Everything I Need to Know As a Technical Writer I Learned In High School

Not many of us started off here. Although it seems that the field has been growing steadily for twenty years, there haven’t historically been a lot of technical writing programs, and thus most technical writers began their professional lives as…something else. Of the technical writers I heard from, only four had been through a dedicated program and turned it into a career. The other fifteen had come from other fields — mostly technology. You do the math…because it’s pretty messy long division. The result of this imbalance is that most technical writers come into the field without a really clear awareness of what they skills they will need to become a technical writer.

I’m more unusual than most, because I didn’t even begin in technology: I started as a teacher. An English teacher, actually, and then after a long time I realized I was enjoying my life less and less with every passing school year. I made a transition into technical writing after career research, and informational interviews, and meetings with career guidance professionals. These professionals all told me that when you make a career change, the most important consideration is your transferrable skills. Having been a teacher implied I had a certain set of skills that would be useful to a technical writer, and so I started networking and looking for work in the field.

And so now I’ve started a job as a technical writer. I’ve been using my transferrable skills for a few weeks now, and I can definitely report that there’s a few that have come in handy.

Confidence

If you don’t have it, fake it. That was one of the few really useful things I heard from a master-teacher before starting in a classroom. It’s good for lion-taming, for managing bored teenagers, and for handling executives and SMEs. You really can’t teach or write, in the long run, without actual confidence, but if you can pretend at first that you’re totally in charge and know what’s going on, you should be able to stay on top of things for long enough to develop actual confidence. That has been a useful skill when slinging the acronyms: I recently had just enough confidence to ask “what does ‘DNR’ stand for?” and nobody knew. My stock went up with that question.

Language Skills

These, unfortunately, you cannot fake. Teachers can’t get away with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes on the board or in handouts. Writers can’t either, and their mistakes are usually more embarrassingly permanent than chalkboards. For this, you just need to have the chops. Luckily, the bar may not be as high as you think. Since the 1970s, but particularly in the two decades following that, the Whole Language concept of language instruction had a strong foothold in elementary education — with the result that a number of today’s adults have no real idea about the construction of sentences, even in teaching. Instead they rely on gut feelings and extensive experience. Most people who want to get into tech writing have both of those going for them. I happen to think it would be a good idea, if you plan to get deeply into writing or teaching English, to review the technicalities of clauses, infinitives, and gerunds in particular. But then again, the Beatles apparently couldn’t even read music, so it’s not an absolute necessity. As long as you have a certain amount of language ability, you’ll have the authority to get by. Even a knowing look when a senior communications executive mentions a quotation mark error can go a long way.

Planning

You can’t just show up and teach. Well, ok, yes you can, for a while, but those teachers are not very good, and soon get discovered. (Sadly, they don’t get fired, but that’s a different discussion). In teaching, it’s necessary to plan both strategy and tactics: what the overall goal of the year’s teaching is, and what is happening in your classroom on a day-to-day basis. (I used to have monthly goals as well, but I think that was unusual.) That dual-level focus is an important skill for technical writers, too: you need to know where you’re going with your immediate task, but the long-term goal is equally essential. There’s no point, for example, in re-organizing a legacy database and restructuring the headings — no matter how tortured they are — if the entire thing is going to be replaced by a new content management system. And of course you always need to have the ultimate communications goals of the organization in mind. In that regard tech writing may actually be more rigorous than teaching: a lot of teachers develop their own individual long-term strategies based on personal beliefs and preferences, and will actually ignore school- or district-level policies if they feel strongly enough. It’s an odd attitude, but it’s a professional hazard in teachers.

Flexibility and Responsibility

Teachers, who get their minds messed up rather a lot by their careers, get particularly tense about deadlines. They can become almost Pavlovian: when a bell rings, teachers react. Personally, I check my watch and close the nearest door. But besides the strict to-the-minute timetabling, the job has dozens of demands. So a few years working in a school forces every teacher to develop a defensive balance between their deadlines and their multiple responsibilities. It’s important to learn what things absolutely can’t be neglected, not even slightly. It’s also important to learn what things can be delayed, and for how long. Marking, for example, can be delayed if necessary — though not forever. Lesson planning can’t be delayed but can occasionally be dropped completely for a DVD. Report cards have a long horizon but a hard deadline. Parent meetings are often unimportant, but tightly scheduled, and occasionally essential. Nobody knows what staff meetings are for, but it is hard to skip them. Making these varied judgments becomes second nature to a teacher, and the same ability allows me as a technical writer to handle a multiplicity of projects with a variety of deadlines.

Classroom Management

I can also handle a room full of teenagers. Thirty adolescents, bored and unruly, present no particular hurdle for me. Give me five minutes and I’ll have them all working quietly while I report their attendance. SMEs, by comparison, are no challenge. They need to do their review — and I know how to get homework handed in on time. They need to participate in discussions — and I have years of experience in drawing out uncooperative students. They need to be coached and encouraged, and they need to be congratulated for doing the basic minimum that they were asked to do. That’s easy. I can do all that in my sleep. Even the most deadline-ridden, over-focused, code-raddled SME is a paragon of professionalism, when you compare him to a fourteen-year-old girl whose best friend just mocked her haircut. Honestly? I have no worries there.

I must have other worries, though. I know I won’t have to worry about after-hours staff meetings, because staff meetings happen during office hours. I don’t need to worry about unspoken expectation to coach soccer teams — because my job description is very clear and entirely based on my actual abilities. I don’t have to be worried about the hidden social politics of adolescents unhappy with their latest essay mark. I don’t have to be worried about my behavior in public because technical writers — unlike teachers — are allowed to have drinks in public places, and can even express strong political opinions if they feel like it. I don’t need to be worried about strange sideways looks from people at parties, because nobody ever sees news stories about teenagers who ran off with their writers. So what will I worry about? The only thing is: what skills will I discover that I don’t yet have? Nothing has shown up so far. But something will.

In general, this career seems like a pretty good choice. I’ve already got a lot of the skills that are needed. I’ll let you know, in a while, what it is that I’m missing.

Fraser Hannah is a lifelong devotee of the English language and has lived on both coasts of Canada but never in between. He reads, writes, and raises two young girls in Victoria, British Columbia, and believes fervently in the consistent use of the serial comma. He can be surfed at About.Me</a

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