RE: Where did you get your feet wet?

Subject: RE: Where did you get your feet wet?
From: Erica Bruce <ericalbruce -at- gmail -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 6 Jun 2005 13:02:10 -0400


Per Lori's inquiry about how we got started in the field...

I have a BA in English with a minor in Experimental Psych. I didn't
want to wait on tables for eternity, teach, or write the great
American novel so I was sort of floundering. I self-taught myself
hardware by tinkering and being near an engineering school, the latter
also providing an understanding about how to interact with tech types
who lack social skills. I wanted something I could do many places and
when I heard about technical writing, I thought I'd be good at it. But
I had no experience and no way to get my foot in anywhere.

RPI started the first MS in Tech Comm program in the country but I was
sick of snow so I looked at other schools with the program and wound
up at the RPI of the south (so many grads of the PhD program teach
there), NC State University. The focus was not just on "how to" but
also on the "why," a blessing when it comes to arguing why this should
be done instead of that for design. While there, I took advantage of
UNC-Ch Hill's proximity and #1 ranked program in Information Science
and used it as the minor concentration. I did a ton of hands-on
usability stuff at both places from start to finish. I also did some
short consulting gigs here and there, and after a few informational
interviews in San Fran before the bust, started to venture more into
the web aspects to open myself up for information architecture gigs
should the opportunity present itself. Also, I found in my experience
that if I could speak "geek," developers were more apt to interact
with you openly.

So I guess you could say I set out to be a tech writer. I finished my
masters 9 months after 9/11 and while I thought I had a good skill
set, 100 resumes put out got me one call-back, one interview, one
offer, all from the same place: as a regulated tech writer/editor for
a large well known non-profit in DC. I took it and there, I got a
head-first education in being diplomatic, "we've always done forms in
8 pt font so we should continue like that," and how to get changes
approved in the face of opposition (one thing from the grad work that
was essential: come armed with research facts. Oftentimes, if you show
proven stats, you will win your case.) The non-profit prepared me well
b/c b/t that and the education, I'm now contracting for the State
Department, trying to compile 6 sets of sub-contracted writers into
following a group of standards so all the user materials look along
the same lines. It's amazing how the previous job prepared me in more
ways than one b/c I'm dealing with many of the same issues here.

I agree with what Donna said about what classes to take, but I'd also
strongly strongly recommend getting some experience/class work with
usability. That work/instruction is what I think made me a better
writer with the user in mind (for instance, putting instructions in
the order of how the user would do them, or considering the audience
and how they really use tools. You'd think this would be an obvious
approach, but not so.) For me, the usability background really
rearranged how I approach my work/thinking when writing. I've found it

Erica L. Bruce
Technical Writer/Documentation Specialist II
Harris Orkand Information Services


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