I again had the pleasure of speaking to a group of Marika Siegel‘s senior-level technical writing students at Michigan Tech University. They sent me a list of excellent questions in advance related to tech writing in general, job hunting, and my curious career in particular, and I did my rambling best to answer. I’m really glad I took the time to write down my answers before I spoke to the class. That provided a little structure to my Q&A session. I wish the students well. They had some interesting backgrounds and plans.
Writing in General
Have you found this informal style of writing to be the most effective for your books, or is it maybe just a favorite, or both?
I presume you mean my blogging style. That’s me writing as me as opposed to writing for other people. I’d have to say that my blogging style is much looser than when I’m writing for other people. The book based on the blog has a similar style, and the book I plan to write next will use it, also. I don’t get away with “casual” much if I’m writing a business document for someone else, unless they’re equally casual.
How do you get through writer’s block?
On the job, I’ll do any number of things, from additional research to asking questions of the SMEs to narrowing down what about a topic interests me. Occasionally I’ll break down and ask the customer what they “really” want if the original assignment wasn’t clear enough.
I enjoy how your book is structured, to improve my writing especially creative writings, what books do you recommend?
The book I always recommend to anyone is called Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. It was a grad school text, and is one of the finest books I’ve read on the subject of improving one’s writing style…business or creative. For pure fiction writing, Stephen King’s book On Writing is worth a look. For fiction and poetry, maybe Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.
Besides materials that are given to you from your work what are the most useful resources for writing? Or your go-to websites/ books when you’re not sure how to take on a project?
It really depends on the topic. When I’m writing for a space client, I default to their internal documentation. If I’m doing space journalism, I’ll take a look at Space News, Aviation Week, or one of the other high-quality journalism outlets. If I’m writing about space history, it depends on which period and which aspect of the topic I’m writing about. If I’m doing training writing, I look at Effective Learning Strategies: A Comprehensive Guide to Maximizing Learning in Organizations by James R. Davis and Adelaide B. Davis. Bottom line: I look for the best books or related sources in whatever field I’m writing about. Classics or go-to sources have that reputation for a reason.
When doing technical writing, when do you know when you have explained a concept clearly enough?
I think it’s time for me to stop when I’ve run out of questions.
As technology becomes more pervasive, is it easier to write technical documents because people have a better basic understanding of them, or does it just get more complicated because the technology is more complicated?
I guess it depends on the type of document you’re working with. You have to make a few assumptions or ask about your audience to determine their level of background knowledge. The less background the audience has in a topic, the more explaining you have to do, either by reference to other technologies or even analogies to non-technical subjects.
And going off of that, with the rise of technology and how common it is now, how has that changed your job as a communicator?
In 2014, I got contacted by a company who needed a technical writer and had my resume on file because I’d applied to them before. They asked if I had anyone at NASA Headquarters who could vouch for my skill set, and I gave them 2-3 names. Based on my resume, those references, and maybe one phone call, I got the job. The contract and NDA were emailed to me, then the work. I did the work and emailed it back to them, having never met anyone at the company face to face. That’s become more common now, but it was a mind-bender for me at the time. So I suppose the increase in technology prepared me for working from home during the pandemic: I don’t get out much, but with all the tools available, I don’t need to get out much.
Job Search & Career Advice
Are there any red flags new technical writers should look out for during job searches?
If you see a job where they’re asking for specific technical experience, like you were in the Army or Navy and worked on a particular set of hardware, don’t bother applying unless you actually have that experience. There are similar issues in the non-military world. If you see a job description with very specific experience in particular work settings, software, hardware, and years of service, the odds are pretty good that they already have someone else in mind for the job. Unless you have all of those qualifications…in which case, it could be you!
What is the best piece of advice you’d give to someone just starting out in the industry?
Establish a solid online presence: preferably a website of some sort with samples of your work. If you don’t have any samples from work projects, start writing a blog about a topic you know a lot about and write regularly so you build your content. If the topic is in the field you want to work in, so much the better. You need to show people what you can do.
As we look to begin our careers as technical communicators in the near future, what advice can you give us for advancing in our careers and advocating for ourselves?
Do good work and be pleasant to work with. Your resume will maybe open the first door. After that, it’s all about your reputation: how well do you work, how well do you get along with the people you work with. I haven’t had a formal job interview since 2012. All my work since then has come based on a recommendation or from someone I’ve worked with before. If you’re not keen on freelancing, once you know your basic job better, start looking around for other projects or tasks within your organization or outside of it. That helps you build a broader network, gives you better insight into the organization, and opens up more opportunities based, again, on your reputation.
Was there anything that shocked you in the job environment when you first switched from school to full-time work?
That there were such things as “writing emergencies.” These are things like a new proposal came in with a hot deadline or the CEO wants you in his office to write a letter to Senator So-And-So by the end of the day or you’re about to send a document out the door when the specs or mission change and you have to go through at the last minute and update all the documentation to say the right things. [I accidentally skipped this one during the class. My apologies to whoever asked the question!]
