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From Starving Artist to Well-Paid Writer: Transitioning from Fiction to Technical Communication

By Andrea J. Wenger | Senior Member

Are you a creative writer starving for your art? You don’t have to be. In technical communication you can make a good living as a writer, improve your skills, and still find time to write fiction.

I work full-time as a technical communicator and write women’s fiction in my spare time. With the help of five writers with experience in both fields, I’ve compiled information and advice for fiction authors exploring technical communication.

Common Skill Sets

Many of the skills of fiction authors will serve them well in a career as a technical writer.

Creativity

In a guest post on Tom Johnson’s I’d Rather Be Writing blog, Lopa Mishra explains the role of creativity in technical communication: “You need to take care of every little detail that helps make the user’s life easy. You have to think of new ways to convey information if the traditional approaches do not work for the user. On many occasions, you have to make sense out of chaos, bring order to haphazard chunks of information, and organize random facts” (http://idratherbewriting.com/2012/03/14/guest-post-is-technical-writing-creative/).

My process for writing fiction isn’t all that different. I have plot points and bits of dialogue floating in my head, and I compile that scattered information into a draft of a scene. Then, I go back and layer in the emotional elements that turn the raw material into a story that will engage the reader.

Facility with language

Most people who pursue writing as a profession love words and enjoy putting them together into sentences. Their innate sense of flow moves the piece forward in a way that feels logical to the reader, and if the structure is off, they can sense it.

Knowledge of grammar and style is critical to the success of both fiction and technical writers. In fiction, a good editor can often fix problems for you. In technical communication, though, employers may rely on peer editing, so you’re expected to be as knowledgeable about grammar and style as an editor.

Panelists
Betty Bolte

Fiction: novel-length romantic, historical, and paranormal fiction
Tech comm: technical editing, user manuals, award justifications
Website: www.bettybolte.com

Brianne M. Kohl

Fiction: literary short stories and flash fiction
Tech comm: project management and technical writing
Website: www.briannekohl.com

Joan Leacott

Fiction: contemporary small-town romance
Tech comm: programming, user manuals
Website: http://joanleacott.wordpress.com/books/

Bart Leahy

Fiction: science fiction short stories
Tech comm: chief of communications in aerospace industry, technical proposal writing, engineering documents, marketing materials, fact sheets
Website: http://bartacus.blogspot.com/ and http://heroictechwriting.wordpress.com/

Julio Vazquez

Fiction: crime fiction, detective novels, general fiction
Tech comm: information architecture, user manuals for hardware and software, member of the initial DITA task force
Website: www.lulu.com/spotlight/julio

Discipline

Both fiction and technical writers must respect deadlines. A novel is a product, as is software or hardware, and the writer’s job is to help ensure that the product releases on time.

Also, fiction authors know that constructive feedback is critical to the success of a writing project. So do technical communicators. While tech writers are less emotionally attached to their words than creative writers are, both groups must develop a thick skin when it comes to editing.

Intellectual curiosity

The ability to conduct research and ensure accuracy is important in both fields. Fiction writers ask what if?, exploring various plot options. They research historical events, unique settings, and unusual careers to create more interesting stories. Historical fiction author Betty Bolte makes sure the words she uses existed at the time when the story is set.

Technical writers want to understand how the products they document work. Science fiction writer Bart Leahy was once spotted at his desk reading a textbook on object-oriented programming because he wanted to know what the programmers around him were doing. As a technical writer, you’re not expected to be an expert on the subject matter you write about, but you need a basic understanding.

Focus on Reader Experience

Fiction authors need an empathetic imagination, both to get into the viewpoint of their characters and to create a satisfying emotional experience for the reader.

User experience is also an important part of tech comm. “Putting yourself in the user’s seat,” says contemporary romance writer Joan Leacott, “is the best way to write documentation, especially for users new to a complex application.”

Differences in Craft

Of course, many differences exist between the craft of fiction writing and that of technical writing.

Artistry vs. Precision

In fiction, I often use figurative language like metaphors. Instead of stating the meaning directly, I may imply it and let readers draw their own conclusion. Maybe the words are intentionally ambiguous or contain a double entendre. These devices are part of the artistry of fiction—and they’re disastrous in technical communication.

Technical writers say what they mean. They say it bluntly, in few words.

“Fiction writing wants to look for the right word or phrase to evoke an emotion,” says crime fiction writer Julio Vazquez. In technical communication, the reader wants you to get to the point. Even though technical writing needs to provide enough context to orient readers to the task, too much will overwhelm them and keep them from reading on. “Too many words in technical writing tend to keep the reader from achieving their goal.”

Solo vs. Team Effort

Fiction writers work independently. They may have editors or publishers or agents to please, but the writer tells the story and holds the copyright.

Tech writers don’t own their content. It’s the company’s story to tell. The technical writer may have significant control over the how, but not the what. They rely on subject matter experts (SMEs) to provide them with source material and to approve the documentation.

Skill Growth Opportunities in Tech Comm

Technical communication offers many opportunities to learn skills that aren’t normally available to fiction writers.

Tool Skills
  • Word processing: Most technical communication jobs require the mastery of desktop publishing tools like Adobe FrameMaker or MadCap Flare. Leacott says, “As a technical writer, I created complex documents, so Word holds no mystery for me. It’s easy for me to create manuscripts that are easy to format for self-publishing.”
  • Photo editing: In my technical communication work, I regularly edit product photos and catalog cover images in Photoshop. So when I took an online course on creating book covers, I was already comfortable with the software and had a basic understanding of good design.
  • Coding: Many technical communication jobs require a basic familiarity with HTML or XML coding. If you want to design your own website or produce e-books as an indie author, this knowledge is handy.

