Re: Breaking into Technical Writing

Subject: Re: Breaking into Technical Writing
From: Kimberly Lyle-Wilson <klylewilson -at- HOTMAIL -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 19 Mar 1998 09:00:59 PST

Rowena wrote:
>I wonder how many of us actually had guidance in technical writing
>from other technical writers or writing peers when we started. More
>likely, most of us applied a natural sense of curiousity and the
>ability to translate processes into plain English and just ran with
>it. Technical writing is a lot about problem-solving, consistency >and
exercising other individual talents.

Rowena just described my entire experience with techwriting.

I have been a techwriter for about two years. I do not have a college
degree (of any kind), and have never taken a tech writing course. I did
attend college (several times)...first studying engineering physics,
later information technology and business.

I have had strong writing skills since I was a child, and knew I wanted
to be a tech writer while still in high school in the 80s. There weren't
any tech writing programs available in college at that time, though, so
I decided to approach the subject from the scientific angle -- thus my
beginning in engineering. But I found that I hated engineering and
dropped out.

I worked for six years, in four different positions, for an airline's
computer support operation. By the end of my tenure, I had advanced to a
SME position, where I wrote software documentation, specs, problem
reports, business analyses and training materials. I also gave training
classes a few times. I initiated many of these projects myself, and
volunteered for most of the others. The SME position didn't require this
level of writing, but I exercised my authority to write documentation
that had never been written before. (Previously, training had been by
brain-to-brain transfer with no formal documentation available.) When I
had exhausted my opportunities to expand my writing in this company, I
left and started working as a contract tech writer.

The point is, I started writing before I was a tech writer, and that's
what got me in the door. I had products I could show, skills I could
discuss, and experience I could talk about. I had done more than read
books (in fact I never read any tech writing books, either). As a tech
support person, I had developed problem-solving and communication
skills, learned how to extract necessary information from other people,
and had learned the importance of knowing the technical comfort of the
audience (and how to adjust for different levels). My SME writing honed
my organizational skills, and helped me learn how to manage huge amounts
of information from multiple sources, as well as choosing the
appropriate medium and flow for information.

My advice to your friend: get a job somewhere in the tech industry,
stick with it for awhile, and learn as much as he can. WRITE within the
job he has. This kind of tangential writing experience IS enough to
break into the tech writing world, but it takes work and patience. I
worked as a SME, developing my documentation and organizational skills,
for two years before I felt I had enough tangential experience under my
belt to break out.

One other point: tech writing degrees are more important in some areas
and some industries. The west coast has high education standards, while
other markets are less stringent. Similarly, the type of work that can
be done without formal training is limited (IMO). Writing user guides
for software applications is easier to do without formal training than
writing detailed technical engineering specs, for example. Managing an
entire tech pubs operation is beyond the abilities of the inexperienced,
untrained person. You get the idea.

Kimberly Lyle-Wilson
Atlanta GA USA

Technical Writer and Intranet Developer,
The Weather Channel

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