Sliding into Technical Writing

I entered this career using a combination of persistence and dumb luck. I wanted to become a tech writer when I was in college, but the career ladder didn’t exist then as it does now. My parents cautioned me not to pursue it. They didn’t understand that one could make a living by writing instructions. They said, “Do something else.”

As fate would have it, I entered technical writing though the side door. So can you. Maybe you don’t know if you’re cut out for tech writing or not. To help you decide, allow me to describe my own offbeat career path into this profession. As you will see, I keep coming back to writing.

 

Proofreader

When I graduated from Penn State University in 1983 with my freshly minted BS in Entomology and Certificate in Technical Writing, I was naïve enough to expect to land a job despite having graduated in the middle of a recession.

As I paged through the want ads in our local newspaper one day (this was 1984, before the web, job boards, emailed job lists, and being able to job hunt from the privacy of one’s keyboard), I read that the International Computa-print Corporation in Horsham was looking for proofreaders. My instincts were hollering “I can do that,” so I did.

The job started with the only real proofreading training I ever received. I enjoyed the job, which involved legal proofreading, but there was no room in the corporate hierarchy for proofreaders to be promoted. In fact, there was no way even to move sideways. This was a classic dead-end job. So, after a two-year stint, I thought, a Master’s degree would improve my ability to get a better job. That’s what the want ads seemed to, well, “want.” My parents were all for it.

Copyeditor (also staff writer, proofreader, and chief taker of meeting minutes)

I was admitted to graduate school at Wright State University in 1986. On a whim, I picked up a copy of the college newspaper, “The Daily Guardian,” to see if they had a help wanted section. Paging through it, I saw “The Guardian” was looking for copyeditors.

I wanted this gig, and managed to wangle an interview and tour. In an effort to get the interview fired up, I asked the editor, “What do I have to do to land this job?” Tom, who had a seriously non-editor look about him, walked over to an in-tray, grabbed whatever was lying on top, and handed it me with a grin, and said, “Here, let’s start with this.”

Accepting the challenge of editing a sports story, I stayed away from the lingo I didn’t know and corrected the things I did know. I guess I did the right thing because I ended up filling out a w4 form. Then I just kept showing up.

I liked the buzz of the newsroom. To me it felt as though the air was alive. I volunteered for assignments. I paid attention to conversations and when I heard they needed a story written, I would sometimes offer to write it. I also volunteered for tasks like proofreading and editing articles, and I made sure I hit my deadlines. Even after I got my first byline, I would still come in to help proofread. I learned that people don’t always ask for help, but they usually need it. People are always grateful when you volunteer, especially if you don’t make a fuss about it.

Copyeditor Redux

I earned my Master’s degree in English in 1989. After graduation, I headed for what I thought would be safe harbor, a weekly newspaper in downtown Cincinnati. I liked Ohio and wanted to stay there. I met my wife-to-be at “The Daily Guardian” and I felt at home around newspapers.

I saw an in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” for a copyeditor. This post was for another newspaper, “The Downtowner.” I interviewed for the job with the general manager, who had retired from Procter & Gamble to buy and run the newspaper.

After landing the position, I learned through lots of trial and tons of error that I was supposed to proofread the copy as well. In addition, I was also expected to ensure every telephone number functioned and that every street intersection mentioned in every article actually existed. I had to call all phone numbers, with the sole exception of 9-1-1, and make sure anyone mentioned in a story as having that number really lived there. I had to do it all on deadline. This was the job that taught me to be accurate under pressure.

My boss was a tough person to work for, but I learned a lot. I appreciate his uncompromising manner much more now than I did at the time.

Data Entry – Word Macros – Database Programming

After I got married, I realized we couldn’t live on the $250 per week I earned at “The Downtowner.” My hometown newspaper, “The Philadelphia Inquirer,” had a larger editorial want ad section than the Cincinnati paper did, so we moved back east.

The editorial industry always seems to be in convulsions. Every time I applied for a job, I was called in, interviewed well, and the person I talked with seemed enthusiastic. Then I would hear nothing.

We used Mac computers at “The Daily Guardian” and at “The Cincinnati Downtowner.” I knew just enough to get around. I filled out an application with the MacTemps (now called Aquent) staffing agency in Philadelphia. They suggested I change my resume to become more computer-oriented. I transformed into a “computer specialist” on the spot. I must have done the right thing, because I got a call from them soon after.

A tiny database company needed help converting Word documents into text files. Back in 1993, these tasks were done manually. I went to Knowledge Express Data Systems and talked to one of their top guys. After an interview that was more of a chat, he hired me.

