How to Succeed as a High-Tech Writer & Editor
David Sherwin with Marlana Patton | January 2000
I recently heard a from an acquaintance who landed a job at Microsoft. While he isn't a writer-his creative impulse is more focused on songwriting-he is truly an artist when it comes to his music, and because of it, Microsoft hired him for his creative savvy. He enjoys the work, coding applications as Ani DiFranco strums from the stereo, but he does mind the hours. Or, as his joke goes, "When you get there on the first day, they tell you that you can set your own schedule. You can work any eighty hours a week that you want."
My friend's experience may not be true of the entire high-tech business, but his little quip summarizes an attitude-that working for a technology company taxes your time, your energy, and your drive as an artist. While taking a writing job at a high-tech company may sound like the antithesis of your writerly needs, high-tech writing is a misunderstood field which is lucrative and rewarding, paying salaries that often top most professorships. The money isn't the only reason to enter the field, though-the work can be fast-paced and exciting, and you'll work with employees from around the company, often stretching and improving your professional writing skills. Unlike programmers, a high-tech writer won't work 70 to 80 hours every week. Most high-tech writers work for 40 to 50 hours a week-which, when compared to the work load of an adjunct professor, is fairly manageable.
While today's academic job market may not accomodate all the talented writers graduating from undergradute and graduate writing programs, the high-tech market is hungry for talented writers. Even if you've never written about technology before, entering the high-tech field and becoming good at the job is much easier than becoming a medical or legal writer, where the learning curve is much steeper.
As a quick introduction to the world of high-tech writing, I'll tread over some topics: the differences between technical writing and marketing writing in the high-tech industry; the kind of experiences you might encounter in the field of high-tech marketing writing; and the basic skills that you'll need to succeed in the high-tech marketplace.
Before sending out your resume for a job in technical writing, you should know that technical writing is just one kind of writing job at a high-tech company. In a help-wanted ad for a high-tech company, technical writing almost always refers to documentation-manuals for products, manuals that explain software to end users, directions included with a new computer or appliance, etc. These jobs pay well, and in most metropolitan areas, a number of colleges and universities offer technical writing certificate programs that smooth a writer's transition into this field. Often, courses on professional and technical writing are offered in undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and at some schools, technically-oriented students are required to take them. But even with such training, the task of editing and rewriting a technically complex document almost always falls to a technical writer, not the initial creators of the document.
Take a glance at any software manual, and you'll see what good technical writing requires: a solid command of the English language and an understanding of rhetoric-i.e., how to effectively structure and convey an argument or a process. In these manuals, you'll notice the use of numbered instructions, bulleted lists, lists of frequently asked questions, specific procedures spelled out in full, often in short, titled sections. You'll also see how technical writers employ the simplest and most direct language, as in this excerpt from a manual for Norton Utilities, which describes the physical aspects of a computer hard disk:
Considering the reputation for complexity that disks-particularly hard disks-seem to have, it's surprising how simple the basic components behind them really are.
Although you've probably heard it said many times, it bears repeating that disks-both floppy and hard-depend on the same phenomenon as audio or videotape recorders to store their data: A recording head magnetizes microscopic particles embedded in a surface; moving the particles past the magnetized head causes the particles to become magnetized.
In an audio tape-and a digital computer tape, too, for that matter-the magnetic medium is simply a long strip of plastic tape embedded with metal particles. (Incidentally, the most popular metal particle among tape manufacturers is iron oxide, otherwise known as rust. Floppy disk surfaces are brown because they're covered with rust.) But there's nothing magic about that long, thin shape. You could successfully create a magnetic recorder with a medium of any shape, provided you could master the mechanics of moving the medium past a recording head.
You'll notice the following aspects of this description, which are fairly common in technical writing:
The writer has zeroed in on the audience, and employs a chummy tone to pass the information along sympathetically. Since most people who buy Norton Utilities have already had problems with their hard disks, it's important to convey information to them in crystal-clear prose, especially since they're already angry that their computer won't work correctly. Consideration of the audience is key for any technical writer, who has to make sure that the intended audience will both understand the argument and not become frustrated with any complicated or meandering paragraphs. (Hence, the initial statement about a hard disk's "reputation for complexity," which almost sounds flip, but isn't sarcastic at all for people who are unfamiliar with computers.)
