Tuesday, August 23, 2011

User Guides and Press Releases and Web Sites, Oh, My!

So, last week (which seems like eons ago), reader Cat asked me in one of the comments to talk more about my technical writer experience. I said I'd focus on that in my next blog post...but I'm more swamped this week than I expected (You'd think I'd learn that the first week of the semester is a blur, no matter how prepared I thought I was ahead of time.)

So my answer will be abbreviated.

Cat asked: Would you recommend it?

My answer, as I said briefly in last week's Comments section: An enthusiastic YES, but...

Did I enjoy being a technical writer? Absolutely yes. Given the opportunity, I would probably consider doing some freelance technical writing during summers.

So why the "but..."? Because I worked for a small business (fewer than 50 employees) in a niche software industry. I was the company's sole technical writer during my tenure there. And the company used proprietary programming language and a proprietary documentation system. So I don't think my position was indicative of what is common in technical writing as a career field.

I had a great time. I worked with smart, talented people. In addition to writing and editing user manuals for customers, I ended up also writing press releases for distribution to trade publications, marketing materials for sales and promotion. I also ended up as the company's web master for a few years.

But in contrast, a friend of mine worked as a technical editor at a much larger company for a few years, and her experience was very different from mine. Hers was much more about maintaining consistency in style and accuracy in language. She enjoyed her work too, and I'm sure many technical writers are between our (somewhat) extremes.

And here's a bigger "but"...Although it's only been 3 years since I transitioned from that position, I suspect the world of technical writing has changed a lot, due mainly to technological advances and to the economy. I suspect the world has less need of user manuals...just look at how computer and tablet manufacturers provide minimal documentation with their products. More and more, it seems that software companies are embedding documentation within their products (Help menus, in-product or online tutorials, etc.). This means that technical writers need to have as much of a programming or technical background as a strong writing background. I suspect that same need for a technical background applies to most any field that employs technical writers these days--engineering, manufacturing, biotechnology, etc.

I used to be a member of the Society for Technical Communication, and I would highly recommend their web site and resources for a clearer picture of where technical writing is going, what is expected of technical writers, and what opportunities are currently available.

So...if anyone has any questions for me...about anything really...feel free to post them in the comments! (This applies to any post at any time...um, I think.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Toast to New Beginnings

Between completing my graduate degree and becoming a professor, I spent over nine years working outside academe. (I frequently marvel at how fortuitous my life has been, despite whatever little hiccups and frustrations I might have along the way.) Working as a technical writer, I regularly found that the coming of Fall brought a poignant nostalgia for the ebb and flow of the academic year. It was a longing for the level of excitement conveyed in that now-cliche Staples ad with the Christmas song.

Except that the parent in the ad is thrilled that the kids are going back, while the kids are miserable. Attribute that thrill to the student, and you have me in grad school.

Yes, I was a nerd, and I'm proud of it. Starting a new semester was truly exciting. It wasn't about getting past another hurdle. It was about new opportunities to learn and explore, new chances to develop my skills and broaden my horizons. Remember what it's like when you're in a new relationship? The mystery? The excitement? The awe? The tentative (or maybe not so tentative) exploration? It's like that.

As much as I had opportunities to broaden my horizons in industry, I still find that the delineation of semesters and academic years has a strong psychological effect on me. As the daylight gets shorter, it gets harder for me to get out of bed in the morning...but the promise of the New (new experiences, new students, new ideas) is remarkably motivating and exciting.  (As is the opportunity to catch up with some former students and follow their progress...the opportunity to follow up on projects begun in previous semesters...it's not ALL about the new. I'm not obsessed with shiny newness for the sake of shiny newness.  Honest.) 

So how does this relate to writing? (Yes, I have all the focus of a Simpsons episode, starting with one thing and ending somewhere else entirely.)

Well, I do get jazzed by totally new story ideas, with as much excitement and energy as the beginnign of a new school year. I'm easily wooed by how attractive and exciting they are. And I am totally guilty of getting sidetracked by such pretties. Sometimes (when I'm lucky), all I need to do is jot down a few ideas and sentences in a new doc and save it for later.  Other times, I have to wrestle that idea to the ground over a few thousand words at least...very distracting. (Could this be why I haven't yet completed a single manuscript? Hmmm.)  Fortunately, Dave White, author of the e-book WITNESS TO DEATH, has a recent--and helpful--guest post at Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds blog exactly about how to handle distracting new ideas: "New Ideas Are Like Shiny Jewels."**
(**Warning: adult language. And that warning covers the entire Terrible Minds blog. Just in case that matters to you.)

So...what am I saying today?
  • Well, one, even if you aren't in academia, new beginnings abound.  New jobs, new friends, new endeavors, and, yes, new story ideas.  Celebrate them.  Don't miss out on the excitement, don't try to block out the nervousness...celebrate the moment. It will inevitably pass (which is not a necessarily a bad thing...but it's worth being aware of how fleeting "new" is).
  • Two, be adventurous. No, I don't mean go climb Mt. Everest or quit your day job to explore the Amazon. But consider the last time you tried something new. This past summer, I took an African Dance class, just for the chance to try something new...and it was awesome. As the instructor explained, African dances sometimes require your muscles to move in unfamiliar ways; the rhythms and movements and cultural background all awakened my senses anew.
  • Three...here is my "Toast to New Beginnings":
Celebrate the new, even as you cherish the old.

