Welcome to THIS
Where Creativity and Technology Meet
When I started my first technical writing job back in 2005, one of the VPs of the company I was working for would stop by my desk on occasion and ask me, “Technically speaking, have you written anything today?”
The truth is, in my 12-year career, I haven’t written as much as I thought I would, at least while on the job. If I can remember that far back, I think I probably just gave him a shy smile. But his question always got me thinking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it for the last twelve years, as I have moved from job to job, as is the nature of being a government contractor, for one, and second as a worker in that weird gap between Generation X and the Millennials.
What is Technical Writing? It seems like every job posting I’ve ever read for a position in the field is boiler-plate, out-of-the-box, standard language. And believe me, I’ve read A LOT of job postings. Here’s one, however, that I just read recently that stands out to me:
“Opportunity: Do you find yourself wanting to discover the breaking points of software in order to understand the quality? Do you have the art for writing complicated technical documentation in terms a non-technical person could understand? Do you have the desire to make the world a safer place? Then we have just the job for you!” (I’m not making this up!)
Technical Writing is a great profession to be in, and has been, for me, very lucrative. Even during the recession that started in 2008, I had a great job that paid well, and allowed my husband and me to buy a condo outside of Washington, D.C. at the end of 2009. Since then, I’ve worn many different hats, starting with Entry-Level Tech Writer, to Technical Writer/Proposal Writer, Technical Writer and Trainer, to what I do now, which is Business Analysis.
But back to the writing. Technical Writers do a lot of different things, and writing is certainly one of them. I have an undergraduate degree in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Washington College, a small private liberal arts school in Chestertown, Maryland. There, I learned about 20th Century English Novels, Contemporary Native American Literature, and Romantic Poetry, (think Wordsworth, Keats, and Byron), to name a few. But while writing papers on Hamlet and Linguistics, I learned how to think critically, analyze, structure, and articulate my thoughts in my own unique voice. I once was asked in a job interview about how my passion for writing and English degree informed my desire for a position at an IT firm. I was able to answer the question for a few reasons. What are those reasons?
First, Students who are well-read and required to write a lot are better creative and analytic thinkers. They know the language backwards and forwards, have learned grammar, and can even speak more clearly and articulately than their peers. I remember when a fellow student in one of my high school English classes asked our teacher, Mr. Axelrod, “How can I improve my vocabulary score for the SATs?” Mr. Axelrod told us, “First, go back to when you were born, and learn to read, and then read all the books you can possibly get your hands on.” The student’s face fell. So, essentially, the more you read, the better you will write because you will have a better vocabulary and sense of the language. Any writer worth their weight or their book deals will tell you that.
Second, writing well is essential for any position that requires you to communicate ideas: whether it be via email, a Standard Operating Procedure, a Training Plan, or a Security Document – even informational brochures and Quick Reference Guides.
That’s where the technical aspect comes in. As a Technical Writer, you need the ability to translate often complex, technical information into Plain Language, or at least for an audience that may include clients, non-technical colleagues, the public, or government officials. I’ve written for all those audiences during the past decade or so. You also must be able to take diagrams that range from the simple to the complex and write descriptions of the workflows, processes and procedures, concepts, etc., that make sense and follow a logical order. That takes creativity.
One exercise that my Intro to Technical Writing professor Susan Lawrence led our class in was to come up with instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as if the person following the instruction had never completed such a task before. It seems like a pretty simple assignment, but it gets to the root of what writing technically for a non-technical audience really means, and provides a visual of what the results could be if the instructional steps were not written precisely and properly, with careful analysis and a touch of creativity.
I first learned about Technical Writing as a career option while at a poetry reading as a freshman at Washington College. Tarin Towers read her Pushcart Prize winning poem, and then told us what she really did. She was a Technical Writer. Having published manuals on what was then Macromedia Dreamweaver and other IT tools and products, she wasn’t exactly making her living as a poet at the time. Her bread and butter was Technical Writing. I had never heard of such a thing. I thought I was going to be a novelist or a creative writing teacher, and as a junior, made plans to go to grad school in Wales at Cardiff University for their program in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Nonfiction. I never imagined that I would end up as a Technical Writer, now Sr. IT Consultant, working as a government contractor in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the White House at the Department of Commerce.
