Posts filed under Technical Writing

Abigael Donahue: Technical Writer

Name: Abigael Donahue

Age: 24 years

College & Majors/Minors: Bachelor of Arts in English from Norwich University, Class of 2015

Current Location: Cambridge, MA

Current Form of Employment: Technical Writer at HubSpot

Where do you work and what is your current position?

I work as a Technical Writer at HubSpot, a global marketing and sales software company. I translate complex software concepts—from operating the CRM to setting up technical integrations—into human language that users can understand and look forward to reading.  

In the tech industry, writing is very prominent. HubSpot needs people to build the software, but also people to communicate its functionality and strategy. That’s where I come in.  

On a regular day, I’ll work across departments including product, engineering, content, and technical support to stay on top of what’s happening with the software. I then use this information to plan new content or edit existing documentation to ensure that our articles accurately reflect the software’s most up-to-date functionality.

Additionally, I take on writing opportunities at HubSpot unrelated to my core role, including blog writing and editing as well as writing projects outside of work. I store all of my writing samples in my online portfolio. In a nutshell, I use my writing every day at HubSpot to communicate the functionality of and strategy behind the software.

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).

Throughout my time as an English major in college, I always had people sarcastically tell me, “Good luck finding a job!” While thoughtful of them to share their good wishes, I didn’t need any luck. Finding a job with a B.A. in English was not an issue at all. I graduated in May 2015 and I landed my first job one month later as a Marketing/Proposal Coordinator at Hoyle, Tanner & Associates, Inc., a civil engineering firm.  

I found the job posting online on a job board, and I applied, as I did with many other jobs. You really have to make job searching your full-time job after graduation. In total, I probably applied to over 90 positions during that one month between graduation and my first day at Hoyle, Tanner.

“I found the job posting online on a job board, and I applied, as I did with many other jobs. You really have to make job searching your full-time job after graduation. In total, I probably applied to over 90 positions during that one month between graduation and my first day at Hoyle, Tanner.”

My primary responsibility was working across different engineering teams to create content for our technical proposals. I wrote technical content, designed proposal layouts, copy edited too many pages to count, and combined content from a diverse group of contributors to produce cohesive documents that told our clients who we were and what skills we had to offer.

I also wrote for the company’s blog when I wasn’t working on proposals.

I later applied the technical content creation, writing/editing, and communication skills I built at Hoyle, Tanner to my first job at HubSpot in May 2016. I found HubSpot while I was researching marketing (I always wanted to learn as much about the industry I was working in). I applied online and interviewed for the first round two days later. I initially came on board as an Associate Technical Support Specialist, where I provided support to HubSpot users in all areas of the HubSpot software. After nine months, I was promoted to a CRM/Sales Product Specialist. While writing wasn’t my full-time job yet, I continued to write as much as I could for different content platforms until I landed the Technical Writer position in August 2017.

While my career is only a little under three years old, I have fine-tuned my writing, editing, and content creation skills while building up my technical expertise and product knowledge.

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

I had the privilege of doing freelance editing and research projects for one of my Norwich professors, Professor Sean Prentiss.

Not only was I a student of his for a couple writing classes, but I also worked closely with Professor Prentiss on The Chameleon, Norwich University’s literary journal. I was a member of the editorial team for three years before taking on the role of Editor-in-Chief during my senior year. I also worked with him on a grant writing project for the Vermont Humanities Council. We put the contribution toward Norwich’s PoemCampus celebration. Over the course of my time at Norwich, we worked together to highlight the importance of literary arts on a military campus.

After graduating, I had the pleasure of copy editing Professor Prentiss’s work; projects ranged from textbooks to autobiographies. He’s such a gifted writer and I’m so honored I was included in his writing process for a variety of his publications.

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?

During my first two years, I focused solely on immersing myself in writing and literature, the two loves of my life. By throwing myself into my academics, I started building skills that I could apply to my future career: communication, writing, research, and public speaking. I also learned how to create and defend an argument after writing an abundance of essays which all required a well-researched thesis.

“Getting a job requires you to know how to market the experience you have. As an English major, you have the skills you need to succeed in a range of industries. You just need to market those skills to specific positions.”

