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My Long and Winding Road to Technical Writing
2010, Q4 (December 16, 2010)
By Doug Holzworth, Carolina Chapter Senior Member


I became a technical writer due to necessity, a decision to grow as a person, and sympathy for a dead cat.

All right, I suppose I’d better explain that.

I was pre-med in college, which meant I could pursue any major, as long as I completed all of the required science and math courses. I wrestled with which major to select. All my life I’d been interested in the sciences and took for granted that I’d end up in a science field. However, in a sudden flash of insight, I saw myself 20 years from then: In a lab coat, white tape on the nosepiece of my glasses, obligatory pocket protector in place.

I foresaw myself a one-dimensional person who had never ventured from the familiarity of his safety zone.

I decided to be bold and not select a science major! (Besides, the choice of a major was moot, I decided; I was pre-med! Ultimately my major wouldn’t matter, as I’d end up going into medicine.) So what else could I do? I liked writing – English was tempting, but I finally decided on something far outside my comfort level: Journalism.

Things went fine until my final year, when I took my final pre-med course: Anatomy. In it, we had to dissect a cat. And before we could dissect it, we had to skin it.

I found I couldn’t do it. It was a cat! This poor creature might have been someone’s pet! Someone may have loved it! And now it was a specimen in an anatomy class. My lab partner skinned it and I took over from there, but I had to focus all of my attention on the body cavity, because peripherally seeing its little fur boots and mittens, which couldn’t be skinned, brought tears to my eyes.

I liked writing – English was tempting, but I finally decided on something far outside my comfort level: Journalism.

The cat dissection was a wake-up call. Was medicine the right calling for me? For the first time, I considered what it meant to be a doctor. Actual practice wouldn’t be a classroom exercise. Muscles, blood vessels, and nerves within a human body wouldn’t be color-coded like the texts. In practice, time would be a factor – could I do what I would need to, quickly enough?

Dejected, I decided I may not be cut out for medicine after all. But I was in my last undergraduate year of a Journalism degree! I was out of time, out of money, and out of alternatives, so I graduated with a BA in Journalism and minor in Zoology.

What could I pursue as a career with this background? It quickly became apparent that approximately 97% of journalists appeared to have criminally low salaries, and newspaper jobs were hard to break into in the recessionary early 80s.

Some friends suggested tech writing. I had never touched a computer, but began reading voraciously on the subject. I learned enough to pass an interview with a start-up and got my first tech writing job. I pored over my source materials and every scrap of tech info I could get, trying to bolster my tech knowledge. I experimented with available systems and applications and read the user guide for every application I was expected to use. I also paid attention to the mark-ups my editor provided, vowing to understand every initial error and avoid making the same mistake repeatedly. Over the years, jumping at every company-paid training opportunity, learning from my editors, and discovering STC and its people/resources, I honed my skills and grew into the technical writing profession. Perhaps because of my early experiences, I find I have a soft-spot for people trying to land their first job.

Doug can be reached at daxiong at nc dot rr dot com. End of article.

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