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How to Become a Technical Writer (against your will)

Discussion in 'Employment & Jobs' started by tripwire45, Jul 11, 2007.

  1. tripwire45
    Honorary Member

    tripwire45 Zettabyte Poster

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    Arroryn suggested that I write this article so I'm not behaving like a raving egomaniac by creating and posting it. :wink:

    She asked:
    It's a long story and I'll probably have to go over what I'm writing a few times to make sure I've included all the important details. I may have to leave out a name or two since I'm not sure everyone involved would want to have their names posted here without their knowledge. Ok. Here goes.

    About four or five years ago, I was interested in trying to learn Linux (a process that continues to this day). Since the world of Linux documentation is vast and I had no idea where to begin, I posted my query on a discussion board (that shall remain nameless). One of the members (who lives in Iceland...no one you'd know) suggested that I visit the Linux-Tutorial site. I popped over and had a look around. jimmo, the site owner and admin had put up a notice that use of his site and tutorial resources was free but he's appreciate any help he could get in return. I entered into a dialog with jimmo about what I could contribute. We discussed my quals and he suggested that I write an article on SATA drives (they were new then) and Linux. Here's the link. Be nice. It was my first bit of writing.

    http://www.linux-tutorial.info/modules.php?name=Tutorial&pageid=328

    After it was published to the web, I was a bit bothered by it. How would I know if it was any good? Remember the forum I'd published my original query about Linux? It happens to have been (and as far as I know still is) populated by quite a number of talented authors and editors. I chose the one I had the most respect for and asked if he'd mind having a look at what I wrote and rendering an opinion.

    He shredded it. I was hurt initially and was less than gracious in my response but then got to thinking. After all, he gave me what I asked for and was completely honest about it. I sucked up my pride and gave him the apology he deserved. He did me a favor that almost gave me a heart attack.

    Seems that Course Technology was looking to update a book called Guide to TCP/IP written by Ed Tittel and Laura Chappell. They had asked my friend if he'd be available to update Chapter 12: TCP/IP, NETBIOS, and WINS for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. He said he had other commitments but suggested that I would be a good choice for the job!

    I didn't know whether to kiss him or kill him (do all Scots have this kind of sense of humor?). I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and said I'd be willing to do the job. I had no idea what I was doing but the editor at the now defunct LANWrights, Kim Lindros was extremely kind, forgiving, and helpful. She introduced me to the world of publishing and showed me the basic ins and outs. A less gracious editor would have chewed me up and spit me out without a moment's thought. Kim helped me write a successful update to the chapter and she did more than that.

    She started sending more work my way and recommending me to other editors. I did more chapter updates and wrote some instructor manuals for a couple of technical books (TCP/IP and Security). I really didn't know what I was doing but I used the editors as my guides, tried my best to develop working relationships with them and let those relationships take me where they wanted me to go.

    Each job was an adventure in learning but I managed to keep my head above water. At this stage of the game, writing my own book was only a dream. I aspired to it but if I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have written my first book when I did. It didn't do very well on the market and got mediocre reviews at best (and some pretty nasty ones at worst). The best thing the book did for me was introduce me to the world of book publishing in all its glory. Each publisher is a bit different in how they work with you, but the process is more or less the same. I still think of that first book as the day I learned how to ride a bicycle without training wheels. I fell down a lot and got plenty of bruises...but I eventually learned to ride the bike.

    I was working as a contract worker for HP part-time supporting their usability lab when I got "the call". A literary agent for Waterside Productions called and asked to represent me. At first I thought it was a joke. She'd been referred to me by my friend Kim at LANWrights as the most likely candidate they were working with the potential to author books. Once I confirmed this with Kim, my agent and I hit upon an agreement and she suggested my first book.

    I don't know if I even want to talk about this part or not. It was actually kind of painful, especially at first. I had no idea what I was doing and it certainly showed. The acquisitions editor (the person who goes out and gets book ideas and authors) seemed ok with me but the production editor sounded pretty insulting...at least in her emails. Once we established a phone rapport, things got better.