My junior and senior years were no exception. I continued to focus primarily on my studies and getting as much out of the curriculum as I could. Four years fly by, and that was starting to sink in as I aged out of the University. I tried to absorb as much as I could from every class I took.

However, I also started weaving in some career planning. I joined a mentorship program and chatted with my professors who had backgrounds in publishing and writing, two fields I wanted to explore post-graduation. On top of that, I worked with Norwich’s Career Center to get tips on creating a résumé and cover letter and to practice my interviewing skills.

To best prepare for a post-grad life, focus on getting good grades (they do matter, like it or not), working hard in your classes, and pursuing side projects that interest you. You can then layer in some light career planning such as interviewing and job application practice with your University’s career center. Getting a job requires you to know how to market the experience you have. As an English major, you have the skills you need to succeed in a range of industries. You just need to market those skills to specific positions.

Looking back now, I wish I didn’t stress so much about graduation. After getting a job, the rhythm of the work world becomes natural, just like college. If you’re a current college student, slow down and don’t be in a rush. It’s easy to get caught up in your own thoughts about moving on to the next big thing, constantly strategizing on how to succeed in the career you don’t have yet.

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

The people who say you can’t get a job with an English degree are the ones who never tried. You can go far with a degree in English. Articulation holds more power than anyone can imagine.

Click here to visit Abigael Donahue's website! 


Posted on February 17, 2018 and filed under Technical Writing, Interview, Interviews.

Lisa Jackson: Principal Lecturer & Writing Lab Director

Name: Lisa Jackson

Age: 54

College & Majors/Minors: PhD in 19th Century British Literature, 2000, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas; MA in British Literature,1992, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas; BA in English, 1985, Austin College, Sherman, Texas

Current Location: DFW

Current Form of Employment: Director of the UNT Writing Lab; Principal Lecturer, Department of Technical Communication, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas

Where do you work and what is your current position?

“We work with students at every level, from developmental writers to students writing theses and dissertations. The great thing about teaching them is that good writing is the same across the disciplines.”

I oversee the day-to-day operations of the Writing Lab at the University of North Texas. I have 35 people who work for me at five different locations, and we see about 4000 students per semester. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun. We get to see students from all sorts of disciplines—business, sciences, arts, humanities, engineering, and so on. We work with students at every level, from developmental writers to students writing theses and dissertations. The great thing about teaching them is that good writing is the same across the disciplines. Format and citation style change, but a sentence always has a subject and a verb; punctuation stays the same. Our language is much more formulaic than we’ve been taught to believe. At the Writing Lab, we really focus on teaching techniques that students can use as they go forward in their writing.

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).

My first job was writing contracts for a copier company. I lasted six weeks at that job before going to work as a customer service representative for a corporate relocation company. At that time (1985), it was really hard to find work with just an English degree. I’d never heard of technical writing, and I really wasn’t trained to do anything other than read and analyze texts. While that’s certainly a skill, I was too inexperienced to know how to market it as an employable skill. I almost had to land in the wrong place to decide what I really wanted to do. After working at the relocation company for about 18 months, I realized that I missed the intellectual stimulation of the college campus.

I decided that I wanted to teach at the college level, so I went back to school to get my PhD. Because I worked full time, it took a long time for me to finish. I took one course a semester because that’s what I could afford. I’m rarely asked about that, but when I am, it’s a blessing because I’m able to encourage people that graduate school is do-able at almost any pace.

Eventually, I left the relocation company for a teaching fellowship at UNT. That led to a job as the graduate advisor for the English department. I was lucky because they offered me a full-time job when I graduated. Jobs in academia are hard to come by.

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

While I was working at the relocation company, I wrote a software user’s manual, although I didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time. To me, I was just solving a problem. We had an old DOS computer system that we used to price relocations. It wasn’t difficult, but because we had frequent personnel turnover, I seemed to spend a good bit of time explaining how to use it. One day, when I had some time, I wrote how to use the program from “start.” A technical writer was born.

“I’m endlessly in love with the infinite possibilities of words on paper.”

