A while back, I got a request from a student at the University of Limerick (Ireland) who wanted to interview me for her class. The magic of Zoom allowed this to happen. We were constrained by a time limit, so I thought I’d answer all of the questions she sent me even if we discussed only a few of them during our conversation. (Apologies, this one’s a bit long. If you’re in a rush, the answers in the first section are probably the most useful.)
Hiring Technical Writers
- In your blog, you mention your experience in recruiting technical writers. What would you look for in new technical writers if you were hiring for a corporate job, e.g. Microsoft?
If you’re going into a corporate (re: large, bureaucratic) organization, the interviewer will most likely ask about your team-player skills. How well do you work with others? When there are a lot of people to work with, this is definitely a useful skill. Another thing corporate interviewers like to do is present you a hypothetical on-the-job problem and ask how you would solve it. The question is set up to learn how you approach problem solving.
- In your opinion, how should technical writers compensate for lack of experience in the subject matter, for example, science or engineering– without doing another degree!
If you’re going into an interview or a new job in a highly technical field, it would be good to be familiar with the terminology of your line of business. Do some side reading so you know the general principles of the work. In my case, being a space exploration geek from way back, I had experience writing for a volunteer space advocacy organization. That gave me some familiarity with the technology and experience writing about the subject matter.
- Is there any educational course or experience that stands out in a CV? You mentioned project management in one of your blogs. (Feb 2018)
The course I mentioned in my 2018 blog post was the Project Management Institute (PMI), which provides grounding in project management skills. Project management is a bit different from “line” management in that you have a specific task for your team to accomplish, and once the project is completed, the team is dissolved. You usually have to work with individuals from multiple organizations and balance multiple sets of priorities, including your team’s and the organizations you and your team members support. That sort of multiple-input work gives you experiences working with many different parts of an organization and gives you a more global view.
- If you are applying for a technical writing job, should a portfolio have different examples of technical writing alone? Or would examples of other skills, like graphics, help?
Not just writing, but other skills, if you have them. ideally, you want your portfolio samples to reflect the needs of your employer. I still have a hard copy of my portfolio somewhere in my home. It’s in three-ring binder format, so it can be rearranged and customized easily as needed. Depending on the size of the organization you’re applying for, their technical writers might or might not have a graphic designer on staff, so if you have graphic skills, you might be the one doing them. Or, if they do have a graphic designer on the team, you can send them a rough version of what you want and just ask the designer to make it prettier in ways that make sense to the task.
- What type of documents would be useful to have in a portfolio?
Ideally, you want a mix. For writing samples, you’d want technical articles or white papers to demonstrate your expository writing; marketing collateral or proposals to show you can write persuasively; online articles, blog posts, or other web content to show you can write for “outside” or “general” audiences. If you’ve done primarily one type of writing (say, technical articles), maybe try to include a variety of topics. The more they see you do, the more the employer can see you doing other things for them.
- Do you think technical writing has clear trends? For example, in your blog, you mentioned how an “objectives” statement in a CV was popular in the past, but now we should try to weave accomplishments into the job descriptions. Are you aware of any other trend changes in technical writing? (Oct 2011)
I had to admit that I haven’t paid much attention to “the tech writing industry.” My concerns have been primarily with my industry of choice (aerospace) and the industry that keeps my bills paid (automotive corporate training and development). One trend I could definitely identify, though, was the tendency toward companies allowing more working from home. Working from home is fine for the self-driven introvert, but it does take a lot of self-discipline and working with people electronically at a distance (my primary customers are in Tennessee and on the West Coast of the U.S.).
- Why do you think technical writing is becoming more in-demand in recent years? What industries do you see opening up to technical writers? (Feb 2012)
I wasn’t aware of this, but it makes sense. Our technologies are multiplying, and someone needs to document how they work, how they are designed to work, and how they might work in the future. This doesn’t mean all of us will be writing software documentation. There are proposals and marketing collateral to produce, public information (“advertainment”) articles to write, and speculative articles about the potential benefits or hazards of particular technologies. And the internet always needs more and newer content.
- How has the technical writing industry changed since you started out in your career? Are tech-comm roles becoming more hybrid?
