Re: Technical writing

Subject: Re: Technical writing
From: Dick Price <DPrice -at- COMPUTER -dot- ORG>
Date: Wed, 2 Nov 1994 16:44:00 EST


For what it's worth, I'll share my experience as a technical editor
and writer. I got my first technical editing job in 1981, and
currently work as associate editor of two computer magazines (IEEE
MICRO and IEEE DESIGN & TEST OF COMPUTERS). I graduated from the
University of Minnesota with a degree in English where I had taken a
number of journalism courses, along with a smattering of science
classes. I had no thought of becoming a technical writer and took no
courses to prepare for that field. I thought I might become a

Instead, I spent several years bartending, owning a bar, and helping
to run a construction company with my three brothers. In 1981, the
real estate market here in LA had gone to hell, so I got a job at
Hughes Aircraft, working as a technical editor in a publications
department. We put out manuals, proposals, and reports having to do
with radar, microwave communications, and gallium arsenide chip
manufacture. I didn't know anything about any of these disciplines
going in, but I was a good writer and editor. Even when I was tending
bar or pounding nails, I was always working on my writing -- trying to
get stories published, taking extension classes at UCLA, endless

All told, I spent eight years at Hughes in two spurts, during which I
learned enough about the various technologies at my part of the
company to become quite conversant with them. I went from proofreading
and copyediting the writing of others -- mostly engineers, mostly
foreign born -- to writing proposals largely on my own. My pay
increased accordingly: I was making about $50,000 when I was laid off
as part of the fall-off of defense work out here.

Actually, I wasn't terribly upset at being laid off. The money was
good, but I didn't find the work terribly satisfying. (I'm a Vietnam
vet, not a terribly disgruntled one, but what we were building, and
what it was designed to be used for, never quite sat right with me.)
For satisfaction, I also wrote grant proposals for a charity -- a
halfway house for alcoholics and addicts near my home.

After getting laid off, I answered an ad for my current job with the
Computer Society. I edit highly technical articles about computer
science, and occasionally get to write a department of my own, either
by interviewing some leading light in the field or investigating an
interesting application of computers. Years ago, I had wanted to
become a journalist, and now I have. My next step will be to get good
enough at magazine journalism to take over one of the 10 publications
we put out, or better to move to a more personally interesting
political or social magazine. For that, my wife, daughter, and I may
want to move to San Francisco or Santa Fe.

All this is way more than you want to hear, but I do have a couple of

First, writing and editing ability is far more important in this line
of work than knowledge of a particular technical field, at least I've
found it so. No matter how much you might know about some technology
-- computers, radar, whatever -- it will change incredibly quickly.
New terminology, new technologies, new everything: better to have good
language skills, a logical mind, and a willingness to learn. Engineers
who come here to edit and write for our computer magazines often get
bogged down in making their points clearly and convincingly.

Second, I got my Hughes job by starting out on a temporary assignment
-- I was called a consultant, but it wasn't much removed from being a
Kelley Girl. I worked my butt off, impressed a few people, and got
hired on full time. It was a standard way to get into any of the big
aerospace companies out here. (They aren't taking much of a risk, as
they can just tell you not to come back after lunch, and don't have to
worry about unemployment, benefits, or any of that.)

Third, I regularly pick up copies of the Santa Fe and San Francisco
papers where my wife and I are thinking of moving. If I see an ad, I
send out a feeler. I've got some nibbles that way, though nothing
tempting as yet.

Fourth, with all the aerospace workers that have gotten downsized, as
they say, out here in California, there aren't many strictly technical
editing jobs to go around. I'd look elsewhere.

Finally, I look at myself as a writer and editor first, and then as a
technical writer. There's no need to limit myself, especially as the
skills I use as a technical editor -- facility with language, logical
approach, constant learning while doing -- apply other places as well.

Hope that helps.

Dick Price
dprice -at- computer -dot- org

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