When I started working at UNT, the director of the technical writing program asked me if I would be interested in teaching a technical writing course. My initial thought was “no way.” But she pointed out that I’d been a technical writer for a long time and that if I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t have to do it again. A semester is only 16 weeks long. I tried teaching our introductory technical writing course, and I really enjoyed it. It’s not the same as reading Dickens all day, but that’s really okay. When a student doesn’t like Dickens, it kind of hurts my feelings. When a student doesn’t like where the commas go, he or she is just wrong. I’ve taught more than 100 sections of writing, and I never seem to tire of it. I’m endlessly in love with the infinite possibilities of words on paper. And I learn new things all the time.

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?

Although I got a terrific education, I’m not sure that college really prepared me for post-graduate life. I had to wander and wonder for a while before I found my niche.

I can say that if I’d known how to read them, that most of my experiences were pointing me in a writing-related direction. When I was six, my parents took me to see a musical film adaptation of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Afterward, my mom and I had a discussion about Dickens. I walked away from that with the conviction that Dickens was the best writer in the world, and I have vivid memories of telling people just that. What’s odd is that no one pointed out to me that I couldn’t read yet!

Writing has always felt really natural for me. I won a prize for a short story in first grade. I think I always sought out writing opportunities, too. For instance, one of my friends and I used to beg our teachers to let us write a class newsletter. I competed in Ready Writing, a statewide writing competition on topical issues, when I was in high school. I was on newspaper staff in middle and high school. I kept journals, especially when I participated in study abroad in college. I was a prolific letter writer. Does anybody write letters anymore? It’s a dying art. I think I’ve just always strongly felt the urge to express myself in writing.

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

Here are my top five tips:

1. Allow yourself to make mistakes. You’ll mess up. You will. It’s just part of writing, and it’s one of the best ways to learn.

2. Try something new. When someone asks you to try something new, say “yes.” I’ve spent far more of my academic career teaching subjects outside my specialty than I have teaching subjects in it. That’s given me options, and you can’t trade that for anything. I’ve been able to do some freelance work, and I’ve been able to turn work down. What a luxury!

3. Work on your craft. I’m a big believer in continuing your quest for writing mastery. Try to learn the rules behind grammar and punctuation. Learn about writing techniques. It improves your confidence and your writing because you’re making choices based on knowledge rather than on intuition. It’s also helpful when you’re asked to defend your choices to a client. In my classes, I can send students into a panic by simply asking them to identify the verb. ;) Of course, I always tell them where it is. If you can explain a grammar rule or a technique to someone else so that they can easily understand it, you’ve really mastered that concept.

4. Network! LinkedIn is your friend. You’ll be surprised at how many offers and queries you’ll get from that source alone. Upload some of your work to LinkedIn so that potential employers and/or clients can see what you can do.

5. Read, read, read. Read everything you can, from the writing on the Triscuit box to magazines, online news, and novels. I always tell my students that it doesn’t matter what they read, it just matters that they read. Reading is the best thing you can do to improve your writing.

You can connect with Lisa Jackson on LinkedIn here.


Posted on November 14, 2016 and filed under Technical Writing, Teacher, Teaching.

Bart Leahy: Freelance Technical Writer

Name: Bart Leahy

Age: 47

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.

Bart Leahy's blog, Heroic Technical Writing, can be found here. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn.


Posted on November 14, 2016 and filed under Technical Writing.

Celeste Roberts: Technical Writer

Name: Celeste Roberts

Age: 27

College and Majors/Minors: Nicholls State University - Class of May 2011 - English/Creative Writing with humanities and psychology minors

Current Location: Houma, LA

Current Form of Employment: Technical Writer for a Design & Construction Company and Monthly Contributing Writer for What Now Magazine

Where do you work and what is your current position?

I have worked for three years in Houma, LA, as a technical writer for Submar, Inc., a turnkey professional services company that identifies erosion problems and designs, manufactures, distributes, and constructs a variety of onshore and offshore erosion control solutions. I compose proposals after interpreting field survey forms, drafts of the project sites, and estimates. Each proposal features a site-specific solution to the erosion issue. I also edit legal documents, safety manuals, and company literature, and I track in-house and out-going projects. If a construction project is near our office, I sometimes visit the site with co-workers. In 2016, I started social media and company newsletter committees to showcase Submar's projects externally and internally.