I started in data entry, typing in database records in DOS for quite some time before I moved into Word. I found I was doing the same tasks over and over again. I discovered the beauty of Word macros. I also discovered I was busting my hump while the guy sitting next to me had his feet on the desk. He spent his time figuring out problems, while I was busy hustling. I wanted his job. When I asked what he did, he answered that he was the programmer. If I couldn’t work in editorial, then I’d be a programmer. That’s what I decided I wanted to be.

I made friends with him. He majored in math. I majored in English. He was openly skeptical that I could learn programming. To his way of thinking, English majors shouldn’t work with databases. I was determined to prove him wrong. I can be stubborn that way.

I started teaching myself Word macros to do the tasks I found myself doing again and again with every data file I opened. And day after day, when crunch time was over, I asked the programmer how he wrote programs. He didn’t expect much, what with my being a “words” guy and all. But I found out something critical from talking with him. He wanted to move into marketing. That meant he was eager and willing to teach me his job.

It took a few years, along with low pay and long hours, but one day I understood variables and Perl well enough to write a script that extracted info from a database and displayed it on a web page. I took existing scripts and modified them to do what I needed them to do. Pretty soon, I was also running our FoxPro database. I was, in effect, maintaining all our databases. I thought I had probably learned enough to be hired as a “programmer.” That was one of my goals. We were all doing much more than when we were first hired. I began rewriting our Q-Basic scripts into Perl scripts. I was also documenting what I did as I went along. Writing always plays a part in what I do.

Then our systems administrator left abruptly. Then the guy who replaced him left about a year later, but not before letting us know the firm was financially troubled. I was not the first guy out the door, but I sure wasn’t the last.

Web Support Analyst

I was hired at a job fair in the late 1990s to work for Bentley Systems in Exton, PA. This is the job where I learned to build websites from scratch using PLSQL, a procedure language extension for SQL. I also learned how to write sweet SELECT statements, and correlated sub-queries that did amazing things. I could speak and work in “geek” with the best of them.

I enjoyed the work, building web interfaces to the company Oracle database. Different departments would ask for customized interfaces that did specific things. I would write the background SQL to pull the data and display it. I also created the web interfaces. I might have stayed at that company longer, but the 2001 recession had other plans for me.

I had been out of work before, but this was a longer stretch. During the year I looked for a job, I did a bunch of things to stay occupied. No one wanted to talk about tech or writing, or much of anything else. I had no one to whine to, either. There was no Facebook or Twitter. The newspapers talked about the death of tech. I finally ended up calling Knowledge Express Data Systems, hoping they were still in business.

Programmer

Knowledge Express was still there, but they had moved. My contact at Knowledge Express said they could use me. The owner was unable to hire me, but one of their customers said they would hire me to work there and crunch data for them. Best of all, that customer hired me as a Programmer. I had achieved a goal. For three years I wrote Perl scripts to process EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering Analysis and Retrieval) data, which comes from the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) for AUS in New Jersey, and I gradually automated a previously manual system. When this project drew to a close, my manager told me that one of their companies needed a technical writer and asked if I would be interested.

Technical Writer

My interview was much like my others—more friendly than adversarial. My would-be manager explained what the company did, and my role. I liked the whole market research concept, and said so. He said their manuals needed to be updated, and asked me if I was interested.

I started at MSG in 2006 as their first and only tech writer. Somewhat to my surprise, I had achieved my other goal. I update and maintain their user guides. I also volunteer to help other departments such as HR and IT with writing tasks.

The people to whom I report are very busy putting out fires and leave me to my own devices, which is great. They are always available if I have questions. I think they are just glad someone is writing the guides.

I became a self-starter. I credit this to my time working on newspapers. Asking the basic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how, lend themselves quite readily to writing user guides.

Conclusion

In the newsroom, I learned to ask basic questions. I also learned the nuts and bolts of putting together stories. That comes in handy when I’m describing a new user interface. As a database programmer, I wrote the programs and documented how they functioned. When I built websites, I wrote the scripts that created them, and documented how they functioned. In doing this, I learned how programmers and developers think, because I worked as one of them. Our developers see me as the guy who describes how our products work. I check the facts, ask the questions, compose the content, test, edit, proofread, and publish…I’m the tech writer. Mom was happy when I landed this gig. She wrote: “This job sounds like it was made for you…technical writing + computer = a happy guy.”

Much like the swallows returning to Capistrano, Craig Cardimon keeps returning to the written word. He has thrived in past lives as a proofreader, copyeditor, staff writer, and web/database programmer. Currently, he happily makes his living as a lone technical writer. Email him craig.cardimon@gmail.com,  or visit his profile on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/craigcardimon

Craig Cardimon

Craig Cardimon wears many hats and loves all of them -- technical communicator, content curator, and freelance copywriter. In his not-so-copious spare time, he reads, writes, runs on the local trail, and watches way too much "retro" TV.

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