I spent ~20 years as a “corporate guy,” writing and editing for large organizations, then I shifted to a small business before becoming a freelancer. Now, as a freelancer, I’ve found my steadiest work being a consultant to some of the same large organizations I used to support as an employee. I’d say that trend will continue. Tech organizations are all about the tech, and some hire writers only when the think they really need them, like for a major proposal effort or a website redesign. My steadiest freelance work has been as an editor; my writing work tends to be for one-off tasks.
If by “hybrid” you mean tech writers being asked to do more than tech writing, I experienced that in most of my corporate jobs. “Other duties as assigned” could include working at the company’s booth at industry conventions; practicing test cases for software; writing feature articles or live Facebook posts; and creative writing tasks such as speechwriting or video scripts.
- How do you research a complex topic? You were interested in space before you joined NASA, so that must have helped you write for them, but what about subjects you have no background knowledge of? (Oct 2011)
If I’ve never heard of the topic before, my customers might refer me to specific references. I’ll do keyword searches on the internet (Startpage.com, not Google, but the same mechanism) or even Wikipedia if the subject is seriously over my head. I’m also a huge fan of books, so I’ll try to find–and will purchase for my own reference–textbooks related to my work so I know what’s going on.
- Many of your jobs involve highly technical subject matter; do you ever feel concerned that you will not understand the subject matter quickly enough – especially if you are on a deadline?
It’s not a test; your customers want you to succeed, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for or don’t understand something, the subject-matter expert (SME) should be willing to help you out. A manager who hired me said one of the best things ever when I confessed I didn’t know much about engineering: “I’ve got plenty of engineers. What I need is someone who can write!” When in doubt, ask.
- When you finish writing about complex topics, does someone review them in detail to ensure everything is correct? What editing cycle does your work go through?
Oh, yes! Generally, with my aerospace work, the engineers will write the first draft because they know the material. They will hand it off to me to make it sound like English. I will mark things up in Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature so they can see what I changed (or I’ll do a complete rewrite without Track Changes if they trust me and want things to read well). After I do my thing, it will go back to the engineer for a final sanity check. We might go through additional rounds of revisions if we’re doing a proposal and other people are providing feedback. In those situations, the engineer will make the necessary technical changes, hand it back to me for editorial polishing, and then eventually it goes to a final editor (also sometimes me) for final integration, formatting, and one-voice consistency.
Complementary Skills for Technical Communicators
- “There are other skills beyond wordsmithing and editing involved, and the more of those skills we learn, the better” which skills are you referring to? (Sep 2011)
I’ve had to learn to work diplomatically with people. My Disney training helped me a lot with that because they require you to remain pleasant and on task regardless of what the guest (customer) is throwing at you. Some situations I’ve handled better than others.
Other skills tech writers should learn–if only to ensure the bills get paid–relate to freelancing. Technical writing is one of those skills that seems custom-made for work-from-home. You need to learn entrepreneurship, which includes marketing your skills; keeping track of your work and delivering it as expected, on time; paying for your expenses like insurance; ensuring that you get paid; and maintaining good customer relations so that you get future work.
- I thought your article on organising new information into patterns was really interesting. You mention different categories of organising, for example, functionally, spatially, general to specific, etc. Can you tell me more about this? Where did you learn to do this? (Nov 2011)
I did learn some of that in tech writing graduate school, but I’m drawing a blank on where I learned the different organizing strategies. The organization of a topic is sometimes set by your audience, situation, and intended outcome. Who is your audience? Under what circumstances is your audience encountering your writing? What do they need to accomplish? How do you want them to respond?
Otherwise, again, your subject matter might lend itself to one type of organization over another. If you’re talking about a rocket launch, you might need to write about the parts of the rocket first, then talk about the countdown sequence. If you’re talking about a software program, you might focus on the major tasks the user must accomplish first, then talk about how the software will accomplish them. Technology articles could have a “story” format: user encounters problem, user encounters new technology, user is able to complete their task or do it better than they could using a previous tool.
Whenever I get a new task, I want to know “Who is my audience and how do I want them to respond after reading X?”