Dances with Words:
My Life as a Technical Writer

Martha J. Kolman-Davidson -
236 West Portal #143; San Francisco, CA 94127; (415) 648-4232


How I fell into tech writing...

<originally posted to the techwr-l mailing list in August, 1998>

I never really wanted to be a tech writer; I didn't even believe I could write at all, and I certainly didn't like it.

What I did (and still do) like was shapes, structures, systems, details, and things that fit together in a way that I seem to be able to see clearly when other people just sit around baffled... I also love languages, and words and language in general.

Like many other writers, I had some phenomenal English teachers in high school, who taught me the rudiments of English grammar and the structure and history of the language. As I studied French, and later German, Hebrew, and a number of other Semitic languages, I saw more and more of the underlying structure of languages and how words fit together in extremely beautiful and sometimes immensely complex patterns.

During high school I also delved deeply into my math courses, absorbing algebra, geometry, logic, trigonometry, and calculus as fast as I could. Again, I loved the shapes, structures, and patterns I was seeing. When I went to college, I became a math major, focusing also on logic and languages (primarily French and German). In my freshman year I took my first (and only) computer course: numerical analysis using FORTRAN, on an IBM 1130 with punch cards. Yes, that was a long time ago.

Something happened during that course that shaped my world view and has influenced my career ever since. I was having a hard time making heads or tails of what I was doing in that class, and I couldn't get any of the geeks in the computer center to answer any questions for me, beyond a cryptic monosyllable or two.

I was so frustrated that I swore never to touch a computer again. Clearly, that didn't stick, but a subtle level of technophobia did. Which I believe makes me even more qualified to do what I do today: document complex software objects and processes to people with a reasonable level of intelligence who just don't know this information yet. I can explain things in non-jargon terms to people I know will be able to understand, and I can identify the hidden assumptions and clarify "that one thing" that will make it all make sense.

After I graduated from college, I didn't know what to do with myself to make money. My roommate, another veteran of that same computer center who had made her way through without my confusion and technophobia, found her first job as a technical writer. I had little idea what that meant and no idea of what the job was about.

Not long after that I found a job ad in the Boston Globe that said, "if you have a liberal arts degree and aren't afraid to learn about computers, let us teach you." Well, OK, I fudged about not being afraid, but I got the job, and became a software engineer at a company that made front-end systems for phototypesetters. As I worked with hyphenation algorithms for English, French, German, and Spanish, I learned everything I could about typography. Along the way, I became friends with the writers there and offered to read preliminary versions of the documentation, which I always marked up as I read it, with grammatical corrections, and questions in the margin about sections that were unclear.

A few years later I moved to San Francisco, where I found another software engineering job, again with a company that made software that worked with words and language. That time I worked with the spelling checker module of the ill-fated word processor SuperWriter, on CP/M machines. My first assignment was to learn the software by reviewing the draft User's Guide. As I read, I marked up places where the text didn't match what I saw on the screen and where things didn't work quite the way the manual said they would. And I still had no interest in being a writer, and had little idea what tech writers actually did.

At my next job, there were no tech writers. After a while they hired a contract writer, whose expertise seemed to be in marketing literature. I was assigned to work with him, and in a meeting I asked him what his vision was for the manual we were working on. When he had no answer, I thought about the question, then stood up at the white board, and said, "Well, it seems to me that after an introduction, we should have a hardware overview, then a software overview, and then maybe a quick tutorial showing how to so some basic things to make this XYZ work; what do you think?" And my boss agreed, and told me to make it happen. Because I didn't believe I could write, I arranged to have other people create first drafts of each section, and took on the tutorial chapter myself. As each section was ready, I consolidated it and edited it, passing it on to the contract writer for final formatting. Thus, a tech writing career was created.

After that, I found one more job as a software engineer, again with a company that had no writers. Again, I went through the existing documentation, which was in the form of a system definition overview that would eventually become a user's manual. I suggested some significant changes, and worked extensively with the writing style, making it clear, direct, and above all, consistent. Somewhere in this process, it finally became clear that this was my calling. We hired a tech writing intern, and she taught me as much as I taught her. Because of my background with typography, I took to desktop publishing software easily, and she learned to edit her work with as much attention to detail as I had.

From there, it was easier. A bit over ten years ago, I took my first "official" tech writing job, after about six years as a software engineer, and I haven't looked back. I detoured for a while into tech pubs management, as a working manager, and am now "just" a writer. I like designing and editing much more than I like writing, and I satisfy that hunger by offering to do peer edits for colleagues whenever they are interested. I also offer myself as a mentor to newer writers, which I enjoy very much. Along the way, I have worked with a number of wonderful tech writers, and I've learned something from each one of them.

Though I have little formal training in technical communication, and hardly consider myself a natural writer, I do have a knack for seeing structure, both of software systems and of documentation, and an innate aptitude to coordinate numerous levels of detail. I guess there are all sorts of paths to get where we are today...

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Copyright © 1999-2002, M. J. Davidson. All rights reserved.