I also freelance monthly as a feature writer for a local magazine, What Now, which shares information on events, shops, people, and restaurants in my hometown.

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).

My first job after graduating from college was in retail at a department store. I actively applied for various jobs while working and saving money. My ultimate goal was to teach English in Japan before settling in a career, but I knew I had to have a backup plan in case my dream didn't happen.

After six months of working in retail, I interviewed with Amity Corporation and accepted a teaching position in Tottori, Japan, where I lived and taught English for six months. It was a life-changing experience that built my confidence and showed me how important proper communication is. About four months after I returned home, I heard a former classmate was starting a local magazine, so I sent him a message and expressed my interest in contributing as a writer.

Shortly after, I accepted a job as the technical writer at Submar in March 2013 after submitting my resume for a completely different position. The manager interviewing me saw my portfolio and noticed my writing abilities, so he mentioned an unadvertised technical writing position if the company president approved (which he did!).

“My campus job taught me how to work with a variety of personalities and also how important knowing one’s audience is. For example, the proposals I compose on a daily basis require technical language and terms specific to our clients while my feature stories for the magazine are more conversational and creative.”

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

I worked as a writing and French tutor for three years on campus. I assisted students from all disciplines and for all types of classes—English, business, culinary, Family and Consumer Sciences, biology... you name it! I helped many students who learned English as a second language, which challenged me to explain grammar rules and syntax a bit differently than I usually did for native English speakers. As writing tutors, we were not allowed to proofread and edit students' papers; we encouraged the student to read his or her paper aloud in order to identify any transition errors or content issues. Our job was to instill confidence and knowledge in "tutees" so that they could become more effective writers. My campus job taught me how to work with a variety of personalities and also how important knowing one's audience is. For example, the proposals I compose on a daily basis require technical language and terms specific to our clients while my feature stories for the magazine are more conversational and creative.

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?

In addition to working in the Tutorial and Academic Enhancement Center, I served as the president of English Society for two and half years and the editor of Mosaic, the campus literary magazine, for one year. I learned marketing and networking skills through my leadership positions. I helped to restructure English Society and market it to encourage more students to join, and now English Society is one of the most popular clubs on my alma mater's campus. I also developed camaraderie with my professors and showed them my determination to succeed within my degree program and in my future career.

“Your degree gives you the critical thinking skills, discipline, and communication proficiency not every degree program has. Writing is a skill that an employer does not have time to sit down and teach you; however, you can learn what your company is about and how to help it flourish with your abilities.”

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

Become involved on campus with any clubs or organizations that interest you and could allow you to showcase your skills. Compile a portfolio of your best works to show potential employers; seek out freelance jobs for a magazine or newspaper to build your material. The "real world" needs your skills more than you realize. Co-workers, friends, family, and referrals reach out to me for editing and writing tasks or freelance jobs frequently. Your degree gives you the critical thinking skills, discipline, and communication proficiency not every degree program has. Writing is a skill that an employer does not have time to sit down and teach you; however, you can learn what your company is about and how to help it flourish with your abilities. Step outside of your comfort zone and apply wherever you can. You never know who will take notice of your resume and talents.

You can check out Celeste's online portfolio here and connect with her on LinkedIn.


Posted on September 17, 2016 and filed under Technical Writing.

Rachel Tallis: Technical Writer & Project Manager

Name: Rachel Tallis

Age: 23

College & Majors/Minors: University of Delaware, English Major with a Concentration in Professional Writing

Current Location: Boston, MA

Current Form of Employment: Full Time Technical Writer and Project Manager

Where do you work and what is your current position?

I work at Sovos Compliance in Massachusetts as a Technical Writer and Project Manager.

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different). 

I’ve had several online writing internships throughout my college career which I found through speakers in classes and e-mails from my department. However, this is my first full time job which I found by using several job hunting websites, such as Monster and LinkedIn.

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

Starting off as a Fashion Merchandising Major, I found myself in online blogging internships which really helped guide me to my current profession. My first internship was writing men’s fashion articles for Men’s Fashion by Francesco, an online magazine. This was important to my career because it showed me how to combine my love of fashion with my passion for writing.

