Angel Candelario Rodriguez, founder and manager of the LinkedIn group “Technical Writer in Action,” interviewed John Melendez on December 7, 2011. Originally posted on LinkedIn for group members; reprinted here with permission.
Technical Writers (also called “technical communicators”) are useful to many industries, as their purpose is to transform complex technical ideas into orderly, easy-to-understand information. For those considering entering the field, or who ask themselves what kind of company may require a tech writer’s services, I have consulted with a veteran in the trade: John Meléndez, Chief Scribbler at Cibola Scribe (www.cibola-scribe.com).
John Meléndez graduated from the University of Arizona with a major in Oriental Studies, and minored in Forestry. John speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and some German, and makes biodiesel for his Volkswagen Jetta out of Chinese restaurant grease. John’s inspiration as a writer originates from his great-grandfather Jesus Maria Meléndrez, publisher of El Mensajero (The Messenger), one of America’s first Spanish-English newspapers. Mr. Meléndez has been extremely helpful in giving me a lot of great advice and personal feedback on technical writing as a career. I am excited to share with you the interview and the information I learned from John.
TWIA: John, thank you for this extraordinary opportunity.
John Meléndez: Thank you, too! I’m honored to speak here with you and among the folks in Technical Writer in Action.
TWIA: What was your professional background before you chose a technical writing career?
John Meléndez: Before I settled in as a technical writer, I worked a lot of different jobs. I was a construction worker, a restaurant kitchen helper, a law firm clerk, an apprentice aircraft mechanic, and a warehouse worker – just to name a few. While doing all this, I literally wandered across the world. I even landed a job for several years in China working for a Danish shipping company. I’ve done and seen many things. So, I feel rather fortunate that I have this “colorful background” on which to lean. Many of the jobs I took on had a technical element somehow, and thus I was able to build up a strong background that prepared me for a career in technical writing.
TWIA: What is your educational background?
John Meléndez: There are two kinds of education. The first is “institutional education”, the kind one commonly gets from books and while attending classes around a campus. I got this form of education as a B.A. degree from the University of Arizona, specializing in Chinese language. Knowing another language has really helped my career as a tech writer, which prompts me to speak about the second kind of education. This other form of education has to do with having a broad practical knowledge about many things. Some people would call this “life experience” or “The School of Life”. I encourage aspiring tech writers to expand their education well beyond their book learning, and even beyond the writing trade.
The more you learn about many different things, especially if they involve hands-on experience of a technical nature, the greater your chances are that you will get hired as a tech writer because of knowing a certain skill, or having worked in a certain industry, or even in a different country. While there is merit in being a specialist, I suggest that you spend the first five or more years of your writing career working in various industries. This way, you can develop a broad background that arms you with the flexibility and confidence to take on any tech writing assignment. All the experience you get from this second form of education is priceless career-wise – as well as for your personal development.
TWIA: Do you recall how your interest in technical writing originated?
John Meléndez: My interest came about in baby steps over many years. In college, I took joy in writing my term papers – all too often at the last minute! I saw the marketability of knowing how to write early on: I helped my roommates or school acquaintances write their papers in exchange for that one commodity that a starving student always needs: food! Back then, my interest in writing was more on the whimsical side. I didn’t really get into tech writing as something marketable, as a career, until later.
TWIA: How did you start your career as technical writer?
John Meléndez: For years, I worked many different jobs to gain practical experience. I was hungry to learn many things. If at all, I was writing in my personal journal. I didn’t get into writing as a career until some years after college. By then I had worked with many people from many cultures. Thus I had developed a broad base of communication skills – such as how to listen well to my audience, and how to turn information I learned into something useful for other business tasks.