At the time of that poetry reading (nearly 20 years ago,) I couldn’t even hook up my own computer and set up the printer my parents had bought for me. Albeit, in 1998 we had giant CPUs and huge bulky monitors and lots of cords and wires connecting everything. I didn’t get a laptop until I studied abroad at St. Andrews University in Scotland my second semester of my junior year. Now, I work at a desk with multiple monitors and multiple laptops, wireless mice, and my smartphone with me at all times to take customer calls about the system I am supporting. I conduct virtual training sessions for customers across the country and help them with their IT issues. I would say this was ironic, but as an English major, I actually know the definition of irony.
I was given the opportunity to interview for my first tech writing job because the company I was working for as a Business Administrator (fancy term for “receptionist) knew I had an English degree and could write well. They hired me for that role, and after a few months on the job, I thought I had gotten the hang of it. I took meeting minutes, worked on multiple User Guides, and helped support documentation for a financial management system that local, state, and federal government customers used. I learned how to use Snag-It, TechSmith’s excellent screen capturing tool, and RoboHelp, an online help authoring tool, as well as Visio, which helps you make all kinds of fun diagrams with swim lanes and process flows. These are all valuable tools of the trade and excellent skills that I have used throughout my career.
However, if you spend a lot of time in school learning how to use specific tools, know this: those tools and technologies will change rapidly. I took a class on Flash in grad school at George Mason, and had a great time adding eye-popping images and visuals to the website project I built using Dreamweaver, which I also learned how to use in a class. But it was learning the very basics of HTML that has helped me in many jobs that I have held since taking those courses.
I even have a tee shirt that says, “Take a Screenshot; It will last Longer” that I picked up from the TechSmith vendor booth at the STC Summit in Philadelphia in 2008. I was a grad student at the time at George Mason University in their Professional Writing and Editing master’s program, so I was able to snag the student rate for the Summit. I took a bus from D.C. to Philly and enjoyed the conference immensely, taking both the student or Academic track and the Professional track as well, because I was in both worlds simultaneously.
I decided to go to George Mason because it was conveniently located, affordable, and the PWE program certificate required 21 credits, which seemed manageable with my schedule. I applied and was accepted in 2006. My degree was completely paid for by various companies I worked for during the three years it took me to graduate while working full-time. My advisors and professors were great, so I decided to tackle the full Master’s Degree and all 30 credits. I had already made that decision when the program changed from Professional Writing and Editing to Professional Writing and Rhetoric. The focus seemed to shift more towards the academic side of writing spaces and the analyzing the rhetoric of websites and theoretical frameworks rather than how to write a Standard Operating Procedure.
I took several valuable courses that, as I had hoped, helped me with my career goals and job skills as a tech writer. I took Introduction to Technical Writing, Computer-based Publication, Writing, and Design, and a great course on Editing from an outstanding professor named Roger Lathbury. He taught me about blue pencil editing (which may be old school, but it’s the foundation for being a good editor). I also highly recommend getting yourself a copy of Hodge’s Harbrace Handbook for your grammar needs, if you don’t want to lug around a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, or you can get your daily dose of style from @ChicagoManual on Twitter.
Speaking of Style Guides, I consider myself to be quite the connoisseur. My first manager gave me a copy of the Microsoft Manual of Technical Style and I’ve been using and applying its guidelines ever since. In fact, when it came time to write my thesis in the final year of my master’s program at GMU, I decided to write on the topic of Technical Style Guides. The title came to me while I was using the copy machine at my job at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. Are you ready for it? Keeping to the Code: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Evolution of Technical Style Guides in the Computer Age. Note that the first Pirates of the Caribbean movies came out in 2003 and was followed by several sequels while I was in graduate school. Hence the “Keeping to the Code” reference.
Here is a link to my thesis. Enjoy!
"WE ALL COME FROM OTHERS"
August 18, 2016
I don't know if I ever told you this, but when you sent me a copy of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in high school, it totally changed my life. I've been writing creative nonfiction, inspired by Dillard, ever since. I still work in IT as a technical writer and trainer, but my passion is creative nonfiction. I just finished an online course in Experimental Forms in Creative Nonfiction, and I loved it. I've been submitting essays here and there, but it's hard to find the time with working full time and having a family. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know the part that you played in inspiring me!
A wall of glass doors open into this room. Eight possible entrances, eight possible exists. You are entering. The portal opens to music that sucks you in. B C G. B C G. The notes repeat like waves, the seventh one the highest, the one you ride out on, your body washed by smooth water. But this wave never crashes onto shore. There is no shore. You can feel wind blowing lightly even though you are inside. Inside Outside. You are back inside your mother’s womb. You are coming outside to the light, you are upside down. You are learning your first words. You are reading your first book. Inside Outside Upside Down.