    The good news is that I learned a heck of a lot about how books are written and published. The bad news is that the book wasn't very good. If you want to be an author, you have to start somewhere but this is definitely an example of "experience is what you get when you don't get what you want".

    I was doing some chapters on a book for Dell support people on their PowerConnect switches when I made the mistake of asking publicly on several forums if I was in over my head. While some of the responses were gentle, intelligent, and helpful, some (nothing to do with this forum) were angry and hostile. I couldn't understand why people seems so upset with me writing books. Even if they thought I was not qualified to write on those topics, why did it threaten them? If I was so unqualified, why the heck would any publisher take a chance with me.

    All that said, in the beginning I was very much in over my head. Things have gotten better now and those experiences have taught me when to say "yes" to a project and when to say "no". In the process though, I ceased having relationships with two technical discussion forums as I felt that moderator-level members of those forums didn't respond to the situation in the manner called upon by their positions. Yes...in a way I "asked for it", but it's like asking for advice and getting kicked in the teeth instead. Can you spell "overreact"? Anyway. Enough of this chapter.

    I continue to do various projects in terms of print and web content while working several part-time technical jobs to make ends meet. My first real "break" came when I was hired by a small software company in Boise as their technical writer.

    This was another "first" for me and my first foray into what you might consider "normal" technical writing. Although the classification called "technical writer" can take on many and varied forms, in general, most of them (us) work either for companies that produce products requiring documentation or we work for companies contracted to provide documentation for third-party vendors.

    The saving grace here is that this company was just coming out of a startup phase and where still more or less shooting from the hip. That gave me a lot of latitude in terms of what to do and how to do it. While I received specific instruction on many projects, I also independently developed their FAQ, HOW TO, Troubleshooting, and Glossary pages under their tech support page on the company's official website. In fact, I ended up literally "writing the book" on this product. I suppose I'd probably still be there if they could have actually found a way to sell the thing. Instead, they went under and once again, I was out of a job.

    That lasted about 2 months and then I was hired by a technical recruiting firm to do a three month project for a software team at Micron. That actually stretched to nine months and just before they hired me full-time as a direct employee, Micron hit a hiring freeze. All contractors were dismissed and I was among that lot.

    In retrospect, I suppose that was good since in the news today, the official announcement came that Micron was laying off 10% of its workforce in Boise. There was some mention of this hitting the software developers particularly hard which would have hit me since that's the group I was working for.

    In the middle of all of this, I've written two more books and they're books I feel a lot better about than the first one. I've done a bit more web content but it's more of an aside, really. As of April, I've been working for a company that provides content and editing to third-party vendors such as Adobe, HP, and Microsoft. It's the first time I've worked in a group of other writers, editors, and graphics people instead of being the lone documentation person in a group of software engineers.

    It's not an easy life. Technically, I'm still a contractor (almost all of us are). I get paid only for "billable hours" so if I'm shooting the breeze with someone by the water cooler, I'm losing money. No vacation pay, no sick leave, nada tostada. They way the work around that is that contractors who've worked over a certain number of hours with the company get "bonuses" that they are encouraged to set aside for such needs. I do get medical coverage but just for me (too expensive to put on the fam).

    I started out helping other writers on their projects and then got one of my own. I'm back to helping out a writer who is on vacation and who will later on be having surgery, so the idea is to develop me as her backup.

    The problem here is the problem I saw at Micron and from what I can tell...the problem a lot of companies have. Specific individuals are subject matter experts. No one else in the company knows what they know about their job. There is no central repository for information or procedure. The project I'm on now is for HP's storage management facility and it involves some very specific tools, style guides, and procedures that only the person on vacation knows about. Even the program manager at my company (who is located in Colorado) or the engineers, writers, and editor for HP (who are in California) don't have all the pieces to the puzzle.

