Features May/June 2020

To Boldly Go Where (Almost) No Technical Communicator Has Gone Before

By Yehoshua Paul

“Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”—Isaac Asimov

There are two types of people who know everything: technical communicators and science fiction writers. Technical communicators know how to gather all the information on a given topic, assemble it into a cohesive structure, and communicate it through a variety of channels and outputs to the appropriate target audience. Science fiction writers take things one step further by gathering their knowledge from unknown futures waiting to be documented. Both professions share a lot in common, and in fact many famous science fiction authors actually jump-started their careers using skills they learned in a documentation department.

These include the following:

  • Ray Cummings, the founding father of pulp science fiction, who was also Thomas Edison’s personal technical writer
  • Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five, who began his career as a technical writer for General Electric (GE)
  • Philip José Farmer, a grandmaster of science fiction who moonlighted as a technical writer for various defense contractors
  • Gene Wolfe, author of The Book of the New Sun series, who worked for many years as a senior technical editor for the Planet Engineering journal
  • Ted Chiang, an award-winning science fiction short story writer and former technical writer for Microsoft

Science fiction and technical writing are obviously different professions, however, they both rely on a similar impulse: the desire to explain an idea clearly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a short story for a pulp magazine or a highly technical hardware manual, you still want your readers to finish the story and complete the procedure—and then buy the product, because documentation sells! How do you think Thomas Edison sold his inventions?

 

 

Long before the age of agile, Thomas Edison was busy inventing new devices at a rapid pace. With over 1,000 patents to his name, the busy inventor needed someone capable of explaining to the masses what exactly his brilliant mind was producing. Fortunately for him, from 1914 to 1919, he had Ray Cummings as a technical writer and personal assistant.

While working for the Edison Laboratories, Cummings was responsible for editing internal communication and writing copy for the many inventions being produced. During this period, Cummings also experimented with fiction writing and managed to sell several short stories to pulp magazines such as The All-Story, Argosy, and Weird Tales (Figure 1).

His first, and arguably best, novel was The Girl in the Golden Atom. Cummings originally wrote it as a two-part story, which was serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. When reading the story, you can detect some hints of Cummings’s technical writing origins. The characters all have roles but no names, and the science, while dubious, is explained clearly and succinctly. In my opinion, this clarity did much to contribute to the author’s initial success (that, and his wild ideas).

The first part of the story was an instant success, and it enabled the budding author to leave Edison Laboratories and launch a full-time career as a professional writer. Cummings, like his mentor, produced at a very rapid pace, and by the end of his career had written roughly 750 novels and short stories under a variety of pen names (a common practice back then for pulp writers). These stories included dozens of new inventions and ideas that would later be adopted by mainstream science fiction, such as artificial gravity, lunar mining, and moon domes. However, despite his incredible output and innovative ideas, the author is still remembered primarily for his contribution to the pulp genre.

Pulp fiction, like technical writing, was a genre that was afforded little respect. Authors who sought mainstream recognition were forced to distance themselves from the cheap reputation of the magazines in which these types of stories were published. Pulp fiction, however, was also a convenient way for starving authors to make a living and was a method for gaining experience in professional writing. It was a difficult dilemma, and one with which, decades later, Kurt Vonnegut was forced to grapple as he struggled to get recognized.

 

 

One of Thomas Edison’s greatest legacies is GE. During the late forties and early fifties, the company began experimenting with automation—more work for fewer workers. GE employees were true believers when it came to worshipping technology. However, they also had some very real concerns about their jobs. This general atmosphere deeply affected Kurt Vonnegut, who at the time was working as a technical writer and publicist for GE’s public relations department.

Vonnegut’s work at GE required him to frequently interact with scientists and engineers. He would often visit his more technical colleagues to talk to them and discover what they were up to. (Sound familiar?) It was important for both documentation and PR. These visits supplied him with plenty of good stories and provided much-needed inspiration for the budding author.

In 1950, Vonnegut sold his first story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” to Collier’s. Following the sale, with some coaching from the magazine’s fiction editor, Vonnegut wrote another short story, “Thanasphere,” which sold for $950. The money generated from these stories was enough to convince Vonnegut that he could become a writer. Therefore, in 1951 he quit GE and began writing full time—which isn’t surprising, all things considered.

Vonnegut wanted to express himself. Technical writers, however, get to express only the corporate voice, using very simplified language. Then, like now, a good technical writer was invisible and undetectable, and in this respect, Vonnegut was no different from the rest of the engineers and scientists at GE—allowed to produce but not able to voice his concerns. For an author, this would be torture. Therefore, Vonnegut decided to risk everything and turn to science fiction.