After living overseas for several years, I came back home to America in the late 1990s. Within a few weeks of my return, I took on a job as a document formatter for a tech education firm. Upon showing my bosses that I could do this well, I started editing the content I was working with. Afterwards, I learned the subject matter I was editing well enough to begin authoring original content. By then I had become a fledgling technical writer. Luckily, I had a manager who nurtured and encouraged me, and taught me the ropes. Eventually I replaced him as the technical publications manager when he left the firm. I’ve been enjoying the ride ever since.
TWIA: Could you tell me a bit about the first technical writing project you ever worked on? What were a few of the challenges – or successes – you faced when first starting out
John Meléndez: As I mentioned before, I started off as a lowly document formatter. I was really lucky in my first job, because my bosses’ expectations of me were rather narrow. Success came when I showed that I met not only their stated expectations, but also was able to do my work in such a way that it helped the company in more ways than one. For example, I would write and format my projects in a manner that benefitted not only the technical publication process, but also allowed my content to be repurposed by the folks in the marketing and training departments.
The greatest difficulty I faced when first starting out was being able to break out of the mold as a “mere writer”. What I mean by this is not to break out of one’s job as a tech writer altogether, but to break up other people’s limited perception of who a tech writer is, and what a tech writer can do. By the time I became a tech writer, I was also fairly adept at business in general. I struggled with getting upper management to include me in key meetings so that I could contribute not only as a writer, but as a solid business voice within the company.
My fellow writers have argued with me on this point, saying that this is beyond the general scope of what a technical writer does. Perhaps technically their argument is valid. However, if you can walk through the front door of a company offering more than what they expected, they’re more likely to take your skills as a pleasant surprise – and thus they’re more likely to hang on to you when the going gets rough. There have been few companies I’ve worked for that didn’t welcome an intelligently honest insider perspective, from someone who could put ideas into a well-written plan that could be implemented and measured. What kind of person can do this well? A tech writer.
TWIA: What software programs or other technology do you use on a regular basis?
John Meléndez: Depending on what company you work for, and how mature their content development systems are, you will see variety in the tools being used. Surprisingly I am still using Microsoft Word, which only costs a couple hundred dollars. A few projects back while working for a different company, I used a component content management system (CCMS) that cost tens of thousands of dollars to develop, implement, and maintain. For companies that like to take the middle road on tech writing authoring tools, I find myself using Adobe FrameMaker for docs, and Captivate or similar tools for training content delivery.
TWIA: Could you please mention some of your most important work/publications?
John Meléndez:I believe the most important work I have done for myself as a technical writer was not done while being a technical writer. Does this sound strange? I’ll explain. As time goes on, you will find yourself developing confidence not only as a technical writer, but perhaps as another kind of writer, too. I know a few tech writers who started off as hard-core tech geeks devoted to scribbling out their trade. However, as they grew and matured, I saw them doing other cool things. Some of them have gone on to becoming creative writers – novelists and poets, writers of that kind. By developing themselves off-hours, they showed up on the clock at work much happier than ever, and they were able to contribute more energetically and creatively than they ever had before.
Here’s an example of a tech writer who has turned herself into one of the most creatively abstract writers in our time: Amy Tan, the writer of “The Joy Luck Club.” She started off as a tech writer!
While I am not yet a book writer, I make a point to self-publish using whatever platforms are out there. I retain a portfolio on Scribd.com so that I can show off my tech work to prospective clients. Elsewhere, because journalism allows more creative latitude than technical writing, I’ve written several hundred articles as a journalist for Yahoo. I also write off-line as a wholly creative endeavor – with myself as the audience. Aside from writing, non-writing endeavors help, too. I love technology, especially the kind you can invent with your hands. I just helped a friend assemble a home biodiesel centrifuge processor. I’m studying to upgrade my Ham radio license. And because I used to live there, I sometimes do consulting on how to do business with China. How can these kinds of activities help you as a technical writer? By delving into various forms of activities that include writing – and self-publishing whenever possible – it bolsters your self-esteem and establishes you as a professional among your peers at work. With all this under your belt, you can walk anywhere through life just knowing such success is gaining its own momentum. How can self-creativity ever end?
