16 July 2012

A new career

Somewhere out there are people thinking “technical author, what’s that?” If you’re a company thinking you might need a technical author then that question has already been answered from your perspective. But what if you’re a student, or a jobseeker, trying to work out if this is something you could do and something that you would enjoy doing? It’s all very well talking about the services a technical author can provide, but what is it like to provide those services?

Well in this week’s post I intend to answer those questions, by letting you know some of what I’ve been up to this first week on the job. Just bear in mind that I’m writing about software (mainly) for the people trying to use it!

The first thing to point out is that I’ve been writing. Now I know some of you are sitting there thinking “but I write all the time... I’ve got a blog all about my favourite ice-cream flavours and it gets a few hits, mostly from my mum, and hey I did all those essays in university, not to mention the short story I’ve been working on in those rare moments that creativity has struck for the past six months.” Now this might sound rather horrid, but when I say I’ve been writing, I mean I’ve been making words appear on paper in a very structured way during normal office hours. The subject matter is dictated by clients (so unless you’re very lucky, it won’t include your favourite ice-creams, and the motivation has to come from elsewhere). I also haven’t been involved in the near-séance-like process of pulling an academic essay out of nowhere at 3am, whilst slightly intoxicated, in order to pass a particularly odious module. 40% may have been the pass mark on your degree, but it isn’t going to cut it when people are paying for a client-facing document. As for the idealistic glint in your eye that yearns to write only when feeling creative and inspired... well, in some contexts you’d be looked at as if you’re crazy, in less understanding offices you’d probably just be fired. So if you think this is for you, you need creative and communicative flair, coupled with a sense of diligence and purpose that would make a spartan’s eyes water. This will extend not just to the words, but to the software you are using to compose those words, as you are expected to create documents that not only read well, but that are technically well composed.

Second on the list of things that I’ve been doing is “listening”. There are two distinct types of listening involved in technical authoring. The first is listening to some very smart people describe, demonstrate and explain things in a way that makes sense to equally smart people. All this whilst frantically taking notes, trying not to sound too dense and work out how you’re going to get it all into 3 pages, with some illustrative diagrams and words that can be understood by the “generally educated reader”. This is about as difficult as it sounds, and the learning curve will be very steep. If you get hired by an organisation as an “in house” technical author, this may last from between a week and a month. If you’re even thinking of working for an outsource authoring firm, you’ll go through this several times a week, often on completely different topics (last week included cooling systems, educational software and supply chain management). For me this is the best part of the job, but if you are the kind of person who feels overwhelmed by masses of information and details this isn’t for you (the ability to keep organised, decipherable notes is a plus). Most new technical authors will either have to spend time learning to write appropriately for different audiences (if you have a science/technical background) or catching up on the core terminology and principles of various fields (if you’re from a languages/arts background). The other type of listening a technical author does quite often is taking on-board feedback and criticism of their work. The only emotion you can really afford to have invested in the work you do is pride in the finished product, but any sense of ownership that might lead you to crying in the corner when it’s pointed out that you’re missing the point or that your carefully crafted diagrams aren’t really that helpful and need to be redone needs to be checked at the door.

I have completed a document that went off to a client, and came back with only one small amendment. This created a buzz, a sense of pride and a feeling that I want to do the same thing again. Part of being a technical author means being pleased with results that are measured in this way.

I hope this helps. In the words of the big man himself (the Austrian, not the Irish) “I’ll be back”.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice Andrew! And a very nice read :)


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