A year ago or so, my fiction-writing buddy Ciara Knight‘s high-school-aged son sent me some questions about my career as a professional technical communicator for his FIRST Robotics competition. This year, the Eagle Robotics team is still at it, and they had another round of concrete, intelligent questions about my job, so I thought I’d share once again.
Ten Questions in 2020
- As a technical writer, how do you understand the visions of organizations well enough to write about them effectively? Communication is a key asset for our team, and I’m sure it is for you as well. How do you overcome difficulties in communication?
Actually, I’ve usually been pretty lucky in my experiences. Most of the organizations I’ve worked for have taken the time to write up vision statements, mission statements, and long-term plans, which help their employees (and, by helpful coincidence, their contractors) better understand the company philosophy. If I run into a problem related to how an organization says something, I will definitely ask my customer. Just because I think I know the answer doesn’t mean I do. When in serious doubt, I ask. If I have a general idea of what they want, I will sometimes take my best shot at writing something and then flag it so they know, “Hey, I’m guessing here.”
- What process do you go through to verify your work with a client when it is completed? How long would you usually expect this process to be relative to your original writing time?
My usual process if I’m writing a new document vs. just editing an existing document is to write, get feedback, make my revisions, and then wait to see if there are any other changes. If the content keeps changing or the customer doesn’t think I’ve quite covered the content as well as they’d like, I might go through another cycle or two like this before things are finished.
If I’m editing an existing technical document, I will make my markups in Track Changes (in Microsoft Word) and ask that my work go through a technical review because, while I’ve become somewhat familiar with the content, I am not an engineer or scientist. If I’m down to final edits, I’ll still make changes in Track Changes (unless there’s a time crunch) and then touch only the grammar or mechanics, not the content.
The size of a document will determine the turnaround time. I can crank out 10-20 pages (2,500-5,000 words) in eight hours. I have no idea if that’s “normal” for my line of work, but that’s my speed. Editing usually takes about 10 pages per hour, especially if I’m doing a content review, not just proofreading.
- What has been the hardest problem you have faced recently as being a technical writer and how are you trying to overcome this?
I have been very service-oriented over my career, and I don’t like to say no to customers. However, due to an increase in my workload from my primary clients, I’ve had recently had to refer some customers to other writers or just tell them that I can’t work for them anymore. My solution, again, is to try to find someone who can take over for me so that these other customers don’t have to go it alone without a writer/editor. It’s still hard saying “no,” but I’m working on it.
- How do you manage your writing workload to prevent becoming overwhelmed or burned out?
I will vary what I work on during the day, sometimes doing one customer’s work in the morning and another’s in the afternoon, if both of them have compatible deadlines or workloads. See #3 for an additional part of the answer. Also, last year, I took a three-and-a-half-week vacation in November-December after cranking out a bunch of work August-October. Normally, I try to take little breaks out of town when I know there will be down time just to get a change of scenery.
- Up to what standard does your writing meet? Does it take many revisions to accomplish this standard, or does it come naturally with experience?
With my level of experience (and age—it has to be said), customers expect a certain level of proficiency that combines content knowledge, clear wording, and quality mechanics into a package that the customer will accept. Some customers will have specific language or tone requests (see #1), but I’m not certain there’s a specific “standard” that is applied. If necessary, I will refer new customers to my portfolio, my publicly available work, or previous customers and have them determine from those if my skills match their needs.
My first business writing job was answering guest letters for Walt Disney World, and when I first started, it took a couple of editing cycles to get 10-20 one-page letters approved because I was still learning how Disney said things (see #1). It was rather humbling, but I learned. Now, 20+ years later, once a customer observes the quality of my work, I’m usually given more leeway as far as what I can write/edit and how. I’d definitely say I’m a better writer and editor now than I was 20 years ago.
- Is there a certain format for creating technical writings that you find is the most effective at portraying information and generating interest?
Regardless of what you’re doing, whether you’re writing journalism or a technical document, you want a good summary sentence or paragraph up front that explains to the reader the most important fact(s) in a document and why said fact(s) should be considered important.
- What would you say and recommend to an aspiring technical writer?
Looking back now, I’d say learn to develop your own style. Learn to say something as simply and clearly as you can your way, though you might need to accept corrections on grammar or mechanics along the way. I think what I try to do is think of the friends who might be interested in my topic but don’t know much about it yet. Then I try to write as if I were explaining that topic to them in a regular conversation. Formality has its place, but what you really want are the facts and why they matter.
Additional thought, the morning after I wrote these:
Some of the folks I attended graduate school with worried that they couldn’t learn “all that technical stuff.” After all, one told me, “If I wanted to work on science or technology, I wouldn’t be an English major, would I?” Actually, there are some pretty sophisticated science fiction writers who would disagree with that assessment. However, the thing I would advise the aspiring technical writer, regardless of his/her background, is not to let the content intimidate you. The science or technology means practically nothing outside of an organization if it is not communicated well, and this is where you add value. Your goal is to put the tech, whatever it is, into words that you and others understand.
- Before you begin writing, is there a planning period for your writing? If so, what does this period of preparation and planning entail?
It depends on the project. One of the larger documents I’ve created in the last year was a response to a government request for information. To make that work, I created headings that matched the government’s needs and then added any explanatory information underneath the headings so that the subject matter experts (SMEs) providing me the information had a clear idea of what the government is asking. This streamlined the process and helped the SMEs concentrate on what’s important. Generally, the bigger the project, the more your organization will be determined for you.
- When working with groups of people, what precautions are put in place to ensure that you stay on schedule to meet deadlines? Additionally, if one group gets behind, do you have set protocols to make up the lost time? If so, what procedures are included in the protocols?
The biggest (most common) time-crunch documents a technical writer deals with are usually proposals. The bigger the proposal, the more individuals will be assigned to provide content. Sometimes an individual will be assigned as little as one paragraph. Sometimes SMEs will get tied up with other work and a writer will have to ask them for information—even if it’s bullet points—just to get the process rolling. Most of the time this is not a problem, though. Employees in every company I’ve worked for have understood the importance of proposals: if we don’t win, we don’t get money to stay in business. And managers will take people off of their current assignment and put them onto a proposal team so they stay focused. Therefore, people falling behind is not a problem.
- What would you say is the most effective way to display the mission behind an organization’s outreach?
I’m not quite certain I understand your question here, but as I noted in #1, any forward-looking organization usually has a vision (what they want to be as an organization) and a mission (what they want to accomplish). If both of those are clear in the minds of the team, they can share that with the outside world clearly and directly so there aren’t a lot of misunderstandings.