Name: Bart Leahy
College & Majors/Minors: B.A English Lit., M.A. English (Technical Writing)
Current Location: Orlando, FL
Current Form of Employment: Freelance Technical Writer
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I am a freelance technical writer who supports multiple customers, including Nissan, Zero Point Frontiers Corp. (an aerospace engineering firm in Huntsville, AL), The Tauri Group (an aerospace consulting firm) in Washington, DC, and Green Structured Homes (a mobile home manufacturer and servicing company) in Huntsville, AL. In all of these situations my title is usually technical writer or contractor.
At Nissan I’m writing and editing training courses for their field representatives. At Tauri Group, I help write and edit internal planning documents that get used by NASA. At ZPFC and GSH, I’m primarily writing proposals to government agencies. I am also Event and Membership Director for the Science Cheerleaders, a group of NFL, NBA, and university cheerleaders pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. In that position, I coordinate “science cheer” performances, conduct interviews, and write a lot of the correspondence that keeps the organization humming along.
On occasion I travel to the customer’s work site; other customers I only work with remotely without a single face-to-face meeting. Most of the time I alternate between working on my laptop from home and working at a co-working space in Windermere, FL.
Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).
My first writing job (1996) was answering guest letters at the Walt Disney World Resort. I had been working retail, hotel front desk, and group reservations at Disney for five years before I applied for that job. I then spent five years answering complaints because happy people usually don’t write letters. After that, I bounced around Disney a bit, doing instructional design (training) writing at Disney University, requirements writing with the information technology department, and more training writing at the Disney Reservations Center.
I’ve had a diverse career. I was a corporate guy until 2013, when I was downsized and decided to take a chance on going freelance. The job that’s paying my bills right now actually found me. A buddy of mine I’d worked with at Disney University was in need of an instructional design writer, and he knew I could do the work, so that’s how that job started. The Science Cheerleader gig came about through another Disney contact. It started out as a blogging activity, then branched out into event and database management. Lesson learned: keep in touch with your network!
What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?
The first engineering-focused tech writing job I had was proposal writing for a medium-size defense contractor in Alexandria, VA. The job taught me a lot about working with engineers and “learning the language” without having to do the math. When things got slack, I would wander the halls looking for other work, which eventually got me into writing marketing materials, writing for the web, and learning about how the company worked as a whole. I learned to keep my trap shut for the first month or so in a new area and just listen and learn, but I also learned when to ask questions, even if they might seem “stupid” at the time. I worked with some very fine people there, most of them veterans, and they taught me a lot about leadership and professionalism that helped me later in life. That experience, plus some volunteer work in the space advocacy community, eventually provided the jumping-off point for getting a job at NASA (’06).
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
My time in grad school (’99-’02) was more relevant to what I’m doing now. I was very space-focused, to the point where each semester one of my profs could expect to see at least one paper related to space exploration. The research gathered during those papers eventually fed my master’s thesis (“Communicating with Multiple Audiences in Space Advocacy,” a real thriller). At the same time, I was doing some volunteer writing with the National Space Society. That volunteer work eventually included organizing letter-writing campaigns, developing presentations, writing policy papers, and running an 850-person conference.
I was also reading a lot of books and periodicals about human space exploration—the history and non-fictional future plans—to get smart about the organizations, companies, and people making things happen.
What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?
Give some real thought to the type of work you’d like to do and then start learning about the industry that interests you: how the industry works, what the big issues are, where the writing opportunities are, and what problems you might be able to solve. Next, pursue an internship, volunteer gig, or even better a part-time paying gig in the field to build up your portfolio. By the time you graduate, you’ll be light-years ahead of where I was when I got my B.A.
Also, read my blog, Heroic Technical Writing. It is designed specifically to help tech writing students and other English-major types navigate the world of work. I share insights about all the things they don’t teach you in school, many of which I had to learn the hard way.