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life? 

“Internships are not just a great resume builder, but they’re great for self-growth as well. Try different types of internships to help you figure out what path you want to take for your profession.”

I completed three online blogging internships throughout my undergraduate career. Each of these internships provided me with knowledge of the business world and showed me how many options I had as a Professional Writing major. My English classes helped me improve on my writing, although my internships taught me how to write in AP Style, which is a common style for articles. I spent my last semester applying to jobs and was lucky enough to receive a job offer right after I graduated.

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

My advice for students with an English degree is to not take your opportunities for granted. Internships are not just a great resume builder, but they’re great for self-growth as well. Try different types of internships to help you figure out what path you want to take for your profession. My advice to graduates with an English degree is to be patient. Your first job may not be your dream job, but you will find wonderful experiences and opportunities to learn and grow.

You can check out Rachel's professional portfolio HERE, take a look at her cooking blog HERE, and connect with her on LinkedIn HERE


Posted on June 19, 2016 and filed under Technical Writing, Project Management, Blogging.

Heather Greiner: Technical Writer

Name: Heather Greiner

Age: 45

College & Majors/Minors: University of California, Santa Barbara

Current Location: Los Angeles, CA

Current Form of Employment: Technical Writer

Where do you work and what is your current position?

I am the Scribe in Chief at CounterTack, Inc, I serve as the Senior Technical Writer.

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different). 

I fell into technical writing right out of college. I applied for a receptionist position with a small computer hardware manufacturer in Southern California and the office manager felt I was overqualified for the position and suggested I speak to the president of the company about a better post. I had never heard of a technical writer, but my degree in English and my background as a mechanic made for a good fit. I have been a technical writer for over 20 years now and I have worked for movie studios, IT security companies, large banks, and a major university. My current position I found through a recommendation of a former coworker—his new company needed someone who could create end-user documentation for a highly complex security project.

“Creating the habit of writing every day and finding a new author or a new genre each month keeps you on top of your game.”

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

I have had the opportunity to write a column for Valley Scene Magazine, I get to write restaurant and hotel reviews, and often get a chance to write about the local music scene. It's a great opportunity to flex a different writing muscle, and to reach a different audience.

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?

In college, I made sure to study a wide range of disciplines under my major; I took linguistics courses to better understand language and culture; I studied prose and poetry, and Eliot, Pound, Milton, Byron, and Shakespeare were a few of the seminars I took each quarter. Expanding my base to further understand how people perceive the written word has been vital to honing my skills to reach my audience regardless of their level.

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

The best advice I have is to write every day and push yourself to read something new each month. As you get older it gets harder to find time, or make time, to do the things you love. Creating the habit of writing every day and finding a new author or a new genre each month keeps you on top of your game.

You can connect with Heather on LinkedIn


Posted on April 29, 2016 and filed under Technical Writing.

Katriel Paige: Usability Specialist

Name: Katriel Paige

Age: 30

College & Majors/Minors: Undergrad: University of Delaware (USA) with a double major in English and East Asian Studies. Minor in comparative religion. Postgrad: I went for an MA at the University of Surrey (UK), and did the Intercultural Communication with International Business course there when my initial course (an interdepartmental effort relating to human - computer interaction) was canceled. 

Current Location: Washington DC

Current Form of Employment: Full-time salaried Usability Specialist. I also do cultural lectures and still write (which is why I have a Patreon: www.patreon.com/kachi) 

Where do you work and what is your current position?

I work in usability; helping websites and web applications be easier to use for everyone. 

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).

My first job was actually back in high school, and I would pick up gigs here and there, but my first job after college was working with a small educational supplement publisher. They specialized in developing supplements meant for teachers of English/language arts in grade school. Because I was familiar with database design principles and had a passion for literature, I got a job researching all the state educational standards and making a key to make sure the supplements met those standards. It was a summer job between undergrad and grad school, but I was really glad to be working there. It meant a lot there that I loved books. (I also wrote the documentation and development notes for the project!)