After selling several short stories to various magazines, Vonnegut was able to publish his first novel, Player Piano, an automation dystopia that satirized his experiences working for GE (Figure 2). The novel is set in a post–World War III America in which most factory workers have been replaced by machines, and this was enough to label the novel as science fiction, despite many favorable reviews.

Vonnegut did not view himself as a science fiction writer. His issue was less with the genre itself and more with how serious critics perceived it as a writing “urinal.” Vonnegut wrote about technology, which was an area well outside the scope of most mainstream authors. Therefore, they perceived his writing as a fantasy of the future and not a satire of the present. Unfortunately for the struggling author, he still needed to make a living, and this meant continuing to write what sold, even if it was going to be perceived as science fiction. Fortunately, by the sixties, the attitude had changed, and Vonnegut was eventually able to gain the recognition he had more than earned.

 

 

The 1960s was the era of the New Wave of science fiction, a period in which the genre experienced many changes, including:

  • Experimental writing that affected both form and content
  • Greater focus on the “softer” sciences of sociology and psychology
  • Less concern over scientific accuracy
  • Literary and artistic sensibilities

These changes helped make science fiction much more relatable to mainstream critics, who were no longer required to understand chemistry and physics. They also gave a much-needed boost to Philip José Farmer, a struggling science fiction author who moonlighted as a technical writer while working hard to support his family.

Farmer was a pioneer when it came to sexual and religious themes. His first short story, “The Lovers”—which featured a sexual relationship between a human and an alien—was rejected twice before being published in the August 1952 issue of Startling Stories (Figure 3). The story was immediately popular, and in 1953 Farmer won a Hugo Award for Best New Writer. This first-time success was enough to convince him to quit his job and become a full-time writer. He entered a publisher’s contest and won the $4,000 first prize for his novel, Owe for the Flesh—then got to experience firsthand what happens to writers who don’t get paid. After going bankrupt and selling his house, Farmer resumed work—as a technical writer.

Between 1956 and 1969, Farmer worked as a technical writer for various defense contractors: GE, Motorola’s military electronics division, and McDonnell-Douglas. He was also forced to move his family several times—from New York to Arizona to Michigan—until they eventually ended up in Los Angeles, California. All the while, Farmer continued writing and slowly establishing his reputation.

The fifties eventually gave way to the sixties, and with the new decade came the Beatles, hippies, the sexual revolution, Star Trek, and a new audience that could enable Farmer to live long and prosper as a science fiction author. The New Wave of science fiction allowed Farmer to:

  • Expand “The Lovers” into a full-length novel
  • Write and publish The Maker of Universes, the first book in his World of Tiers series
  • Transform a rejected Star Trek script into a short story, “The Shadow of Space”
  • Win a Hugo Award for Best Novella for Riders of the Purple Wage

In 1969, just before the United States landed its first men on the moon, McDonnell-Douglas decided to lay off a large portion of its workforce. Farmer by this point was more than popular. He quit moonlighting as a technical writer and resumed full-time writing—successfully! As a result, fans everywhere got to enjoy the rest of the World of Tiers series, the Riverworld series, and a variety of fan fiction novels on Tarzan and Doc Savage. The sixties had more than done their work.

 

 

By the seventies, science fiction was a more established and respected writing genre. The New Wave of science fiction was no longer all that new, because authors like Farmer had paved the way. As a result, there was much more room for new talent to grow and flourish. One of these talents was Gene Wolfe, who between 1972 and 1984 worked as a senior editor for the journal Plant Engineering until the siren call of science fiction lured him away.

Wolfe’s position required a high degree of technical knowledge in a variety of fields. In 2013, in an interview with Ultan’s Library coeditor, Nigel Price, Wolfe revealed the following:

I was the editor for power transmission (hydraulics, gears, pneumatics, belts, et cetera) and fastening and joining (welding, glue, screws, et cetera), and also the editor for cartoons and letters-to-the-editor. There was an electrical editor, a construction editor, a materials-handling editor, a maintenance editor, a safety editor, and so forth. It was hard at times, and easy at others.

Oh yes . . . How in the world did I forget this? I was also robot editor. I went to robot school twice, once for hydraulic ’bots and once for all-electric. And I wrote or developed the robotics articles.

In the same interview, Wolfe also disclosed that he was responsible for “supplying” (that is, “writing”) cover articles and providing high-quality images, without the help of QA. When he wasn’t writing the articles himself, he would frequently purchase them from technical writers. As a result, he developed a deep appreciation of the profession, because then, like now, it was “a greatly underrated skill.”

