Click for a printer-friendly version of this article From the Outside Looking in:
Becoming a Technical Writer

by Stephen Neville

Editor's Note: Stephen contacted me about writing an article for The Quill. Since many of us have been in the Technical Writing field for a long time, and Stephen is new to the field, it was the perfect opportunity to get a new perspective.

Starting at the Beginning

I didn't always want to be a technical writer, unless you consider Spiderman a technical writer. As a matter of fact, until a few months ago, I didn't even know there was such a person as a technical writer. I was unhappy with my own career, and I was looking for a change. In my research, I found this intriguing career -- technical writing. At first I had no clue what it was, but I knew it involved writing and that was all I needed.

After some exploration, I had only a notion of what a technical writer was. I didn't know anyone who actually did this mysterious job. I had a general idea of what they did and how they did it, but I still had a lot of questions. My thoughts churned out like a Dr. Seuss poem. Do they write in their home? Do they write when they roam? Do they do it for banks? Do they do it for the thanks? Common sense, which I seemed to be suddenly lacking, told me to give this up. But I was addicted. So many aspects about this profession told me that this was the right career for me, despite what I didn't know.

I made a choice. Aided by some timely company downsizing, I decided to leave my career in television and pursue technical writing.

Explaining Technical Writing to Friends and Family

Telling people about my choice seemed far more tedious than I had envisioned. When I told people what I wanted to do I encountered a lot of odd definitions from my friends and family. They thought I was going to be a "person who writes the notes on blueprints with a technical pencil."

I also remember having the same inane conversation over and over again:

"I'm going to be a Technical Writer!" I would proudly exclaim.

"A what?" I don't know if this reply was due to disbelief or from those hard of hearing.

Either way I would answer, "A Technical Writer."

"What's that?" This was really the standard question asked.

"Well, you make up manuals and documents for hi-tech stuff." Sadly, that was the best I had to offer.

Amazingly, I heard this often: "They have a whole job for that?"

And I, of course, would get defensive. "Yeah! Do you think the manuals write themselves?"

"Uh...I never thought about it," was their reply, and that was the end of it.

That felt like a kick in the ribs. I was going into a career that, I admit, I hadn't thought about. I was deflated. To a certain extent I didn't expect people to know about my new career choice but, even at this point, I couldn't properly explain that choice to them.

Getting Clarity From Those in the Profession

I obviously needed a more educated view. I began to take a course and immediately asked my professor, Chris Coleman, what it meant to be a technical writer. Like any good teacher, I received a very philosophical, "teach a man to fish", answer. He pointed me in the right direction and off I went with my proverbial rod and reel.

Still, I had no "fish." I needed something more substantial -- something from actual people in this profession. So, in my quest to find out what exactly I was getting myself into, I naturally joined the STC. At one of my first meetings I was inundated with information, but what I received still skirted my question. Still, I received a new term for technical writing -- technical communication. This new development warranted more investigation.

I thought, "Who better to ask about technical communication than the chapter president?", so I asked Heidi Marr for her definition of a technical communicator. She replied, "A technical communicator bridges the gap between technology and user understanding. Working as a user advocate, the technical communicator uses language, images, and multimedia to enable a user to understand a concept or perform a task."

This was a great start, but I still needed more, so I contacted Past President, Ted Edwins. Ted seemed to have technical communications in his soul. From what I understood, he had held a lot of different council positions. He had to have some wise, sage-like advice for me.

Ted was more focused on the term technical communicator. He explained that by using writing skills you can be involved in technical products or services, such as software, and you can use your skills to introduce these products and services to the public. He also added that effective communication skills can enhance the usability, design, and promotion of those products and services.

Trying to Get a Mental Image of the Profession

This was great. I had definitions. I had an idea of a technical communicator's daily role. The problem was solved. Or was it? Mulling it over, I realized the real question was not, "What is a Technical Writer?" The question was, "Why didn't I know what a Technical Writer was?" Until very recently, I didn't, nor did anyone I know, have an image come to mind when someone said the words, "Technical Writer."

When I think of a baker, I think of a fat guy baking muffins. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's because I have a natural weakness for muffins. Who knows? The point is, when you hear someone mention a policeman you understand what they do, and you even generate a picture in your head of what one looks like. The same applies to a doctor, or a lawyer, or even a computer programmer. But even at this point, armed with as much information as I had, I still couldn't generate a real picture in my head of a technical writer. And that was the real problem.

Reaching Conclusions

I was about to enter a career that, in everything I read, is a great profession full of worthwhile attributes: noble and helpful goals, creativity, and reasoning. Technical writing contains a blend of so many positive career aspects, yet no one knows about it. It's easy to think in terms of this profession doing something for me: providing me with a living, helping me hone my skills, and even fulfilling some of my dreams. Through this whole journey, however, I now realize that, as much as I need to understand the technical writing profession, the profession needs me to understand it as well.

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