Re: Tech Writing Internships (long)

Subject: Re: Tech Writing Internships (long)
From: David Castro <thejavaguy -at- gmail -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 4 Jun 2005 12:03:52 -0400

> And the question is, what about [interning during my education] made it a good
> experience? Did the tech pubs manager and/or writers provide any mentoring or
> advising beyond just treating [me] like an entry level writer, or was
> it a good experience *because* they treated [me] like an entry level
> writer?

My internship at Hewlett-Packard in 1994-5 was absolutely one of the
best aspects of my education at San Francisco State University (hi,
Lu!). I was actually HP's first technical writing intern (at least, at
that facility). I found it by going to an STC meeting and announcing
that I needed an internship. It just so happened that Edna Hetchler
was at that meeting. Her boss had been off of work on extended medical
leave, and she didn't know when he would be returning. She let me know
about the possibility of working for her.

It took a few weeks for her to work through the red tape, but she was
able to offer me an internship making $12.25/hour, which was more than
double what I had been making at Kinko's. Most of the internships that
SFSU had in their Big Book o' Internships were non-paid, and all of
them were in the East and South Bay (I lived in the North Bay).

I had had a smattering of FrameMaker before I started, which helped me
to get productive fairly quickly. They were in the middle of
converting a very large document set (about 4' of books...who'd have
thought I'd ever measure books by the number of feet?) from HPTag (a
mark-up language) to FrameBuilder (the precursor to FrameMaker+SGML).
HP had contracted Adobe to create an import filter for HPTag, but
there was still a lot of manual fixing that needed to be done. I fixed
cross-references, tweaked the typography on algebraic equations,
re-imported graphics, applied SGML formats to *everything*, and so on.
It wasn't tedious for me because, hey, I was making *bank*, and
because it was *real* technical writing.

I had read an estimate in one of my textbooks that only 15-20% of a
writer's time is spent actually *writing*, which I figured must have
been a bunch of hooey. But I still remember asking Edna who'd have
done the cross-reference fixing, style-application, graphic importing,
and font fondling tasks if I hadn't been there. With a smirk, she
looked at me and said, "Well, of course, *I* would have!" What an
eye-opener *that* was!

After Edna's boss, Dick Silver, returned from his leave, they decided
that I was so helpful that they'd keep me on. I was actually only
required to work for 3 months to complete my internship, but I ended
up working for a total of 8. I only left when I secured my first job
out of college. They were willing to keep me on until I found

When Dick returned, he was absolutely my technical writing angel. He
appeared to have a lot of clout there, and managed to get me on all
*sorts* of neat projects. I helped develop the web pages for the
department (this was when the web was very new). I also created a
tutorial based on one written by a *Senior* technical writer on how to
use the HP-UX X-Windows user interface (geared toward people who were
used to using Windows 3.1). They decided that what he had written was
unusable. Talk about a compliment! An intern fixing a Senior technical
writer's work...I was on cloud nine!

That rewrite taught me a lot that I still find myself using today. I
started it from an editor's point of view, changing a sentence here or
moving a paragraph to another section. It wasn't getting much better
until Dick said something that made me realize that I wasn't going
deep enough. I then started a new manual, and rewrote all of the
material. It really needed a new structure, to have some content
purged, and to have some added. Once I did that, they were thrilled
with the document.

My recommendations for hiring an intern would include involving that
individual on as many aspects of as many different projects as
feasible (where feasible means that he/she's on a task long enough for
it to have been worth you/someone showing him/her how to do it).
Introduce him/her to everyone you can, and let those people know that
this person is available for writing-based tasks (as well as any other
tasks the intern is capable of doing). Give the intern as broad and
varied an experience as possible.

Also, make sure the intern sits near you. Make yourself as available
as possible to the individual, especially at the beginning. There are
going to be a lot of very basic questions, likely, and the more times
the intern can interrupt you, the less likely he/she's going to "just
wing it."

Invite the intern along to as many meetings as possible. There is a
lot to be learned by simply being a fly on the wall in meetings.
They'll learn how boring some can be, and how a writer can effectively
contribute to a meeting. All important stuff.

Give the intern as many things as possible that he/she can include in
his/her portfolio. I still have that tutorial that I rewrote on my
shelf, though I don't frequently take it to interviews anymore. :-)

Hope this helps!

-David Castro
thejavaguy -at- gmail -dot- com


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