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One Question Can Change Your Life
2013, Q3 (October 01, 2013)
By Lori Meyer, STC Associate Fellow and Carolina Chapter Director at-large
Lori Meyer
Lori Meyer

Editor's note: This article is part of a series dedicated to introducing and recognizing our chapter's officers.

“Have you ever considered technical writing?” the career counselor asked.

No, I had not.

Although technical communication was a thriving profession when I finished college, it was nowhere on my radar when I began looking for work after graduation. Like many of my fellow liberal arts graduates, I now faced the challenge of leveraging my BA in English into some type of work where I could earn a livable salary. I found a position as an editorial assistant at a public relations agency, combining administrative work with editing feature articles, press releases, and reports.

Eventually, I was given writing tasks and worked my way into a position as an account representative. I was gaining valuable skills as far as writing clear and concise copy on deadline – but I also began to feel that something was missing. Everything I wrote was fleeting; its relevance gone with the deadline.

I wanted my writing to matter – to make someone’s job easier, to teach, to clarify. I wanted it to be remembered.

After a layoff that eliminated my position, I registered with employment agencies to find a new job. I also talked with a career counselor, who asked that game-changing question: “Have you ever considered technical writing?”

Looking back, I have to laugh at how I saw the profession: You have to be a scientist or an engineer to be a technical writer, and it must be excruciatingly boring most of the time. I wouldn’t fit in. I continued to pursue public relations writing, in which I at least had some experience and familiarity. One day, though, a recruiter called about an opening as a technical editor with a telecommunications firm. Feeling hesitant but needing a job, I interviewed for the position and was hired for a three-month contract.

To my happy surprise, it was a strong fit. Here was material that, with my help, could inform, educate, and clarify.
STC became my window on the technical communication world – a place to meet fellow writers, gain a wider perspective on the profession, and build my skills.

I liked the precision of technical writing. I liked the idea that carefully crafted content could make a service technician’s job easier, help a support engineer resolve a problem for a customer, and save someone time when disassembling or reassembling a piece of hardware. My contract was extended for an additional year, and six months after that, I was offered a direct position.

The company began facing mounting competition. The technical editing group was eliminated through layoffs, and eventually all of the writers left for other positions. They still needed a writer, though, and offered me the position.

After more layoffs, this once promising company went from some 700 employees to 55. The new CEO set an ambitious goal to rebuild with a new product line, and was counting on all of us to make it happen. So here I was – with a 20% pay cut, scarce resources, and no one to mentor me. How lucky can a writer get!

In reality, I was lucky – because although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was beginning one of the best learning experiences of my career. The QA engineer gave me unlimited access to the small lab, where I pounded on builds of a new product the company hoped would lift its fortunes. In the next year, I designed, wrote, rewrote, edited, illustrated, and indexed some 1,200 pages of documentation.

The company didn’t survive, but I was now a technical writer born of hard experience. I found a position at another software company, where I was once again part of a team of writers. It was at this point that I began my involvement with STC. I attended the Rochester chapter’s excellent local conference (now a regional conference called Spectrum), and, with a co-worker, made my first presentation on audience analysis. I also began graduate school part time at Rochester Institute of Technology, and received my MS in instructional technology four years later. My studies at RIT gave me a greater appreciation for understanding audiences, how they learn, and how to educate them.

STC became my window on the technical communication world – a place to meet fellow writers, gain a wider perspective on the profession, and build my skills. In the 1990s, I became actively involved with the Rochester chapter, served in several volunteer positions, and met great people, many of whom are my friends and colleagues to this day. The high-tech job market was hot, which opened up another opportunity – to live and work on the west coast, which had been a dream of mine since childhood. In 1998, I received an offer from a software company north of San Jose. I’ve been in northern California ever since.

I’m still involved with STC, and am now a member of several communities across the U.S. (including Carolina). I’ve been fortunate to have served in many capacities, including membership manager, communications manager, webmaster, employment manager, conference program manager and co-chair, SIG co-manager, director at large, and vice president for programs. My STC membership continues to provide a window on the technical communication world, as well as opportunities to refresh my skills and learn from colleagues.

Our profession has changed dramatically since my first days as a writer creating user and administrator guides on a word processor. It demands greater flexibility and far wider skill sets. It demands that we be lifelong learners.

Within those demands, though, are the sparks of opportunity. I like to think of technical communication as a big tent that welcomes many clusters of talent – from writing to editing to illustration to project management to user interface design to training to content strategy. At the core of all of these talents is a common mandate – to communicate technical concepts and procedures to our audiences in a way that educates them, guides them, and makes their jobs easier.

“Have you ever considered technical writing?” How glad I am that the ultimate answer was yes!

Lori is a member of eight STC chapters and five SIGs. She currently serves as director-at-large for the Carolina chapter, vice president of programs for the East Bay chapter, membership manager of the Rochester and San Diego chapters, and co-manager of the STC Technical Editing Special Interest Group. In 2009, Lori received the STC Distinguished Chapter Service Award, and in 2012 was named an STC Associate Fellow.

Lori Meyer can be reached at meyer dot communications at gmail dot com. End of article.

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