TWIA: Some Senior Technical Writers mentioned that a career in technical writer may offer great opportunities in literally any industry. Is this true?
John Meléndez: Yes, this can be true. How far you can go greatly depends on your personal temperament. If you are a great tech writer, but can stand only to work in the oil industry, then your chances for getting work in another industry are small. However, if you make an effort to work in (or at least study up on) different industries requiring technical communication, then your chances for diverse work are much greater. Your chances are even better as you get more experience under your belt. Fledgling tech writers may be frustrated with this advice, all for lack of experience. My advice: be patient, and strike when the iron is hot. Grab any job you can get, learn it, and move on when you’ve learned everything that job has to offer. Yes, this is risky in the current job environment, so choose your job moves carefully. Otherwise, learn up on tech, especially the stuff you personally find fun.
TWIA: What are the standards that make a good technical writer?
John Meléndez: Wow, that’s a great question! I’m sure someone’s already written a book about this… In a nutshell, I’d say you need a firm grip on the following:
1. Spelling, Grammar, etc. – Of course, it’s assumed you need strong grammar, spelling, and editing skills. Surprisingly, when interviewing you for a project, many companies do not make you take a test for basic tech writing skills. For those better companies that do require a test, be prepared for it – both oral and written!
2. Personal Communication Skills – While this may seem a no-brainer, I cannot emphasize the importance of your ability to communicate at a personal level. You must communicate well not just in writing, but (perhaps more importantly) on a face-to-face level. If you cannot establish a rapport with your boss and co-workers with a decent underlying level of comfort, then you significantly reduce your chances at success in your workplace. As a technical writer, you have to be a “people person” to some extent – even an effective salesperson.
3. Professional Communication Skills – When first starting off in technical communication, make certain to have a ready knowledge of the basic tools of the trade. While the full list is pretty lengthy, the basics start with what I call the “Six Elements”: who, what, how, when, where, and why. If you have these elements covered, you have a pretty good start at some tech content. Perhaps even more important than this: identify your audience before you write a single word.
4. Authoring Tools – Technical communicators nowadays need to know several “authoring” tools common to our trade. Because I’ve worked with only applications that create more traditional book-style content (as opposed to web or open XML), I will mention this kind of tool only. Microsoft Word comes to mind immediately. PowerPoint is next in line, especially if you have to create extemporaneous training pieces. Adobe FrameMaker is the next more common one that I’ve used. After that, it’s helpful to know next-generation content authoring tools that support such concepts as component content management systems (CCMS). These tools include Author-IT, Arbortext, among others. As open-source formats come into play, folks are able to create content in non-traditional formats such as sound, video, and interactive apps.
TWIA: How does one become a technical writer?
John Meléndez: I’ve seen the gamut, but they seem to fall into one of two different scenarios. In the first scenario, I’ve seen folks get into tech writing by a bad accident or through good fortune. I fall into this category. Perhaps you do, too. In the early days of technical communication, there were no courses or degrees in tech writing. As I understand it, there were few to no tech writers at all! The need for documentation was filled in by the engineers who designed the product. What sucked about this scenario is documentation was infrequently really bad, especially if the engineers didn’t like writing! Over the years, as manufacturing grew the need for more documentation, willing writers appeared to take on the task.
In the second scenario – which we see more and more of every day – we see people deliberately and formally making themselves into technical communicators. They either take classes for certification. Some go so far as to get a degree.
TWIA: What is the income range for technical writers?
John Meléndez: As we all know, we’re in a depression, so we see overall lower offers on new salaried jobs than those made previously. For this reason, folks are staying put in the jobs they have now. The exceptions I see to this are in the growth sectors, which would include infrastructure-based IT technical communication (such as data storage for large enterprises), government vendor IT services, healthcare education development, and healthcare IT technical writing.