During his time as a senior editor, Wolfe was able to balance his editing duties and his science fiction writing. Despite the work pressure, he was able to complete The Fifth Head of Cerberus and his Book of the New Sun series, both considered to be masterpieces (Figure 4). These stories cemented Wolfe’s reputation as one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time. Therefore, the only dilemma he really had to face when he quit Plant Engineering was whether he was ready to give up writing technical content—because even science fiction has its limits.

 

 

Wolfe’s transition helps to illustrate the dramatic evolution the genre had undergone since the time of Ray Cummings. In the mid-eighties, science fiction was no longer categorized as pulp worthy only of cheap magazines. It was now a recognized genre that frequently received mainstream attention. Nerds were starting to become popular. By 2020, they have come to almost completely dominate popular culture.

In the past 30 years, fandoms have flourished. An insatiable demand has been created, which means that there are now hundreds of new books being published each year, as well as countless short stories, movies, television series, games, comic books, and merchandise. Niche fandoms are now mainstream common knowledge, and with the advent of social media, they’ve gone viral. As a result, it’s much more difficult for readers to discover the latest and greatest science fiction authors—which is why the Hugo Awards exist. Without them, it would be almost impossible to discover Ted Chiang, a technical writer for Microsoft (Figure 5).

Chiang has been winning awards for his short stories and novellas since the early nineties. However, until recently, he avoided committing to full-time writing, preferring to also do freelance work for Microsoft, where he wrote reference materials for programmers. Chiang’s reputation would have enabled him to quit his day job as a technical writer several years ago, but he didn’t want to force himself to write novels to make a living. Instead, he preferred to write at his own pace, dividing his time between the two professions. This choice has given him a rare opportunity for introspection on the differences between these two types of writing.

When asked about his two professions, Chiang has frequently responded that although they are not closely aligned in technique, the goals are still fairly similar, and they draw on the same portion of his brain. Both in technical writing and fiction writing, good explanations are important. Therefore, he’s interested in clarity and in helping readers understand the concepts he is introducing. As a result, he frequently invests a lot of thought about the best way to communicate his ideas to readers, which has led to some very interesting approaches.

When writing a story, Chiang always first establishes his ending. It is only when he knows where he is going that he can actually begin writing. In my opinion, this can also provide some useful insights into technical writing. Before beginning documentation, we should be asking ourselves about the desired goal of our content and what it needs to accomplish. With that in mind, we can decide on the best method, output type, and publication channel to accomplish that goal. After all, it’s not rocket science; it’s science fiction!

Yehoshua Paul (ysp10182@gmail.com) is a father, geek, blogger, and technical communicator. He currently works as a technical communicator for Tufin in Tel Aviv, Israel. Yehoshua has been active in Israel’s technical communication industry since 2009. Over the course of his career, he has had a wide range of roles and responsibilities that enabled him to engage in translation, editing, marketing, and product design, as well as technical communication. Yehoshua helped found tekom’s Israel chapter and is a certified reviewer for tekom. When he’s not attending local technical communication meetups, he writes about historical science fiction and fantasy books for his personal blog, www.seferhaomer.com.

 

References

McCarron, Meghan. 2016. “The Legendary Ted Chiang on Seeing His Stories Adapted and the Ever-Expanding Popularity of SF.” Electric Lit, 18 July 2016. https://electricliterature.com
/the-legendary-ted-chiang-on-seeing-his-stories-adapted-and-the-ever-expanding-popularity-of-sf/#.3xqvesdh0
.

Official Philip José Farmer Web Page. “Philip Jose Farmer Timeline.” Accessed 8 July 2020. http://www.pjfarmer.com/ABOUT-timeline.html.

Person, Lawrence. 1998. “Suns New, Long, and Short: An Interview with Gene Wolfe.” Nova Express 5, no. 1, Fall/Winter 1998. http://web.archive.org
/web/20080517034203/http://home.austin.rr.com/lperson/wolfe.html
.

Price, Nigel. 2013. “Gene Wolfe’s Time at Plant Engineering”. Ultan’s Library, 27 July 2013. http://ultan.org.uk/plant-engineering.

Rothman, Joshua. 2017. “Ted Chiang’s Soulful Science Fiction.” The New Yorker, 5 January 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest
/ted-chiangs-soulful-science-fiction
.

Vonnegut, Kurt. 1985. “How to Write with Style.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication PC-24, no. 2: 66–67.

Yeh, James. 2019. “An Interview with Ted Chiang.” The Believer 128. https://believermag.com/an-interview-with-ted-chiang.

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