What was the most difficult thing you’ve found about your career path, and how would you advise others on handling it?
It took me a while to get on the path I wanted, which was writing for the space business. I took a roundabout route: grad school, nonprofit advocacy, and three years working in the defense business before I got a job at NASA. Looking back, there are things I could have done to get myself on the path I wanted sooner. I suppose, if you have a particular path in mind, start identifying opportunities early and then figuring out what you need to do to pursue them.
What advice can you give about finding your niche in the field of technical writing and making your work enjoyable?
Don’t try to be a generalist, agreeing to write for whatever industry will hire you. There are topics that interest you and topics that bore you. Save yourself the aggravation by knowing what bores you so you don’t get paid to write about it, if at all possible.
Your Job Experience
Have all of your jobs been strictly writing or have any of them branched out a little bit?
Actually, I’d say that most of my work for the last 3-5 years has been editing more than writing. I was a space journalist from 2016 to 2018. It didn’t pay much, but as I got better at it and my boss saw how many contacts I had in the industry, I was able to write about bigger stories and more interesting topics. That ultimately got me a standing gig at a space launch company, which took me out of the journalism business but put me in the actual game.
Did you require security clearances when working for NASA? If so how rough is that process?
Yes. I had to fill out an SF86, which is a Standard Form the government has you fill out to do a background check on you. It’s not so much “rough” as exhausting. You have to go back and dig up your jobs and home addresses for the last 5-10 years and sometimes provide references from them. It’s a good idea to inform those people that you’re using them as a reference and what for. Assuming you’ve lived a life free from crime and excessive debt, the background check is just a formality.
Did you have a direction when you left the academic world, or was it more like stumbling?
This is similar to the question about my career path. I was something like 27 years old when I finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life and 36 before I finally got a job in the field of my choice. There are probably things I could have done to speed up that timeline. I had a very specific goal in mind and there aren’t a lot of people who share that goal, so advice was sort of thin on the ground. I’ve had to make it up as I went along, but one thing I try to do with the blog is share my experiences so others don’t have to struggle quite as much.
If you had to work with scientists or engineers, which would you choose?
Engineers. They are writing about things humans made, which means there’s an explanation for everything and how it works. Scientists are studying what’s unknown, which means they don’t know sometimes. And the literature is a lot more voluminous just to have a “basic” understanding of a topic without going all the way back to the Big Bang. Engineering doesn’t take me nearly as much time to research in order to “get it right.”
How do you make SMEs take you seriously? Sometimes I feel like they want nothing to do with writers if they just want to do it themselves.
Sometimes you never will. They have a Ph.D. in astronomy, and you’re just some pissant English major wasting his or her time.
Fortunately, those sorts of situations aren’t a daily occurrence. The best things you can do are to get smart on your topic so you’re not wasting their time. Learn the basic terminology of their business. Once you’ve done that, then you can ask the SMEs the interesting questions, like, “What happens if something goes wrong at point X?” or “What benefits will the customer have if we improve the performance margin on Widget A?” Ideally, the SME is there to provide you with color commentary and insight into the unusual situations: the ones that you can’t find just by looking things up.
What was one of your favorite things to do/ see when working for NASA?
I was the live Facebook reporter for the Ares I-X flight test in 2009. Got to go to the Cape (I was living in Huntsville at the time, so that was a big deal). Got to work in the press office they have near the Vehicle Assembly Building…the same one that’s been there since the ‘60s. And I got to watch the launch from 3 miles away. It doesn’t get much better than that for a space geek.
What is your greatest career strength? What is your greatest career weakness?
I’ve learned to adjust to practically any work environment and many types of people. Not always, not 100%, but close enough to 99% that I don’t worry as much about the 1% who have made my job miserable.
I suppose if I have a weakness, it’s lack of ambition. I got to a certain point in my career and I didn’t want to advance any further. I’ve done practically everything I can to avoid being a manager over other people. It’s not that I’m bad at it, I just don’t like the responsibility or the stress or the occasional micromanaging, prodding, or threatening you have to do to get others to do their work. I’m self-guided, so I don’t like being micromanaged. I probably could be making a whole lot more money if I was more ambitious in advancing my career: writing more books, building a bigger business, or whatever, but in the end, I’m more in love with “work-life balance” and having enough time after work to just take a walk around Walt Disney World, read a book, or watch TV. If the bills are getting paid and I’m happy, why make myself crazy pushing for more?
We touched on a few other topics, like my long-running fiction-writing drought and the Science Cheerleaders. While my introverted nature usually gets the better of me, if you ask me to talk about something that interests me (like my career), I can get a little blabby. Hopefully I didn’t ramble too much. If you’re interested in having a virtual or in-person “guest speaker,” email me: Bart at heroictechwriting.com. I don’t charge for these types of classroom appearances, though I might have different thoughts if you’re going to put me in front of a few hundred people! At the very least, you’ll get an enthusiastic speaker who’s there to help.