Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Good technical writers in high demand

Young people, consider a career as a technical writer. It pays well (though not as well as engineers or doctors), offers solid work and good promotional tracks, and because your work is much needed, you'll have steady employment opportunities your whole career. When you retire, you can still do it part-time or independently, and if you're good at it, it can be very satisfying.

Why are tech writers so needed? Consider that just about every product or service made and offered for sale must offer clear instructions/information/labels/warnings perhaps to the buyer/consumer on the nature of the product or service, its description, its features, how to put it together and take it apart, how to operate it, maintain it, service it or replace parts of it, etc. All of this information must usually be written and read.

But the people who design, manufacture, and sell the product often don't have a very good skill at communicating about the product to other people. So they hire technical writers to write the user manuals and instructions clearly.

What happens when poor or confusing instructions go out with the product? Their phone lines and emails get clogged with befuddled consumers seeking clarification and assistance, and that costs the company much more to staff and maintain than the good tech writer's compensation.

But why can't anyone write good instructions? It's in the way the person thinks. Engineers think in highly technical and precise ways, often quantitatively. They may do that naturally or by training and experience. But it's not natural for them to try to speak to the end user of their designs and systems directly in unambiguous, "layman's" terms the user is apt to understand clearly. Executives and sales personnel think in qualitative as well as quantitative terms, and again seldom understand the engineering/manufacturing complexities of their products. They are concerned with results and bottom lines, markets and features of products that work as intended, not with the inner workings of such products.

But technical writing is mainly concerned with bridging the gap between those with specialized knowledge of the product or service and consumers. Technical writers, ironically, usually don't need technical knowledge. But they do need curiosity and the ability to learn from the engineers and marketing people those things which the consumer needs to know. Above all they need to know how to ask the right questions and couch the answers in plain language.

I taught both technical writing and creative writing at a technical university, and I well remember the main difference I had to try to stress between the two: creative writing tries to suggest many meanings, connote rich associations, offer more than one interpretation; technical writing tries to eliminate all meanings except one. One clear, exact, singular meaning is what the technical writer hopes to convey to each reader, with no other interpretation possible, in every statement, every instruction.

With the society becoming more and more dependent upon sophisticated technology and communications, the future is bound to be bright for a good technical writer.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Escape the heat to Florida? Actually, yes

The heat waves this summer over most of the nation are horrific, but worst in the north where such heat isn't normal and electric grids aren't up to handling the extra loads. And when the transformers and feeder lines blow, so do tops and tempers.

We used to stay at Barb's parents' house when we visited in northern Indiana each summer, and bake in the heat waves that came through, even in June. They had no AC till grandpa finally broke down and got a window unit for the living room a few years ago, but it wasn't able to cool or dehumidify the living quarters. Since we slept upstairs, it was so stifling even with window fans that we moved the mattress to the floor, and sometimes just sacked out on the living room carpet to get into the feeble stream of cooled air.

We've travelled in some of the super heat waves that killed several hundred people nationwide over the years, with temps well over 100 or even over 115, all the while praying the car unit wouldn't poop out on us, which it often did on our older vehicles. And this summer's cookers for days or weeks on end have turned St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and other megacities into griddles with no escape.

We've come into Las Vegas in 120 degree heat and abandoned our VW camper for the only night in an AC''d motel. We've camped in Tennessee in 108 degrees and spent nearly the whole day in the pool. But it's always worst where these kinds of conditions are not normal, where tenements are without air conditioning and where people uncap the hydrants to get into a spritz of relief.

That's why I can't complain about living in good old South Florida, where the rest of the country assumes we'd be the worst off in these heat waves but are not. Our daytime highs are in the 90's but not unbearable because there's AC wherever we go, in all our homes and all our cars and trucks, trains and busses. Air conditioning opened the South to development, it is said--made the southern states tolerable places in which to live and work, not just someplace exotic to visit. Because it's the norm to need conditioned air more or less all year long here, we're prepared for it.

But it's not the heat that drives us all to the refuge of our air conditioned spaces; it's the humidity. Ask anyone who has been here in July or August and they will all say the same thing: it's not the heat, it's the humidity. And the humidity is caused by the fact that our state juts out 600 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded on three sides by water, we always have that moderating sea/land breeze to keep the air moving slightly and avoid the force-air highs, domes of fire which sit for weeks over other states and literally cook everything: crops, structures, animals and people. But the humidity, which make it impossible to work outside for more than five minutes at a time without coming in with your clothes soaking wet, is the very thing that keeps our temperatures lower and more moderated than the drier, blowtorch heat waves plagueing the rest of the nation. So our humidity is our great blessing in disguise.

I walk each day, usually before nine. But I always come back in with a perspiring brow and spotted tee-shirt. So this morning, in celebration of August, I changed from my usual jeans to shorts. It didn't help that much. I still spot-perspired through. But I was not uncomfortable, and a few minutes in the air conditioned drier air inside made everything hunky-dory. That's why I'll take the humid heat here over the dryer heat waves elsewhere every time. It's hard to believe, but if you want to escape the heat, come to South Florida!