The writer is careful to use terms that are familiar. If terms are used that aren't commonplace, such as "iron oxide," the writer defines the term. If this document was directed towards engineering students, you'd probably see some fairly complicated terminology being flung around, including "iron oxide," not "rust."
The writer uses a simple, commonplace analogy to open up a fairly complicated subject. Such a tack isn't always possible, depending on the complexity of the topic, but it's always a handy strategy when wrestling with technical material for a general audience.
Manual writing is just one aspect of technical writing, as work in technical writing can be a bit dryer than the above example. Government proposals, technical papers, in-house documentation, and copy editing are the bread and butter of technical writers, and much of the work requires great attention to detail, as your work is for the general public or a paying client. As the house style and work varies from job to job, most companies will train you on-the-job about their needs.
Landing a job in technical writing isn't too difficult, if you're sure to emphasize certain strengths. Suzanne Caton, a manager at Sybase Inc., suggests that technical writing is worth pursuing if you're a writer with a liberal arts background. The field of technical writing attracts a diverse group of talented people, and not all of them went to college for writing. Some writers, like my friend at Microsoft, have strong backgrounds in music. Other writers switch from programming to technical writing-which gives them an insider's perspective on how a particular piece of software may work. Sometimes, technical writers also end up working on newsletters and more journalistic pieces, though these are usually the domain of marketing writers.
If you do apply for a technical writing position, you should be sure to highlight your experience in nonfiction writing, especially your experience with writing research papers or long journalistic pieces on unfamiliar subjects-work for which you had to quickly and efficiently write about a complicated subject in plain English. This kind of experience, as well as an editorial or copy-editing background, will make you indispensible in any technology company.
For a glimpse into the world of marketing, I called up Marlana Patton, a former intern at The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Marlana now works at Sybase, Inc., a database software company. While her job is not entirely representative of what you might find in the marketing/technology field, it offers insight into how one can make the leap from a literary to a technical field.
"My title is not 'Technical Writer.' Instead, I'm better described as a marketing writer and editor, even though my job is in the high-tech field," says Marlana. "Each work day involves writing descriptive product brochures, editing long technical papers, creating direct-mail flyers and cards, and of late managing a website that delivers technical information pertaining to particular job roles. I came into this field with an editorial background, and did not have any experience whatsoever with the technical aspects of the job."
How did she find the job with little technical experience? The answer is this: every marketing department, like the technical writing department, needs writers, not programmers. Technical vocabulary can be learned on the job-it's a lingo, not a foreign language-while expressing a company's message in a clear and concise manner is a specific skill that you can learn as a student or through previous work experiences. If a candidate has the writing skills, companies are more than willing to train them in the technical aspects of a position.
Marketing writers are increasingly in demand because of the Internet. Marketing writers create the content that Web designers shape into finished Web pages. Some writers are even asked to craft e-mail messages. As more and more emphasis is placed on the Internet and e-business (or anything with an "e" before it, for that matter), writers will continue to find employment opportunities in the Internet community.
Here are three basic skills that, in Marlana's words and experience, have most positively influenced the success of the high-tech marketing writers, editors, and technical writers with whom she has worked. These skills apply for technical writers, marketing writers, writers for the Internet-any wordsmith who is seeking employment as a professional:
A Solid Editorial Background
"This is the most important skill for a high-tech writer. I don't claim to understand technology completely, and yet I can edit the writing of the people who create the technology. Any high-tech writer has to convey a clear message for their customers; if they can't make sense of what they read, they'll be dissatisfied with the product. In my experience, high-tech writers wield a considerable amount of influence over the quality of a company's publications. More often than not, if the company assigns me to a project, my company relies on me to determine the quality of a written piece, even if I am doing a quick edit of someone else's work. The skills I use I developed in college. For example, long strategic or technical papers, called whitepapers, are crucial for defining a product or company position in the market. A few of the skills I learned while writing long academic papers are now put to use: the role of in-depth research; information analysis; the need to organize large quantities of information into discrete chunks of prose; writing in a voice and with a tone that caters to a general audience."