Income in the USA ranges greatly, with some full-time salaries I’ve seen as low as $16,000 for entry-level technical writers. On the high end, I’ve seen salaries going upwards of $75,000 for non-management senior tech writers. Tech writers that double as supervisors or managers can make salaries approaching six figures.
When figuring on these salaries, make certain to take cost of living for location into account – which can vary as much as 40%. The figures I’ve cited are based on my experience while working on the American West Coast and the Midwest. If you want to see official data, then go to http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes273042.htm
For the year 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor rates the “median” technical writer’s salary at $63,280. Does that say something in favor of technical writing as a career with a future?
TWIA: Is it necessary to be a “Certified” Technical Writer? How the “Online Diploma Mills” phenomenon has impacted this career field?
John Meléndez: Before I answer that, let me give some background on technical writing as a career. There are some interesting articles out there on the web that posit that technical writing began in its earliest forms as early as several hundred years ago. Back then the writing style was quite different from what we have today. Tech content was loaded with flourish and weighty discussion.
In the last century – say, from the 1950s on up until the 1990s or so – relatively few technical writers called themselves “technical writers”. Engineers begrudgingly did the technical writing. The role of a tech writer as we know it now kind of rolled casually into the scene. Most folks – me included – showed up from all manner of background. It wasn’t until a few years ago that the U.S. Department of Labor officially recognized “technical writer” as a job title in their Big Book of Jobs.
This “casual era” of technical writing is still among us somewhat. Companies that have been around for a long time recognize that they can hire a well-experienced and well-qualified tech writer who has no formal training as such. With all this as a backdrop, we can look at what we see emerging now…
Within the last several years I’ve seen loads of trade schools popping up offering Technical Writing Certifications. Some offer degrees. As expected, the late comers to the game are the larger big-name universities offering fully accredited degrees in Technical Communication. Because this new era of formalized education for technical communicators is still in the nascent stages, we’ll be seeing a lot of disparity in educational offerings. Likewise, depending on how well developed the curricula are, we’ll be seeing folks coming out of those programs as well- or ill-equipped for their new career. As the market for certifications and degrees matures, we can see more curriculum standardization appear on the stage. With that standardization, we’ll have more drones emerging from the incubation hive with a similar mind set.
Long answer made short: a degree or cert isn’t necessary yet, and I don’t see that requirement coming any time soon. I will say this: if you do get a degree in Technical Communication, I would say it makes a strong statement that you’re dedicated to the trade. If you’re willing to stick-to-it and get a degree, the chances of you being hired based on perseverance may be a leg up when an employer considers you for the job. As far as the “diploma mills” go, I’d say they’ve always been around. I think smart employers recognize there are more of them around now because of the push for more education as a competitive tool in a tough job market. Employers will check work candidates’ background more and more. There is already a heated discussion on how fair background checks are, and what employers should be checking for.
TWIA: How would you describe the main functions of your job in your technical writing career?
John Meléndez: Much to the surprise of many folks out there, technical writing frequently doesn’t entail much writing at all!
Listing first in order of what I do most, in my typical day I am:
1. Meeting with folks face-to-face, emailing, or talking on the phone
2. Reviewing existing content and editing it according to house standards
3. Researching, gathering, and organizing information from disparate sources
4. actually writing
While I don’t discount the importance of knowing how to write, I place equal emphasis on being a really good editor. Frequently, I find that I am given (or I go out to find) content that I must rearrange, rewrite, and repackage. The words are already there, but they’ve not been fine-tuned and prettied up. That’s what the brunt of tech writing is – at least from what I’ve seen in the last ten-plus years.
TWIA: What skills are most important to succeed in technical writing?
John Meléndez: The top four:
Flexibility – the ability to take on anything thrown at you
Personality – the ability to win the cooperation of your colleagues and customers
Filtering – the ability to gather, synthesize, and repackage information coming from all over the place
Detachment – In the midst of a hectic day, cultivate the ability to periodically step back and be sane!