12. We All Come From Others
You know this. You’ve seen it before. But now you know.
23. Always Remember How
She is pregnant. See the baby? Its body, within her body, is circled in red upon the black & white film. One hand supporting her back, another resting on her belly. Always remember how. B C G. Remember these notes. Remember how to play them. If you remember these notes they cannot be taken away from you.
59. The Marriage of Art & Science
The video plays in slow-fast motion, clipped yet smooth. The black limousine is in motion. So are the flowers flung backwards, floating through the air. You stop and stare as she pauses to look over her shoulder and she is beautiful in white. She is posing for the ceremony. She is beautiful in white. He is her shadow in black; his hair falls over his eyes. Everyone is beautiful in black and white. She is Art, he is Science. Stop ( [_] ).
Rewind ( << ). Play ( > ).
You laugh during the day. You cry during the night. Who are you? What happens at twilight?
69. Me & Will
How could you have missed this one? You will create an image of your own instead, but you will keep the music. Especially the cello pulling on strings which connect you to this room. This is Me. Where is Will? How do you get the “&” that will bring you together?
75. The Muse
She wears a red draped gown. The trees are blue. The sky is yellow. The sun is green. It does not matter because the projected light fuses them all together. You have lost your muse. This one costs $290 and is made of Plexiglas and Cebachrome so it won’t shatter like yours did. You will take this muse with you and reflect it upon all of your blank white walls.
6. The Logarithmic or Equiangular Spiral
What? You move on to the next one.
Dancers dance. Plié. Dancers. Tour jeté. Stretch your neck. Relevé. Lower your shoulders. Relevé. Curve your fingertips. Relevé. Point your toes. Extend your leg. Arabesque. Keep your heels together. 1st through 5th positions and you are in 7th. You create your own steps. You invented toes. Relevé en pointe. You don’t have any knees so you don’’t have to bend. Plié. You have always been a dancer. You will always dance.
39. Vision Channel Device
Use your Vision Channel Device. You choose to illuminate. Leave the potential of light hanging by a cord, or squeeze it to shine on the paintings before you. Red. Blue. Art should be hung. Use your Vision. Channel. Device.
44. Blue No. 5
Blue No. 5: $1200. Acrylic Gel Medium, Wood, Pigment. If you were wood you would be slender white poplar. If you were a pigment you would be blue. Number 5 please, and supersize it to the sky.
101. Light Plant
Light plants do not need water. If you pour water on them they will spark and rust and explode. Light plants have curved blue metal branches and flower in red light bulbs. They take up a lot of space and have no life—kind of like your fat Uncle Charlie. If you had a light plant you would not miss green leaves at all. Flashlights, hosing, metal.
4. What Is Art?
What is art? Are we art? Is art art? Where art thou o’ Romeo? He will be your art.
25. Trying to Know One Another
You have been filmed. This is a movie of you and the people you have touched. To touch is to know. There is no color. Color is not necessary for knowing. You only need light to know what you have touched in the night. If you could choose an eye color, it would be amethyst. His would be the same as they always or never were, only open more.
60. See What We Saw
You want someone to see what you have seen. You want someone who understands B C G. Who hears it in his head too, the keyboards pressing into the strings of the cello and the bowed bass. You hear more meaning in the soothing, wordless vocals than all the songs on the radio. You think to yourself, this is all connected. B is connected to C is connected to G until there is sound pulsing like a beating heart would beat if it didn’t have to beat so fast and so often.
53. Growing Inside
The violins to the violas to the cellos, all lacking life—lacking strings. They are connected by a string. You are a muse, trying to know one from the other. Size matters.
1. She meets 78. He
He: Where is the art?
She: Inside, outside.
He: Did you see what I saw?
She: I remember.
He: (looking at 81. Black on White) This is who we are in the day.
She: (looking at 82. White on Black) This is who we are in the night.
He: Are you a dancer?
She: Are you?
He: We can be, together, trying to know one another…
She: Me, Will. With an & in between…
He: It will be a marriage
She: of art
He: and science.
You are She. You and He walk out together, holding hands, fingers intertwined. Only he is entering and you are exiting. You were never talking. It was only in your head. He is inside now. You are outside. There will never be an &.
B C G
These Precious Things...
are the things that I'm really excited about right now. Like looking into shop windows. Not pinning on Pinterest. Wanting. Maybe buying. Maybe reading. Maybe watching. Things like movies, or music, or a new or new-to-me technology. Or just something pretty.