Journal: News & Comment

Thursday, July 12, 2001
# 9:43:00 PM:

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Q & A on technical writing

Aspiring writers seem to stumble across this Web site fairly often. Like many of them, Jonathan Rucinski recently asked me some questions, and I thought his were particularly broad-ranging -- or at least they elicited rather long answers from me. Here is our conversation:

Jonathan Rucinski: Thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. I really appreciate you taking the time to help me. The questions, then:

1. What are the duties performed on a typical day?

Derek Miller: Since I work freelance on contract, there is no typical day. It depends on what I'm working on at the time -- a day might include travelling to meet clients, working onsite at a particular location, or sitting in my basement all day typing. Sometimes all three. As projects progress, the duties of each day evolve. And if I'm editing or proofreading instead of writing, or doing Web work, things are different again.

Plus, I work part time largely because I also take care of my two young daughters, so days may be even less typical than usual for me. Also, since I work freelance, for myself, there's always paperwork, invoices, taxes, etc.

I find that, in general, the early phases of a project involve a lot of talking to people (in person, by phone, by e-mail) and background research on the Web and with books and other resources. Middle phases include those things, as well as outlining and structuring documents. Later phases, closer to deadlines, involve a lot of actual writing, sometimes great swaths of it at a time, and then, at the very end, editing and proofreading, both by me and others -- usually involving quite a bit of work with printouts and a red pen, as well as sending drafts back and forth with the client. Somewhere in there I'm often taking photographs, or screen shots of software, and manipulating them for publication.

Tech writers have to understand the topic under consideration fairly well to explain it to a lay audience, which is usually what we're doing, so the research and learning phase is quite important, even though it often seems frustrating because I'm not producing anything. In my current contract for Sierra Wireless, a maker of wide-area wireless modems, that's the phase I'm in. I've been there two weeks, working onsite three days a week, and I've hardly written a thing (except for a lot of e-mails asking questions).

2. What type of training or educational background will I need for this job?

Be a good writer. That's way more important than anything else. Some technical background -- not necessarily in any particular field, but something that gives you the ability to learn technology quickly -- is second on the list. ("Technical." "Writing." Makes sense now.)

Few technical writers I know have any specific educational qualifications for the job. Most have at least a bachelor's degree, but mine, for instance, is in marine biology. I've also been a computer geek hobbyist for about 20 years, but I couldn't program or solder my way out of a paper bag. That's why I'm not an engineer.

It also helps to be very picky about language, detail, and accuracy. I am very much so on my writing projects, though hardly at all in my day to day life. My workspaces are typically fairly messy and I don't do my laundry as often as my wife would like, but my work is organized, and I hate typos, improper usage, and technical inaccuracy.

3. What steps, besided meeting educational requirements, are necessary to "break into" this occupation? Should I join a union or organization, volunteer, or work part time at first?

Any of them will help. As with any job, experience is a bonus. I stumbled into tech writing. (It is not all I do -- I'm happy to do other types of writing, editing, proofreading, design, photography, and HTML, but tech writing is where the money is these days. Plus I also make decent side wages as a drummer.) Here's my story, for what it's worth:

I've always written and edited. I worked on my junior and senior high school yearbooks and newspapers, edited a computer club newsletter when I was 14, helped found two student newspapers at my university, edited the student handbook there, and eventually moved into a non-fiction writing diploma program when I figured out that my B.Sc. qualified me for washing glassware in a lab somewhere. So I volunteered a lot without really realizing it.

I worked for the student society at my university during and after my studies, and wrote a lot of reports and policies there. Afterward, I played music professionally for two years, but continued writing the occasional article, as well as spearheading many of the band's publicity efforts. Later, I applied for a job in the advertising department of a magazine, and while working there wrote some articles and proofread the magazine each month.

But it was a horrible place to work because of the boss, so I switched to a software company where I stayed for more than four years. While there, I moved from helping administer the development department to writing marketing materials, running the Web site, and editing the monthly e-mail newsletter, among other things. I also wrote some documentation and help because people discovered I was good at it.

When I was laid off there (along with 37 others), I decided to go freelance full time (I had been doing it in my spare time anyway), and found plenty of work through people I'd known all along. I'm 32 now and just getting on a roll as a tech writer by that name.

So, in summary, it's best to build up the skills however you can, and use the contacts you acquire in the process to get yourself work.


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