    After I finished one project, I basically through a polite but raving fit about our company not having a record of what it does. There is a very limited budget for paying the contractors for "internal documentation" and I and another writer were allowed to develop some content.

    It's basically a drop in the bucket. While in principle, everyone agrees that developing internal content for our own procedures would help new hires and make information generally accessible, but as I mentioned, the budget in terms of time and money is limited and the bucks really come from the vendors who hire us to work for them. It's kind of crazy making, especially since it's my nature to operate in order and not in chaos.

    My recent interviews at Microsoft showed me something of how they do documentation. I'm not going to go into specifics but generally, they are organized more in some areas than in others. I was surprised when I found this out at Micron as well since I imagined that vast, multinational companies would have a rule and procedure for everything.

    In book publishing, it's almost always pretty orderly, at least in what the author is expected to produce and the rules they have to adhere to. Some book series are more restrictive than others, but it's never a matter of writing whatever pops into your head.

    That's the tale. I suppose I could have fleshed out some of the details, but this is supposed to be an article, not an encyclopedia. The path I took to enter this world is anything but normal. A lot of technical writers have degrees in journalism or some similar field. In my last foray into university life, I didn't take even one English class (although to be fair, I'd satisfied those educational requirements decades ago and the writing test I had to take to get back into school more than verified that).

    I'm beat. I haven't slept well these past two nights. I hope tonight will be different. I could use the rest before I reenter my "normal" life. I hope this is what you were looking for. Cheers.
     
    Certifications: A+ and Network+
  2. BosonMichael
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    BosonMichael Yottabyte Poster

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    Good article, Trip!

    Guess I've been one of the "lucky" ones, working salaried without a contract. 8)
     
    Certifications: CISSP, MCSE+I, MCSE: Security, MCSE: Messaging, MCDST, MCDBA, MCTS, OCP, CCNP, CCDP, CCNA Security, CCNA Voice, CNE, SCSA, Security+, Linux+, Server+, Network+, A+
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  3. Theprof

    Theprof Petabyte Poster Forum Leader

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    I agree with BM, good job on the article Trip.
     
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  4. Morne Louw

    Morne Louw Byte Poster

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    good article very interesting read
     
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  5. Arroryn
    Honorary Member

    Arroryn we're all dooooooomed

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    Thank you, Trip.

    Wonderful article; more than I hoped for.
     
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  6. wizard

    wizard Petabyte Poster

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    Nice article :D
     
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  7. supag33k

    supag33k Kilobyte Poster

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    A very nice read indeed Trip!
     
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  8. ajs1976

    ajs1976 Byte Poster

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    Thanks for posting that. It is very interesting and informative.
     
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  9. Tinus1959

    Tinus1959 Gigabyte Poster

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    Nice article.
     
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  10. Bluerinse
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    Bluerinse Exabyte Poster

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    Sorry, i missed this article at the time and it's excellent James. So, i have no problem digging it back up again!

    Thanks.
     
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  11. tripwire45
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    tripwire45 Zettabyte Poster

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    Actually, there are a number of typos I didn't catch first time around. :oops:
     
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  12. BosonMichael
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    BosonMichael Yottabyte Poster

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    Sounds like the perfect intro to a thread entitled, "How to Become a Technical Editor (against your will)." :p heheheh!

    Speaking of which... we're hiring, if any qualified individuals are interested in moving to Nashville. :)
     
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    WIP: Just about everything!
  13. tripwire45
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    tripwire45 Zettabyte Poster

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    I was able to convince my wife that relocating to the Seattle area was desirable largely because she's a west coast person (born and raised in Southern California and educated in the San Francisco area). I'm not sure Nashville would have the same impact on her. :wink:
     
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  14. BosonMichael
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    BosonMichael Yottabyte Poster

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    Yeah, I gave up on you months ago. :p heeheehee
     
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    WIP: Just about everything!

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