Interview with Marcia Riefer Johnston, Author of Word Up!

Photo by Wendy Hood

Angel Candelario Rodriguez, founder and manager of the LinkedIn group “Technical Writer in Action,” interviewed Marcia about her upcoming book Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (and Everything You Build From Them) on June 29, 2012. Originally posted on LinkedIn for group members; reprinted here with permission.

TWIA: Dear Marcia, thank you very much for this extraordinary opportunity.
Marcia: I’m honored, Angel. Thanks for inviting me.

TWIA: Your professional background includes technical-writer experience. How did you start your career as technical writer?
Marcia: I had just finished my Masters degree in creative writing and was looking for work, never dreaming that I could make money doing what I lovedwriting—when along came a dear woman by the name of Karen Szymanski. Karen was looking for a technical-writing intern to spend the summer working for Magnavox CATV just outside of Syracuse, New York. Technical writing! I had never heard those two words together before. (We’re talking over twenty years ago.) My unpaid summer internship with Karen launched a long career that beats anything I could have imagined. I can’t thank her enough for the opportunity she made possible for me and for all that she taught me, especially the need for a tech writer to have the tenacity of a terrier. To this day, I chomp (gently) onto my sources’ ankles and stay latched on until I get the information I need.

TWIA: Do you recall how your interest in technical writing originated?
Marcia:  I have always wanted to write; what has more life-changing power than the right words at the right time? I have also always enjoyed learning; I’m hooked on those aha moments that send a rush through you when you first figure out how something works or why something is the way it is. Technical writing offers both kinds of pleasure: tech writers get to work with words to make people’s lives better—yes, I believe that tech writers makes the world a better place—and tech writers get to learn all kinds of fascinating things. And (shhh) we get paid to do it.

TWIA: What was your professional background before you chose a technical writing career?
Marcia:  Technical writing has been my career from the beginning. I went from a liberal-arts undergraduate program (a perfect preparation for tech writing) straight into grad school. You know the rest of that story.

Word UpTWIA:  You wrote the forthcoming book, Word Up! When and why did you begin writing?
Marcia:  When I was maybe nine years old, my best friend, Shannon Wood, gave me a blank book. I had always loved reading books. Suddenly, I was inspired to write one. I sat down to do just that, only to discover that I had nothing to say. But I clung to the notion of myself as a writer. When you believe long enough that you can do something that you can’t do, lo and behold, you discover that you can.

TWIA:  Would you describe your book as a style guide for writers?
Marcia:  No. I’d describe it as an inspiration guide for writers—and teachers of writing.

TWIA: What inspired you to write this book?
Marcia: (1) The joy of writing. (2) The importance of writing skills. (3) The widespread need for writing skills. (4) The paucity of well-written, fun-to-read books on how to write. (5) The joy of writing.

TWIA: How did you come up with the title?
Marcia:  I’ll answer this one with an excerpt from the book’s introduction:

For months, I brainstormed titles for this book. Several times, I thought I had The One. Too long, people said. Too dull. Too this. Too that. My title would find me, my editor promised. Then it happened. I was reading a company newsletter, of all things, when I came across a bit of hip-hop slang: Word. I heard echoes of my son and his friends. Word. The ultimate in concise affirmation. The verbal equivalent of extending your fingertips—just the tips—to slip someone some skin.

 A moment later, as predicted, the full title found me. I practically heard it, as if someone had said it in my ear. Word up. It felt quirkily perfect. Snappy yet laid-back. A name with cachet. A name with street cred. It seemed to say, “Hey. You. Interested in words? Got some writing to do? This book is for you.”

TWIA: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Marcia:  Hah! Getting the nod, chapter by chapter, from my toughest editor, my husband. My original plan, born of eagerness, was to pull together a handful of blog posts, slap a cover on them, and call them a book. If I had acted on my impulse, I’d have published a so-so booklet a year ago. My husband, whose wisdom I eventually came around to welcoming, encouraged me to rethink that plan. He has been championing this book (and its author) from the beginning, helping me to stay focused on making the best book I could make. Along the way, he has brought me many cups of coffee and many meals. He has supported me in working into the wee hours night after night. He has made sure  that I go outside at least once a day. He has read every word over and over, pointing out a million opportunities for improvement. Every writer should have it so hard.

TWIA:  When will the book be available?
Marcia:  Preorders: December 8, 2012. Release: January 8, 2013. Print and e-book versions will be available from Powell’s, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. I’ll post updates on availability here:

TWIA: What else do you want to say to the “Technical Writer In Action” members?
Marcia:  You have the best job in the world. And the world needs you to do your best.

Photo by Stella Robertson

About Marcia Riefer Johnston

When Marcia was 12, American Girl magazine printed her eight-paragraph story, “The Key,” and paid her $15. She has been writing ever since.

To share her love of writing, she has collected some one-of-a-kind essays into a book:
Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them).

At Lake Forest College, she wrote one-act plays that were performed on the campus stage, learned from, and buried. She studied under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Syracuse University creative-writing program. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University. She has done writing of all kinds for organizations of all kinds, from the Fortune 500 to the just plain fortunate.

Marcia has written for the scholarly journal Shakespeare Quarterly, the professional journal Technical Communication, and the weekly newspaper Syracuse New Times. She used to write letters by the boxful. She has contributed posts to her daughter’s Peace Corps blog, texts to her son’s Droid, and answers to her husband’s crossword puzzles. Her words have landed on billboards, blackboards, birthday cakes, boxes of eggs, and the back of her book. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Marcia Riefer Johnston, Author of Word Up!

  1. What a delightful surprise to discover this reposting. Thanks, Angel, and thanks to all of you who have “Liked” or reblogged this. I’m so excited about this book coming out, I could jump out of my skin. Patience, patience! Many last-minute details to tend to. Worth doing it all well. Come on, April 27 (book-release date)!

    Brand-new book pages are now up on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. You can find them listed in one convenient place:

    I’d love followers. Sign up to any or all of these pages, and help me get the word out about “Word Up!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s