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

I ended up falling into writing about tech—computers, accessories, gaming. There are a lot of technology writers, admittedly, and it's brutal out there. But I wanted to write about what the tech meant, how people could relate to it, what tasks would be easier. An A9 chip doesn't mean much to most non-industry folk unless you can put it in context, in a narrative: how will this help me do work on the train? How will this help me to stay in contact with friends and family?

In usability (user experience design) we create stories. As humans we are wired for storytelling, so the need to be able to tell stories is everywhere. 

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?

The best advice I have for people currently in school is to build a portfolio. Want to go into writing? Then write. Keep writing. Pitch to places. Don't work for exposure unless you are very clear and upfront about what you want out of it. 

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

An English degree doesn't mean a life of teaching or dreaming of being a novelist. Storytelling is everywhere. Look into how you can apply narrative analysis or close reading to other fields. Cultivate hobbies and write about what you experience in them. Look into cross-training even within writing: even if you desperately want to write for a newspaper, try that poetry workshop or learn about scriptwriting. Like cross-training your body, your writing will be stronger because of it. 


Posted on April 18, 2016 and filed under Interviews, Interview, Technical Writing.

Rick Wiedeman: Instructional Designer

Name: Rick Wiedeman

Age: 49

College & Majors/Minors: Pitzer College (Claremont Colleges), BA English

Current Location: Dallas, Texas

Current Form of Employment: Instructional Designer

Where do you work and what is your current position?

I’m an instructional designer for Hitachi Consulting, the IT and business consulting division of Hitachi, which is one of the largest companies in the world (330,000 employees), based in Tokyo. Our division is in Dallas, with offices worldwide. I’m basically a teacher in a company, instead of a teacher at a school—I write curricula, teach classes in person and over the web, and create elearning on a variety of topics. It’s a lot of fun.

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).

My first job was as a subrights and special sales assistant at Viking-Penguin Books in New York. I fell in love with creative writing in college, and wanted to be involved in the publishing industry. On my first day there, we got a death threat for publishing Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and had to evacuate the building. That was a fun welcome to New York.

Being in publishing was one of those experiences that looked neat on paper, but in reality was rather boring, and had little to do with my skills or interests. I did light typing and filing, and answered phones. My salary was $15,000 a year, and as you can imagine, you can’t live in New York on that—even in the late 1980s. It’s one thing to pay your dues, but it’s another to be miserable all the time. After a few months there, I took a job as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster—$17,000 a year—and the work atmosphere was even worse. The woman who worked next to me jumped off the George Washington Bridge just before Christmas, and my boss mostly went to long lunches and schmoozed with people. I stuck it out for a year, got to be editor for one book, and left. 

After this experience, I felt lost. I returned to my college town, Claremont, California, and got into the PhD program for English literature, but this wasn’t what I expected, either. Grad studies are nothing like undergrad—it was applying obscure philosophical principles to books nobody reads outside of academia. I didn’t see the point in going into debt for this, especially with the poor prospects for recent grads (at this time, fewer than 5% of PhDs in humanities were finding fulltime work). 

“The computer skills I’d developed, combined with my English degree, made me attractive for tech writing jobs.”

I don’t blame publishing or grad school for either of these experiences—I didn’t know who I was, or what I wanted. I was still searching. For me, I learn by doing, and two years out of college I’d learned two things I didn’t want to do: publishing and grad school.

I went back to my hometown of Dallas, Texas, mostly to see old friends. I hadn’t lived at home since I was 18, and didn’t want to be one of those people who got a liberal arts degree and went back to live with their parents, so I slept on a friend’s couch and got temp work. The computer skills I’d developed, combined with my English degree, made me attractive for tech writing jobs. I think my first gig paid $10/hour, or about $20,000 a year, which was livable in Dallas back then. I worked for the technical training division of American Airlines, creating course catalogues and instructor guides. This was mostly layout in Quark and Adobe Pagemaker, which I’d learned working on the college newspaper, but also involved interviewing subject matter experts to build lessons, which I found interesting. 

The neat thing about corporate training is, you learn about a lot of different things -- technology, law, project management, organizational psychology. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys random documentaries, likes people, and who’s good at trivia, it can be a natural fit for a busy mind. Equally important, it paid a living wage, and I didn’t have to share a one bedroom apartment with two other guys on the Upper West Side and eat bologna sandwiches. I could be happy doing this in Dallas, and I was.