"Certain marketing principles hold true regardless of your company's industry. Having a basic understanding of these principles will ensure a smoother transition for you, and will be an asset in any interview. Unlike comparing pieces of literature, I'm often delving into market research, process analysis, product placement, and sales strategies-real-world business concerns that are of the utmost importance for any company. Business experience, marketing classes, or even real-world experience selling an idea will help. Denise Tarbox, a senior writer at Rational Corporation, says that her promotional pieces are shaped 'not only by my writing skills, but also by my understanding of how to market an idea.' Whether she is working on a data sheet, whitepaper, or a website, she often relies on basic direct marketing principles to guide her work. Most of this marketing knowledge is common sense-and information that any writer, regardless of background, can appreciate and apply to their work. There are countless books that give entree into marketing and business principles, especially books on small business marketing, since principles that apply to small businesses can be applied to even the largest and most powerful corporations in the country. If you see reputable, affordable courses offered on writing direct mail marketing, advertising writing, or any other sort of persuasive writing, consider taking them if you have no previous work experience. Such courses can be an eye-opening and often exciting experience, and always look great on a resume."
Knowledge of the Internet
"These days, companies in every industry-high-tech companies in particular-recognize the Internet as a low-cost, high-visibility communication vehicle. Writers must be comfortable using this medium if they want a job in the high-tech field. In my own case, Sybase hired me into an exclusively print based job. Today, three of the four people in our team create content exclusively for the Web. To succeed, you need an understanding of the what the public expects from the Web and e-mail (for example, efficient presentation of information), and how to give it to them-simple phrases, short sentences, and few to no semicolons. Web training is easily available, as workshops and short courses abound. Many of these courses are at an introductory level, targeted at writers with a traditional print-writing background. Even if you are absolutely unfamiliar with the Web, you should have no problem keeping up. A good way to learn the ropes is to surf the Web and critique what you see. What you don't like will teach you what to avoid in your own work. This may sound disingenious, but consider this: how many Web pages exist that aren't written well, and with their audience in mind? And out of them, how many are suffering because their audience loses interest and surfs on over to TheKnot.com or ESPN.com?"
Breaking into the Field
Before applying for any writing position, be sure to arrange a number of your nonfiction clips: previous essays from classes that best exemplify your work, published newspaper or magazine pieces, pieces that you've published online, or technical work for other companies. If you don't have many clips, consider some of the following options, which will allow you to build your portfolio, writing experience, and knowledge of the field:
Try Pro Bono Work for a Local Organization
Most local nonprofit organizations have newsletters, Web pages, and brochures that print columns or short articles for their members. Nothing will build your writing experience faster than writing a monthly column, especially if you're researching unfamiliar topics.
Develop or Maintain a website
Many nonprofits and charities often need volunteer help to maintain and write content for their websites. This is a perfect opportunity for you to learn the ropes, both by writing for a Web audience, and also by learning to code and assemble Web pages-a salable skill.
Networking is one of the most important aspects of the job search. Shop articles to new clients, both locally and nationally. Sign up for mailing lists on topics that interest you, and then contribute to them. Be willing to do a little work for free on the side, especially for associations in the field you are trying to break into-and don't underestimate the importance of each piece that you write. Laramie Richbourgh at FutureNext Consulting, Inc., says: "When we're looking for contract writers, we look at their writing samples, or more frequently we hear about their work by word-of-mouth." The buzz that comes along with a good article can help you get new assignments-and maybe even a job offer.
Even if you're working for free, do professional work and submit it on time to your editors. You are, after all, building a reputation that you can do good work on schedule.
Consider Contract Work
When you're ready to start working in the high-tech marketplace, don't be afraid to try contract work. If you can work quickly and meet deadlines, you have a lot to offer, regardless of your previous high-tech experience. And for the most part, it isn't unusual for a high-tech company to hire a contractor as a full-time employee, with very solid benefits, life insurance, and a retirement plan.