Working with different software packages teaches you perseverance and problem-solving skills. More important than any specific tools knowledge you gain is the experience of learning a wide variety of tools—and realizing that new technology is nothing to fear.

Soft Skills

The focus on user experience in tech comm can improve your fiction, Vazquez says. “I tend to think more of the audience now than when I first started writing fiction.”

Leahy agrees. “In my nonfiction work, I usually have to hit a specific page or word count, make the engineers happy, occasionally make the lawyers happy, and still make the readers ‘happy’ to the extent that they understand what I’m saying.” He applies this mindset to his fiction as well. “Technical writing has definitely helped me in the quality-control portion of my prose.”

“Knowing how to break down a complex issue,” says Leacott, “to decide what’s important to tell, is invaluable in writing a synopsis.” The same holds true of outlines: “The ability to break something down into a cause-and-effect sequence is invaluable in producing a solid outline before I begin writing the story.”

Career and Professional Development in Tech Comm

Technical writing offers some advantages that fiction writing doesn’t. For most authors, as Vazquez notes, there’s “definitely more money in technical writing.” The broader variety of skills required gives writers the opportunity to choose from among a number of specializations and rise to expert status. Bolte notes that it’s easier to receive recognition as a professional writer and editor in a technical arena than as a fiction author.

Literary fiction author Brianne Kohl says of technical communication, “The corporate structure allows upward mobility and usually has the requirements for that stated somewhere.… Succeeding as a fiction writer seems a lot more ambiguous to me.”

Working in a business environment teaches tech writers about the costs of producing documentation. I’m sometimes called on to estimate the number of hours required to develop a documentation set. I also get quotes from our translation service and print vendors. These experiences have taught me that words cost money, so writing concisely is a valuable skill.

Impact of Tech Writing on Fiction Writing
Negatives

“Technical writing has downsides for the person who wishes to write creatively off duty,” Leahy says. “You’re using the same brain cells to craft words for both types of work.… If I’ve been burning through a proposal all day, my brain wants a break from writing.”

“The simplicity of sentence structure required for user documentation really gets in the way of narrative,” Leacott says. “I have to concentrate to go beyond the obvious ‘It’s a chilly spring day and there’s a party happening.’”

“As a technical writer,” says Kohl, “you must be clear and concise, following a very specific style guide. It is easy to pare down when writing topic based tasks but your head can get stuck in that mode.”

Positives

Leahy notes that technical writing offers benefits for science fiction authors. “I get to learn how actual science and technology work, as opposed to the processes I was imagining or that you might find on TV or even in textbooks. First-hand knowledge makes things more real and technically correct.”

“Technical writing forces me to give complete information using as few words as possible,” Kohl says. “So, in editing fiction, that is actually a really good skill to have.”

Says Bolte, “The greater focus on audience analysis and readability leads to a more focused approach to addressing the expectations of the reader.… Knowing who will read the fiction, by age group, demographic, etc., guides me to write so that ‘reader’ will enjoy the story.”

Potential Pitfalls of Using Creativity in Tech Comm

Sometimes, creative word choices must be avoided in tech comm. In situations where safety is concerned, wording must conform to corporate standards. Also, many employers maintain a list of deprecated terms (that is, words writers aren’t supposed to use) for consistency’s sake. If you use “variable frequency” in one place and “adjustable frequency” in another, users may not realize that those terms mean the same thing.

In fiction writing, word choice is often tied to atmospherics. Not so in technical writing. Says Bolte, “I have to be very careful not to choose just any word to substitute for another one in order to not change the intended meaning of the sentence.”

Kohl says, “As a technical writer, I follow a very specific style guide. Corporate decides so much of that and reviewers and approvers wouldn’t tolerate a lot of creativity. The target reader wouldn’t like it, either. They want to know what they need to know as quickly as possible.”

Advantages of Creative Writing Skills in Tech Comm

Under certain circumstances, Bolte says, a more entertaining style could better engage the user. This might be true when writing proposals, for example, or a script for a video.

While the tech writer’s job isn’t to entertain readers, I do try to keep mine awake. Fiction writing has taught me the importance of sound. Readers hear the words in their heads as they read, so using more impactful words helps to avoid lulling them into a stupor.

Leahy says it’s worthwhile to ask whether you’re telling a good “story” in your business prose. “Even technical documents require a certain narrative flow that makes sense.”

In addition, Vazquez points out that analogies are useful in technical writing, helping readers understand new technology by comparing it with something familiar.

Education and Experience

If you want a career in technical communication, you’ll almost certainly need a bachelor’s degree. Most jobs also require training in the field. If you don’t have experience or a degree in technical communication, formal education can help fill the gap. You can pursue a masters degree or enroll in a certificate program (like the one available from the continuing studies department at Duke University).

Kohl offers several tips for novice technical writers:

  • Take advantage of the educational opportunities offered by STC.
  • Volunteer for an open-source software manufacturer to build your skills and portfolio.
  • Seek out as much experience as you can find and add it to your résumé, even if you weren’t paid.
  • Work with a recruiter or a tech writing staffing firm.
  • Visit odesk.com to find freelance opportunities.
  • Network with other freelancers for support and information, especially on the business end (like taxes).
Conclusion

Technical communication is a good career choice for someone seeking to write professionally. It pays well, and the skills you learn can have a positive effect on your fiction writing.

Kohl says, “I’ve heard technical writing described as the ‘dark side’ of writing. Or, selling out. But, artisitic integrity doesn’t pay my mortgage and my day job gives me the freedom I need to pursue fiction writing as a second job. So, I’m thankful for it.”

Andrea J. Wenger is a technical writer at Schneider Electric in Raleigh, NC. She serves on the STC Nominating Committee and as past president of the Carolina Chapter. President of the Women’s Fiction Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, she contributed to the anthology Heart of the Matter by the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers.

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