Due to my natural interest in technology, I’ve ended up working in corporate training for Microsoft, Siemens, McAfee, and now Hitachi, where I’ve been for six years -- the longest I’ve ever been at the same place. Maybe in middle age, I’m finally settling down. They give me great freedom to approach projects as I see fit, and it’s satisfying work.

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

Everything I’ve done (teaching, ad copy, tech writing, corporate training) has been shaped and supported by my writing skills. To me, good writing is the result of clear thinking. What I really learned in college was how to think clearly. I’d argue that if you can’t write well, you’re not thinking well. Writing is the evidence. People who approach it as a separate skill are missing the point.

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?

I was on a work-study program at Pitzer College—my financial aid was tied to keeping a job on campus that worked around my schedule. The first two years of college, I was a security escort. I mostly accompanied young women to the library, which was across three other campuses (Claremont has five colleges, a grad school, and a school of theology). That was a good gig.

“So, it was really the combination of writing skill and technical skill that shaped my career, though at the time I didn’t think of it in such formal terms. I just enjoyed writing, and needed a college job for gas money.”

My second job, junior and senior years, was running the computer lab. This was in the days before everyone had a personal computer. Pitzer is a liberal arts college, and most students went to the lab to type their papers. I was given the key to the lab. That was my entire training experience. Basically, I was guarding the equipment. As students complained about losing papers or not being able to print -- these were the days where the operating system and the word processing program were on the same 5 1/4 inch floppy disk—I slowly figured out how these damn machines worked, and found I liked helping people. It turned out to be two valuable career skills that I’ve maintained throughout my life.

So, it was really the combination of writing skill and technical skill that shaped my career, though at the time I didn’t think of it in such formal terms. I just enjoyed writing, and needed a college job for gas money.

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

Don’t leap into grad programs expecting you’ll find work afterward. I’ve had several English MAs and PhDs work for me on various projects over the years. Check the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and pay attention to job projections. It’s fine to have a passion -- mine is creative writing, and I do it every week, if not every day—but I don’t try to pay the bills with it. You need to live. And you probably don’t need a Masters or PhD to do that. 

I think a lot of people go into grad school to feel good about themselves—grad degrees are like grown up merit badges. There are more fulfilling, and less expensive, ways to expand your mind and use your talents. For me, that’s writing. All I need is a library and the internet, both of which are practically free.

“Getting that first royalty check the month after publishing the first book made me feel like a real writer. (That’s my definition of “real.” If you got paid, you’re a pro.)”

The great thing about writing and publishing today is, you don’t need to be in New York to do it, and frankly, you don’t need an agent and a publisher taking 87.5% of your royalties to get your stories out there. Though at first I resisted self-publishing, since diving into it four years ago, it’s been one of the best experiences of my life. The first thing I wrote -- a short novel about a father and daughter trying to get from Dallas to Galveston after an apocalypse—did surprisingly well. I made two thousand dollars. The follow up novels did OK, but were a bit indulgent, and got mixed reviews; that’s OK, too. I’ve learned from that. I wrote a supernatural horror novella, which did poorly, and am now at work on a psychological suspense novel. The only investment has been my time and effort, and it’s been a great satisfaction to me. Getting that first royalty check the month after publishing the first book made me feel like a real writer. (That’s my definition of “real.” If you got paid, you’re a pro.)

If I were going the traditional route, I’d have to spend at least a year getting an agent. She’d spend at least a year marketing my book. If it sold, the publisher would spend a year doing covers and editing and scheduling production... and all that assumes perfect success each step of the way, which seldom happens. You’re about as likely to succeed in traditional publishing as you are to be a movie star. 

I’m not anti-traditional publishing. I may try that route it someday. But I know enough about the industry to have realistic expectations, and I love the full control self-publishing offers.

My personal website is rickwiedeman.com and I’m on Twitter @rickwiedeman. I’m happy to talk to any of my fellow writers about my self-publishing experience, and share what little I know about traditional publishing. My ebooks on Amazon are here.