Some folks want to write from the time they’re fairly young, others decide to get into later in life. Making it as a professional writer means many things, a lot more than writing a screenplay or best selling novels in your basement. The road to success often runs right through business and professional organizations of all sorts. And education plays a large role. Al Martine and Connie Giordano conduct this Fast 5 interview on making a career in professional writing with Dr. Erika Konrad, Senior Lecturer, Professional Writing Program, Northern Arizona University, and Karen Carroll, an NAU alumna and owner of ClearPoint Communications.
1. What does it really mean to be a professional writer in this day and age? How has the Internet and Social Media changed the profession of writing? Technology?
Technical writing in particular has seen significant change, when Erika began in the field, cut and paste (or tape) was the actual physical process in place, so some of the biggest changes in the field occurred around the tools used. The tools at the writer’s disposal have changed a great deal, from Interleaf to FrameMaker and Word, to content management.
Technical professional writing has also started linking closely with marketing, and technology greatly impacts how the two fields converge, particularly with the use of social media.
Karen notes that she’s always been a users’ advocate, and in that sense her role hasn’t changed. But in fact the internet and social media have changed the field for the better—including being able to take a master’s program in business writing online.
2. What are the common traits that people who become writers display? What is natural? What is taught?
Writing is a great way to build a permanent connection. It requires a great deal of curiosity, and are driven to help people do things better. When students come into a program such as NAU, they don’t know a lot of the foundational concepts. Erika noted that her students have a love for language that helps keep you going as a writing. Karen described how two years in fitness instruction helped her realize that people skills are not her strong suit, and stumbling into technical writing was a great fit for a “full-blown introvert.”
Erika also confirmed that a full range of students join the program, those who never have had but want a career in professional writing, and those that are already in a professional role and want to develop further.
3. What do you think motivates people to continue to learn and develop their craft? What is it for you all?
The need to keep up with technology and cultural changes help keep Erika motivated to continue to learn and hone her writing skills. The discussion diverged for a while on emojis and the use of them in communications and learning. Emojis can be tricky, because they leave room for interpretation. But they do provide an emotional flavor.
Karen focuses on the idea that writing is a craft, technical writing is a genre. As a complete word nerd, she loves watching the language evolve, but also stays motivated by knowing that her work actually helps people solve problems.
4. How does a program such as the NAU program prepare professional writers to work across multiple disciplines, such as technical writing, proposal writing, instructional design or trade journalism? Are there other areas of business writing that you deal with regularly or want to get into?
The NAU program offers classes that address other areas, such as proposal writing, content strategy, information design, and environmental writing that can be combined with other classes to provide an optimal exposure. The masters’ program includes seven electives, which can be taken outside the department.
Karen notes that the program includes classes that have immediate and practical value, and others that just “get under your skin,” that have effects over the long-term.
5. What is the best way to present yourself for a job that is seeking a subject expert who writes rather than a writer capable of editing technical/scientific information?
Erika advises that job seekers not count themselves out if there is an expectation of expertise. We can’t pretend to be something we’re not, but we can put forward our strengths—such as be able to learn quickly.
Al notes that there is no substitute for expertise, but if they’re really looking for someone who can synthesize and present information, technical communicators can shine. He recommends having a set of examples of the ability to do this. He also cautions that if presenting yourself with specific expertise that you don’t actually have, you will probably detected.
Balancing the need for expertise with the ability to communicate, remains the goal for professional writers such as technical writers. Programs like NAU allow current and future professional writers to create a path of study that supports and extends that balance.