Defining The Entry Level Tech Writer

Subject: Defining The Entry Level Tech Writer
From: George Mena <George -dot- Mena -at- ESSTECH -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 21 Apr 1998 10:11:40 -0700

Dear Jeffrey Roberts,

Once upon a time, even most of the people we regard as experienced tech
writers were once entry-level with not a lot of experience. Some people
wind up making enough of an impression on a hiring manager to say "Okay,
you're in, now give me your best stuff for as long as you can give it."
Others get the added responsibilities that tech writing entails thrust
upon them, as is the case with a couple of people I've worked with. One
had been a bench-test technician who was asked one day to start
documenting products. The other person had been involved with speech
synthesis in college, but not necessarily any real-world off-campus
exposure to an engineering environment.

Since you've been paying attention to the posts here the last couple of
months, I'm sure you now realize that technical writing is in fact an
extremely hard-to-define career because there are many industries that
use technical writers. It's not restricted to the computer field any
more than it is to the defense industry or to the legal or banking
professions. If anything, the prevailing wisdom that a technical writer
should focus solely on one area of expertise such as *only* software or
*only* hardware is bogus. It's bogus because the contention is as
elitist as it is restrictive. I know *I* have no patience with such
elitists, because they're more the "Johnny Come Lately" types that came
to be solely because of the computer age. Otherwise, they'd all be
busing dishes at someplace like Mel's Drive-In, which at least has a
great 50's ambience and good music going for it. =)

That being said, let's talk about your qualifications for a minute. The
double major in Journalism and English is commendable, but it seems to
be a little bit of overkill. After all, most journalists in this
country should know English when writing for publication. Not a
condemnation, just an observation. =) You might want to check out the
local community college and pick up an AS in Electronics Technology and
take some programming classes as electives. Once you know how to
program in a high-level language like Visual Basic or C/C++, try your
hand at creating your own shareware program, just to say you did it if
for no other reason. You can then show it around to folks in the
software world to say "I have applications development experience.
Here's a program that I developed!"

You also ask if you're more suited for writing white papers such as
technology briefs and such. Hmmm.... if you restrict yourself to working
in high-tech, the lack of a knowledge base would probably hurt you.
White papers, from what I've seen, tend to be written more by the actual
technology developer. This means an engineer is doing the high-level
writing that you expect in white papers and that he's drawing from his
lab experience. There are tech writers that will spend some time in a
lab -- any lab -- but I suspect there aren't *that* many who actually

What you want -- in fact, need -- is to develop your lab expertise and
mechanical aptitude just as much as you can. You already know you can
write, but have you ever taken something apart and put it back together?
And have you actually documented the step-by-step process of removal,
disassembly, reassembly and installation? And was it right? Did the
car motor start up when you reinstalled the carburetor onto the engine
and turned the key? Did your hand-drawn sketch of the disassembled part
and your detailed parts list help someone else reassemble it correctly?
You get the idea.

Writing about software isn't much different either, in my opinion. The
Save routine still has to save the file to the hard disk by directing
the hardware to perform a write operation. But the Save routine is
worthless if it doesn't work with the application programming interface
or if the routine wasn't debugged before the program was compiled and
turned into an executable file. Bill Gates had the reddest face in
Chicago yesterday when the version of Windows 98 he was showing at the
spring Comdex trade show crashed in full view of all the attendees!
Time for Bill to get out of Mahogany Row and back to the keyboard!!! =)
=) =) According to the AP wire story that ran in all the major papers
(I'm checking the San Francisco Chronicle here), Gates said "I guess we
still have some bugs to work out. That must be why we're not shipping
Windows 98 yet." Well, DUH!!!

You haven't said if you've ever rebuilt a car motor as a kid or taken a
couple of years of electronics in high school. If you have, then not
all is lost for you in exploring technical writing as a career. Like
anything else worth having, though, if you want to excel as a technical
writer, you'll have to work at it. Only you can make that decision.

Learning the tools of the trade is always a good idea, but there's more
to this business than that. And while you say that the tech writing
field gate appears locked to you, I'll remind you that locks can be
picked if you have the right tools, even the electronic cardkey locks.

Are you an entry-level sort of guy? Right now, for the computer
industry, I'd probably have to say yes. I'll also say, however, "So
What? We were all entry-level once! Go for it!"

George Mena
Technical Writing Consultant
George -dot- Mena -at- esstech -dot- com
ESS Technology, Inc.
48401 Fremont Blvd.
Fremont, CA 94538

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