What do you do and why?
Approximately 20 years ago I was living in a house full of women (actually the house I now own) and we needed a roommate. Kari showed up in response to our ad and talked for a good hour straight... and she's been keeping me entertained ever since. As long as I've known her, writing has been a part of her life one way or another. Read on for her story.
I am a technical writer, consulting at Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I work with instructional designers and graphic artists on the Content Development Team to craft course materials for the Upstream Professional Development Center. I spend the majority of my time interviewing subject matter experts. My goal is to effectively document their knowledge and years of experience, to prepare the next generation of engineers for the oil industry. I like to say that I take what engineers think and turn it into English.
I didn't choose to become a technical writer. Actually, I don’t think anyone chooses to become a tech writer. Most of us are creative writers who simply found a way to pay the bills. J
Fascinated with grammar, words, and language, I wanted to become an English teacher. After spending my junior year of college abroad, I returned to a dilemma: plan on a 5th year to obtain the Education degree, or choose another field. I defaulted to what was easiest and least expensive, and graduated with a B.A. in Psychology.
I spent the next 10 years wanting to be a writer, reading about writing, and writing here and there, but never pursuing it professionally. It wasn't until I was out of work that my future changed. Knowing my obsession to correct inconsistencies, my sister hired me as a part-time freelance proofreader on her team at an advertising agency. The job didn't last long, but it gave me the confidence that I could stand in the writing world, if only peripherally. Years later, in another desperate attempt at employment, I took a proofreading test for a placement agency. Soon I was editing brochures, a departmental newsletter, and web pages for a major international oil company. From there, I became a Communication Specialist and later a Technical Publications Specialist at Chevron Corporation.
In Houston, “oil and gas” is neon on a résumé, so recruiters frequently approach me. One such email is how I ended up here, in Saudi Arabia, on a consulting contract. Sand and brown and Arab are not my thing; however, being here allows me to write the wrongs out of improper sentencing and travel as often as I wish.
Some days, particularly when the scientific terminology nearly makes my eyes bleed, I realize that I won’t ever be fulfilled as a technical writer. While I am grateful to be a woman employed in a male-dominated industry, earning a salary I’m sure I don’t deserve, I long to leave a bigger legacy than instructional manuals and student handbooks. My dream is to be a paid blogger, or a freelance editor, so that I can schedule time to bounce around the planet and make it a better place. My current idea is to honor the me that I was in college and become a teacher, an ESL teacher. This time, however, I’m going to patiently listen to the voice of my soul.
If someone was interested in getting into your profession what words of advice would you give them?
If you are gregarious, adventurous, or free-spirited, you may want to consider a different outlet to express yourself than sitting at a computer all day, reading jargon and perfecting indices. Tech writers must understand language structure, adhere to publication standards, and commit to coloring between the lines. If a degree or coursework is not possible, I suggest the following:
· Read this article: http://www.docsymmetry.com/career-in-technical-writing.html. If your head doesn’t explode, forge ahead!
· Interview an engineer or scientist and ask yourself, “Can I craft what I've just learned into paragraphs that non-nerds would easily understand?”
· Edit anything you can get your hands on – business plans, web articles, technical journals, Chinese menus - then request the author’s permission to include their ‘before’ and your ‘after’ copy in your portfolio
· Go to a Society of Technical Communication (STC) event, join a forum, or peruse sites such as TechWirl. Read this article: http://www.docsymmetry.com/career-in-technical-writing.html. If your head doesn't explode, forge ahead!
· Post your portfolio online, and include the URL on your résumé. Check out writersresidence.com, currently $8.99/month.
· Become an expert in Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat Professional, and FrameMaker. To be really impressive, learn XML and RoboHelp. I love lynda.com for learning new software. Monthly subscriptions are $25.
· Focus on industries that are procedure- or document-heavy such as energy, healthcare, and computer science
· Look for communication or editor positions in engineering or IT departments
Most of all, remember that most people cringe at the thought of writing procedures or dissecting 200-page documents. Stay dedicated and confident, and a career in technical communication will surely unfold.
Thank you Kari for sharing your story and offering up some great advice!
Many people might think they are stuck in a particular area based on what they earned their degree in. Kari and I both received our undergraduate degrees in Psychology and both ended up in very different spots. However, the knowledge we gained in our degree is probably used in many ways in our current careers. Likewise, I've gained transferable skills along the way that have helped me in my careers in Counseling, Adoption, and Education. The key is knowing how to recognize what those skills are and learning how to apply them to various settings.
Want to know more about this series? Click here. Want to participate? Email me at e.j.davis (at) comcast (dot) net.