Non-technical, Technical Writers

Subject: Non-technical, Technical Writers
From: Michelle Nichols <mnichols -at- HEALTHMATICS -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 7 May 1998 09:29:15 -0400

Sorry to join the fray a little late, but I am following along in Digest
I have pulled some quotes from several different posts to respond to
and offer up my comments with.
Many of the comments in this thread made me evaluate and re-think about how
my career in Technical Communications has progressed over the years. I was
a technical writer at a large computer company, a development editor at a
computer book publisher, and I am currently a technical writer/editor at a
medical software company. And, I have used my writing skills, my technical
skills (which I have learned on the job in each case), and my thinking
skills to excel at each job.
[Candace Bamber wrote:]
>>All the really good writers I've worked with in my career had in common
>>three characteristics - they knew the techcomm side of the business
>>inside out, they were intensely curious about everything, and they could
>>together really good docs about whatever business or technology they
>>happened to be hired to write about that day.
I think the key point here, that I know has contributed to my success, and
my landing my jobs in the first place, is my intense curiosity. I think
technical writers need to have an innate curiosity that drives them. They
need to be curious about words, about sentences, about writing, about
computers, about technology, about processes, about users of that
technology, about the business environment, about everything! This
curiosity helps bring together the diverse set of skills necessary to be a
great technical writer.
[Chris Welch-Hutchings wrote:]
>>Isn't this what a liberal arts degree is supposed to do? In fact, I have
>>often told folks that the reason I majored in English was "because it
>>taught me how to think." I can pick up a lot of technical know-how on
>>the job, but if I didn't know how to think, I wouldn't know what
>>questions to ask, or when to ask them!
While working on my undergraduate degree in English, with my father fearing
that I was going to be a starving writer living in his home the rest of my
life, I happened upon an "intern" position with a large computer company.
The pay was much more than I was making working at the university library,
and it looked like an interesting idea. Having only used a computer for
less than a year, and just finished taking a journalism class, I felt like
I could at least apply and get the experience of interviewing with such a
large computer company.
I was completely shocked that they hired me. I went through much of my
first years as a technical writer trying to figure out why this manager
took a chance on me, what it was about my education or my experience that
led him to hire me. I think it clearly had to do with my analytical skills
and abilities. I could think a problem through. I could think and analyze
and research complex topics (regardless of what technological area they
might be in, as I had done a project on feline HIV for a class), and I
think that manager knew that I would be able to learn the software
technology with no problem.
[Karen, karen -at- wordwrite -dot- com, wrote:]
>>There is a huge difference between technical knowledge and
>>technical ability, and frankly, I see that engineering education
>>stresses the former and neglects the latter.

So, with my curiosity, and my analytical thinking, I discovered that while
I did not have a great deal of technical *knowledge* about software or
computers, I did have a technical ability, or an aptitude for picking up
technical concepts, ideas, etc. I loved to learn new things, to understand
how things work, and then try to communicate that information to others.
In the past 10 years, I have learned more about programming than I ever
thought possible. I am not a programmer, nor do I ever want to be, but I
can sit down and talk turkey with a programmer, and learn enough about the
software (or heck, my own tools sometimes for that matter), to be able to
communicate complex information to a wide variety of audiences.
And, my one last comment that is hooked off of any other quote from this
thread....... So many people discount the rhetorical and "theoretical"
training that you get in ungraduate and graduate programs around the
country. (I went back and got my MS degree in Technical Communications,
while working at that large computer company.) That rhetorical training
and theoretical training affects your abilities to be a good technical
communicator in more ways that most realize. I know many people have said
that the "how to" or "practical" training is lacking, and it is, but I
would hate to see a program completely revamped such that technical
communicators no longer recieved that theoretical training. I have
discovered over my 10 years that those theories have guided my thinking,
have guided my writing skills, and have helped me more than any practical
training I have received over the years. I can learn any tool, any
technology, any process for developing information. But, luckily, I can
also think, and analyze, and present complex information thanks to that
rhetorical and theoretical training.
Michelle Corbin Nichols

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