Renee Gray-Wilburn talks about technical writing

Renee, tell us a little about yourself.
I am married and a mom of 3–ages 13, 9, and 5. I live in Colorado Springs at the base of the Rocky Mountain Front Range. I have had a writing business (mostly targeted to business writing) for 13 years (since my oldest was born), and I began writing for publication in 2005. Since 2005, I have published about 130 pieces, including magazine articles, children’s curriculum, short stories, and devotionals. I still write for businesses as well as provide editing, proofreading, teaching, and critiquing services.

You started out as a writer doing resumes for engineers. Have you done
much technical writing, and how do you find that it differs from
non-fiction writing in general?

Tech writing is not a huge part of my business, but it definitely is a part. In fact, I ‘m involved with a tech writing/editing project right now. Tech writing differs from general nonfiction writing in that there really is not much creativity involved in tech writing. In other words, you can’t use fiction techniques, such as dialogue, conflict, or descriptive phrases in tech writing! But there are some similarities, such as organizational techniques and writing to meet your readers’ needs.

How important or not do you think knowing the product you’re writing
about to be? If you do think it is, and it’s one you don’t know, how
do you go about learning it?

I think the more you’re familiar with the product the easier it will be to write about it. If you don’t know about the product it’s easy to miss key information or processes involved in using it. You may also have difficulty ordering and organizing the information.

The best way to learn the product is, of course, to use it. For nearly all the tech writing projects I’ve done, I was given a copy of the product–or a prototype–to “play” with first before I wrote about it. If it’s not possible to obtain the product, it also helps to ready any and all information written about it, which may include marketing materials or engineering papers describing the product’s functions and components.

In writing a manual or a specification, it’s necessary to be both
clear, complete, and technically accurate. Which do you consider most important and how do you prioritize?

All three are crucial elements to tech writing, so I don’t know that one is really more important than another in that you can’t cut corners on any of them. For me, I probably strive for accuracy first, just to make sure I have all the information I need and that I have researched and double-checked my facts as much as possible. Along with accuracy, though, comes completeness, as it’s hard to be totally accurate if you’re missing information. After I’ve ensured that everything I’m writing is accurate, then I’ll go back through my draft and make it as clear and simple as possible. Sometimes (often) this involves getting extra pairs of eyes who are not familiar with the product to read through my instructions to make sure they “get” it.

As a working computer software engineer, I’ve found that organizing
technical information in a sane manner is one of my major complaints.
Any tips on how to organize, not just technical information, but
“how-to” type stuff in general?

This can be one of the most challenging aspects of any sort of technical or how-to writing. What I’ve found is that the product or process itself will determine the organizational method used. Sometimes a step-by-step process is necessary when you’re writing about something that must be done sequentially. This is the typical method used for a how-to piece.

Other times, you may need to organize your information by the various functions the product performs. If you’re writing instructions for how to operate a clock radio, for instance, you could organize the information by describing how to set the clock’s time, how to set the alarm, and how to pre-set radio stations.
You can also organize the information by describing the product’s features or components. If you used this method with the clock radio, you’d organize the instructions to describe what each button, knob, and dial does.

When I’m faced with a non-fiction writing task, I’m often overwhelmed
with the volume of information. How do you decide where to start?

My starting spot is normally based on the way I’ve chosen to organize the information. Once I’ve determined my organizational format, I will create an outline, breaking the information into large chunks to fit into each category or process step (these become the main headings). I then divide those chunks into smaller pieces of information (these become the subheadings), keeping a logical flow and smooth transitions from one piece of information to the next. I can always go back to my outline and re-arrange the headings to determine which makes the best starting place. I never work without an outline though. I would be lost!

Any advice for folks who want to break into technical writing?

Tech writing can be a tough field to get into. Writing in general is hard, but I think tech writing is even more competitive. I got lucky because I worked in a high-tech environment for many years and made some contacts who were willing to give me a break into the field.

I would recommend trying to start with small to mid-sized companies where you have contacts and where they may not have tech writers on staff. You can also put together some basic marketing materials, such as brochures, fliers, and writing samples to show prospective clients. You probably need to do this the old-fashioned way and cold call some companies, go to their HR departments, and show them your materials. Meeting the people involved will get you a lot further than just sending out emails.
You will see tech writing jobs offered online, but these are typically given to people with lots of experience. If you are brand new, a good place to start is with some online tech forums where people in the industry are sharing information. You can learn a lot from these other writers, and they can often steer you into some beginner jobs or contacts.
Another tip, regardless of how you find your clients, is to offer to do a small job or a portion of a job for free or at a cut rate, just to get your foot in the door. Many companies won’t want to risk paying a high price for someone with no experience who they don’t know, but if you’re willing to give away something just to show them you can do the job, they’re more apt to take a chance on you. This is similar to a nonfiction writer who writes for magazines free early in his career in order to build some writing credits.

Any favorite resources for non-fiction writers? For technical writers
in particular?

For nonfiction writing, I like the classic, On Writing Well by William Zissner for discussions on craft and grammar. For the business side of writing, I think Kelly James-Enger has an excellent book called Six Figure Freelancing. I also like pretty much any of the business writing books that Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts has written. I think they’re great for beginning and intermediate-level business writers. She also has a Tech Writing for Dummies book.

For tech writing, I recommend the Handbook of Tech Writing by the team of Gerald Alred, Charles Brusaw, and Walter Oliu. Probably more of an intermediate level book, but it has some great tips and resources, and it’s well organized for quick reference. I would also spend some time online, searching for “tech writing forums,” “tech writing resources,” and the like. You’ll have more information than you know what to do with!

Any last words?

Don’t be intimidated by the term “tech writing.” What I’ve found is that a lot of tech writing isn’t really all that technical. When you think about it, every company that makes any kind of product has to have some sort of instructions written about how to use it. Tech writers write manuals, instruction sheets, web sites, trade papers, industry correspondence, and more. And, they are in just about every industry–not just high-tech. So don’t think you have to have an engineering background to become a tech writer. Find an industry you know something about, and see what options might be available for you in that industry.
I also wanted to mention that if you go to my blog site, I have articles available that discuss how to create outlines and how to write how-to articles, which I mentioned above. My blog address is:
Thank you for the opportunity to share about technical writing!

4 thoughts on “Renee Gray-Wilburn talks about technical writing

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