TWIA: What do you like best about your work?
John Meléndez: Three things…
I enjoy the company of my colleagues.
For the few times I get to do this, I enjoy actually writing content from scratch.
I enjoy the challenge of learning and explaining new technology and equipment.
TWIA: What kind of impact has this position had on your lifestyle?
John Meléndez: A profound impact! In my early years, my challenge was to take a whimsical impulse to write, and turn it into something that could make me a living. Technical writing gave me the answer to this problem. After developing some basic skills and a level of confidence with tech writing, I’ve branched off to other forms of delivery – both personal and professional. Without technical writing as a catalyst for all this, I would probably be a wanna-be writer working somewhere else. Most likely unhappy.
TWIA: What advice would you give – if any – to those looking to start, or transition into, a career in technical writing?
John Meléndez: Actually, I wrote an article all about this. Read it here: http://tinyurl.com/aspiring-tw
TWIA: Are there any likely changes that may affect the industry in the next few years?
John Meléndez: I think component content management systems (CCMS) technology will be getting more bandwidth in coming years. I’ve only seen this implemented in two of my projects so far. The technology is not yet mature, so it will be some years before we see something that’s easily configurable and sold out-of-the-box.
TWIA: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to “Technical Writer In Action” members?
John Meléndez: Although I mentioned this earlier, I want to repeat it: Most tech writers don’t write much. They communicate. Perhaps it’s for this reason we’ve begun to call ourselves “technical communicators”. A large part of your time will be spent communicating with co-workers and customers, planning things out, and making clear the other folks in your project understand what you’re doing. This is technical communication. Know your tech stuff, but more importantly, know how to work productively with people from all backgrounds.
Know your audience. You may have to write articles or publications to those with extensive backgrounds and experience. You need to talk their language. On the other hand, most user guides and instructional publications require you to be careful how you explain things. In a nutshell, remember KISS – Keep It Short and Simple. People loading software or installing equipment don’t want to know the in’s and out’s of the product. They just want to accomplish a specific task.
While you may have the chance to work with leading-edge technology at your place of work, be prepared for a generous share of inglorious days at the office. If world travel is in your wish list, then you can get around as a tech writer. Be sure to learn one or two foreign languages. Unless your work specifically demands it, don’t let the task of full fluency daunt you. While you may need to conduct interviews in a foreign language, the home office will likely want you to write the “source content” in your home office’s tongue, which you later have professionally translated into other languages. It also helps that your experience with a foreign culture can prevent your company from creating a cultural mistake and jeopardizes relations with a foreign company. Some foreign countries are reluctant to do business with foreigners insensitive to their ways.
Make your performance measurable and reportable. Find the highest-ranking boss you can find sign off on this measurability. After that, make sure to meet your goals. Whenever someone called your value into question pointed at your progress charts and mentioned the name of the big boss who signed off on it. As you can tell, depending on the culture of your workplace, other folks’ perception of you fits in greatly in one’s career as a tech writer. Maximize your success by being a great people person – and a really good writer and editor.
Try to vary the kinds of jobs you have during the first few years of your tech writing career. If you’re just starting off with technical communication, keep your current job until you feel you’ve learned it up and down. Then start looking around for a new job in a different industry, preferably one that interests you. Because it’s easier to learn in a crowd, try to find a place where you can learn from other more experienced writers. After you learn up in that trade, repeat the process in another place. When comes time to settle down, you will have many skills at your command!
While some may say that such job hopping looks bad on the resume, I beg to differ. If you work as an independent contractor or through a contract agency, the very nature of your work is short-term. There is no shame in that. Besides, certain industries (like IT) are so volatile, that you cannot realistically expect to stay on the same job for a long time without getting laid off. Again, no shame in this.
The days of career-long jobs are gone. Welcome to the world of flexibility that sets you up for job hopping like a bunny – and it’s all good for your early career
Good luck. And have fun!
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