grief, but was no work to do. The 600
manuals I was promised turned out to be one single manual. I worked on a few
presentations and proposals during my first month there, but the main work
was one manual. So I worked on the manual. I worked with a graphics person,
slaved over each and every sentence, worried about each and every graphic,
was determined to make this cell phone manual the best goddamn cell phone
manual in existence. And what happened? I worked too fast. I got yelled at
by my boss for writing too fast. I was putting her out of business. I was
undercutting her profits (she charged by the hour). And I was banned from
saying anything at meeting with the client. The manager of the project would
ask me a question: Can you add this? How long would it take to change the
battery time from 3 minutes to 4.5 minutes? Can I see a copy of the revised
battery chart by Monday?
Questions like that. Changes that would literally take 30 seconds. But my
boss would put on a song-and-dance. "These changes ... you're asking for
things that take -- well, we have to go back in and change this, and we have
to reformat the book, and, well, you're asking for something that'll take--I
dunno ... today is Monday? I'm thinking: wait, we have another change here,
and that change is a big one, so I'm thinking: well, today is Monday, maybe
by Friday of *next* week, how does that sound? And the cost, that'll change,
"How much? Well, changes like this mean we have to 'undo' work that's been
done. It means we have to revise our estimates."
One thing any writer realizes is that once you understand and internalize
the product, the writing is fairly quick. You know your audience, you have a
fair understand of the product, and as a result you "get it." This works for
anything, of course, not just cell phones. You step over the wall of
uncertainty and confusion. "Now if the user does this, will she see this? or
this?" Those questions disappear. You "get it." And once gotten, you're able
to bang out the text like a madman. You get the lingo, get what you're
supposed to simplify, get how you're supposed to simplify it, and -- WHAM!
The fear of a 150 page manual is no longer there.
The worst part, I guess, of my first tech writing experience was that I
didn?t really learn much about writing. I pride myself on my ability to
adapt to any writing task ?stories, screenplays, cell phone manuals, law
enforcement software manuals, proposals, poetry ? you name it.
But this first job put the kaibosh on any incentive to learn how to be a
better tech writer. First, because there was little writing, if any, to be
done, and second because my boss felt that education ? a knowledge of the
industry, even a better knowledge of the product ? was not what she was
paying me to do. I was paid to crank out a manual ? but crank it out so
slowly that, literally, some days I wrote a sentence ? no kidding. A single
I?ve since gotten my incentive back (obviously), but this first experience
soured and jaded me. I still get physically ill when I see a billboard for
the cell-phone I was ?writing? about. And because my boss was so focused on
this one client, she refused all other work. And the work that she did get,
she didn?t keep. The result was an office with nothing to do. Bored people
looking busy. Two writers sending pop-up notes back and forth on their
computers, heckling the boss. A graphic artist working slow, slow, slowly.
And a ?personal assitant? filing just to file things. "What things are you
filing?" "I dunno," she?d say. "I?m filing." Like something out of Catch-22.
And me, every day, trying to look busy.
After a while, I couldn?t take it. I (finally) quit. My boss was furious. I
The work tapered off to literally nothing, and in the end ? on my last day
of work, no less ? we had a meeting with our major corporation. This was
(like every other) the ?big meeting?. It was the ?green-light? meeting.
"This is it," my boss told me. "They?re gonna give us the green light.
Aren?t you sorry you?re leaving? This is all the work!" Turned out, the
company had plans to only give us one or two more "over the next two years."
I went back to the office, puttered around for a few more hours, stood up
from the computer, waved to my colleages, and walked out the door. And, in
the immortal words of Jodie Foster from Scorsese?s ?Alice Doesn?t Live Here
Anymore,? "So long, suckers!"
So that?s it, in a nutshell. The first tech writing job experience. It
soured me on much of corporate America but didn?t completely kill my desire
to write technical documentation. (It came close, but common sense
prevailed.) All this made me realize ? to make a long, long story short ?
that if you?re out of college or grad school and are looking for that first
foot in the door, ya gotta be careful. Don?t trust anyone. Get it all down
in writing. And if your boss is taking advantage of you ? and even going so
far as to control your time outside of work ? run, don?t walk, to the
The observations here are not new, and I?m sure others here have had
similar, or even worse, experiences. But I felt compelled to share. Writers
? tech writers, fiction writers, poets ? we?re savvy goddamn people.
Moreover, I?m sick of the shit that employers pull with writers ? mostly,
the anti-intellectual bias and the unwillingness to accept the fact that a
well-educated writer is oftentimes superb problem solver. (I?ll give my old
boss this much: she wanted people with lots of education. If you didn?t have
at least one MA, you were not worthy for work ? any kind of work. This is,
as I?ve seen from the list and from my own experience, debatable. But
education counts, and those that discount it typically misunderstand the
difference between college and grad school and the idea of life in academia.
And those that discount it, typically don?t realize that in many grad
schools, competitions is much fiercer than out in the so-called "real
world." I tried to impress upon one of my colleages this very fact, because
she had the annoying habit of treating me with kid-gloves since I?d never
worked in a ?deadline-driven? environment. Heh. Obviously, someone who
doesn?t get what it?s like going into a grad school and dealing with
cuththroat peers, colleages, and faculty-members. Anyway, I digress...)
In fact, I?m sorry I didn?t realize before I went on my job search this one
little tidbit of enlightenment: the secret to being a good tech writer isn?t
being able to write well (that?s part of it, of course, but only a small
part). The secret is an ability to creatively solve problems. That?s the
key, and that?s also the one thing that tunnel-visioned interviewers often
neglect when considering an applicant. They look for the facts ? have you
worked with X? can you program in X? have you written 64 manuals? -- and
rarely take a step back and attempt to determine whether or not this
applicant is a quick learner, savvy problem solver, and effective communicator.
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