Embrace the unknown, even as you cling to the familiar.

Seek out life, even unto death.

Monday, August 8, 2011

So you think you can write?

Since my last post led down some depressing paths, I'm determined to make this next one lighter...sunnier.  Like last time, a confluence of ideas has merged for me into today's overriding message.

Here's a hint from Disney's Ratatouille: (Insert scene in which "everyone can cook!")

So last week, I read this blog post by Kristen Lamb last week asking "Are We Born to Create?", in which she mused about whether some people are born writers, and here was part of my comment on that post:
Hmm…I actually think everyone has stories in them that they could write. Whether they do or not might be a matter of encouragement or motivation. And some people might have more innate talent at putting words together, but people with the committed drive to write can learn to do it well.
Here is what I tell my First-Year English Composition students:
Everyone can be a good writer.

Not everyone can be the next Stephen King or Joan Didion (or whoever you define as a great writer), but everyone in my classrooms has the potential to be a good writer. Some writers may need more than a semester to get there, but they can. I've had the honor of working with several students who just needed encouragement in productive directions in order to see that they were capable of much more than they'd expected. They didn't know that they could write, but they absolutely could. Maybe not A-level writing, but then again, I really am a hardass.

Ths doesn't mean writing is easy. Not a chance in hell. Okay, so some gifted writers may find it easy, but everyone has stories within them. And a not-so-gifted writer who has a burning desire to share their stories has, in my mind, just as much potential for success as a writer for whom words flow like water. Some writers may need to learn some of the tools and tricks and tips that come naturally to others. They don't all follow the same path or fit into the same timeframe, but there's nothing innate that says one person "is a writer" while another isn't.

So...today's message is nothing new, but it sometimes needs to be heard anew.

Anyone can write.

It may take writing and rewriting and workshopping and practice. It may take years.

But anyone can write.

(Is that as comforting to you as it is to me?)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How do you want to be remembered?

"The man hated coconut."

"His smile was absolutely infectious."

"He lived with the best kind of humility--not the artificial humility that some people put on, but with the recognition that all people have their strengths, talents and experiences for which we should respect them."

    --quotes about my father in the eulogy given by his friend (and former boss). I hadn't remembered the coconut thing, but it explains my disgust with the white shreds of evil.

The question "How do you want to be remembered?" has been sort of a recurring theme for me over the past year. Personally and professionally, it's come up again and again in different contexts and scenarios. So I shouldn't be surprised that it reverberates through this summer.

The culminating project in a special leadership seminar I participated in at work was to write our own personal mission statements. Some people might perceive this as a touchy-feely exercise, but I found it profoundly important, especially coming so soon after the death of my father.  Some people end up focusing on the values they hold most dear; some people focus on the most fundamental roles they play; some people focus on what ultimately defines success for them.  There's no wrong way to do this...as long as you're being authentic.

Despite my general avoidance of New Year's resolutions, my statement ended up being a list of resolutions--each of which expresses who/what I value and how I want to exemplify those values. Do I want to be remembered as a devoted spouse? Yes. A loving and supportive parent? Yes. As a hardass professor who expected the best from her students? You bet.  As a stunningly brilliant writer? Well, don't we all? I won't share my whole mission statement, but here's one point from it that I feel applies to all aspects of my life--family, friends, students, colleagues, writers, strangers...
I resolve to be more present--to focus more on the present moment as much as possible so I don't miss precious opportunities and experiences.
Not so easy. Not when it feels like 5 billion things are clamoring for my attention at once.  But that's one of my goals. For me, it's not directly about how I want to be remembered but what I think I need to do to personify what is most important to me.

Here's a little twist in the "How do you want to be remembered?" reverie. What we do in the digital world sticks around long after we've forgotten; all these bytes in the clouds have the potential to live forever. So, for instance, high school students don't just have to worry that pics of underage debauchery may be found by future college admissions reps...they have to worry about future spouses...and grandchildren...and historians. Previous generations could more easily hide some indiscretions (although Clinton "didn't inhale")...but now the lines between public and private are increasingly blurred.

And Adam Ostrow's TED presentation "After your final status update" shows a seriously plausible SciFi-turned-reality kind of immortality through our digitized selves

This has all sorts of repercussions. How do I want to be remembered? How much of that can I control? Both online and off, I can control quite a lot about how people perceive me, especially if I limit how much of myself they get to see.  But I still can't control everything.  I can control my actions and reactions by keeping my own ends and motives and values in mind. I can consider how closely my behavior (and my online presence) reflects my personal mission in life (and make adjustments accordingly...whether to my mission or to my actions).  And I'd consider myself lucky if I could be remembered as the kind of person my father was.

And so...I'd like to give you a little homework assignment:
  • Take a few moments (or a few days) to think about how you want to be remembered.  If you feel inclined, maybe draft your own mission statement.  You might compartmentalize (how do I want to be remembered as a writer....as a parent...etc) or you might do the whole "meaning of life" thing.  Whatever feels right to you.
  • Then, if you're willing to share, post some of your thoughts here in the comments section
I think you'll find the exercise surprisingly valuable.  Thanks for reading.