Lone Writer Questionnaire

The Willamette Galley, the newsletter of the Willamette Valley Chapter, is publishing an article on the Lone Writer SIG in its next issue. Its volunteers have asked the SIG to complete the following questionnaire in preparation for the article. We need your input by 4 April 2008. JMS = Janet M. Swisher JDS = John Sgammato MS = Mike Starr

Part I: Lone Writers/Illustrators/Designers

  1. Please define lone writer or lone illustrator/designer as a profession or as a personality. Answer: A lone writer needs to be able to work independently and be resourceful in finding answers to work-related questions. JMS: A lone technical communicator is any technical communicator who is a “department of one” for their company or organization. A lone communicator may work for a large corporation, but be the only technical communication in their office or division. A lone communicator needs to be their own project manager and publications manager. They often work on a large variety of deliverables, and wear many hats related to technical communication, because they are the only person with appropriate skills. MS: In addition, a lone writer almost always has to do it all. In order to do that, the lone writer has to be skilled with a number of software programs and be able to manage the whole documentation production process. JDS: As the one who does it all, the lone writer must plan for continuity in the event of illness, injury, or departing for a better job. If nobody else knows how to do your work, then you must record your policies and procedures so a successor can pick up where you leave off. This will be helpful when the time comes to hire a contractor, too. Note that all the expertise locked up in your head includes how to recognize a good writer. Very often our bosses don’t know what we do or how to select a good writer from a fraud. If you move on to another job, plan to instruct your boss and HR people in things to look for in your successor.
  2. What is the function of the lone writer/illustrator/designer in the profession of technical communication? Answer: The lone writer is the company’s authority on the written word – or should be. JMS: Since lone communicators do “a little of everything” they may see connections between areas of the profession that more specialized communicators might miss. MS: I’m not sure it’s necessary to differentiate the function of lone writers within the technical communication profession. JDS: I think in SOME organizations the writer is a lone authority, but I work as the only technical writer next to a bullpen of 8 Merketeers. They have their strengths and I have mine. We know when to consult each other. I think the lone writer has to conceive, plan, write, distribute, and archive technical documentation. Anything else is on a case-by-case basis.
  3. Has lone writing/illustrating/designing changed since you first began as a practitioner? If yes, how? Answer: No – I’ve been in the profession only 6 years. JMS: The field of technical communication and the needs of my company change over time, but the nature of being a lone communicator has remained fairly constant. MS: Having been a lone writer off and on for many years, I don’t think I’ve seen lone writing itself change. Individual jobs or contract assignments have different requirements but as a lone writer, I’m still “working without a net”. JDS: I’ve been a loner for about 10 years, and in that time I have seen my ability to produce more and different deliverables grow greatly as new software has come available. This year I’ll be doing Flash tutorials that a few years ago would have been someone else’s job.
  4. What are the benefits and disadvantages of being a lone writer/illustrator/designer? If you are a company employee, how do you show that you add value? Answer: I am basically a glorified secretary who can do many things – I joke that my real job description is “minion.” I love the variety – I know a little bit about a lot of software tools and am constantly learning. JMS: The great thing about my job is that I get to do some of everything; the downside is that I have to do some of everything. I enjoy the variety, but I don’t have the luxury of developing in-depth expertise in one area. I also have to communicate clearly about priorities with the rest of the company, because I cannot do everything they need simultaneously. I am fortunate that customers have made positive comments about the documentation, which reinforces my value to management. MS: The biggest benefit for me is that because I’m a lone writer, I am the style guide. I get to determine all of those nitty-gritty little details of formatting and usage. The downside of being a lone writer on contract assignments is that I almost always have to spend a significant amount of time “earning my chops” on each new assignment. Many small companies have little or no experience with a technical writer and when I walk in the door, they often tend to consider my role as nothing more than a high-priced secretary. JDS: The best thing for me is that nobody else knows quite what I do. Nobody micromanages me. As long as they like the results, I can wear a loincloth and a bone in my nose and management is happy.
  5. What do you see as the future role of the lone writer/illustrator/designer in technical communication? Answer: I hope that they will make their companies more sensitive to the importance of accuracy of expression. JMS: Lone communicators can play an important role in showing the value of professional technical communication to small and growing companies. There is an infinite difference between “no writers” and “one writer” in the level of technical communication quality. MS: I see the role of lone writers growing dramatically in the future. However I’m offering that prediction based on an assumption of staff reductions so that sooner or later many companies with multiple technical writers will be pared down to a single technical writer. JDS: I am getting called into training, usability, and content-management projects much more than I once did. Single-sourcing means the company can produce training materials and other deliverables that until now were just out of the question.
  6. What characteristics do lone writers/illustrators/designers possess that could enhance their participation on virtual teams? Answer: They are valuable because of their breadth of experience and because of the virtual Lone Writer community standing ready to aid. JMS: Lone communicators are accustomed to working independently and pursuing whatever resources are necessary to complete projects. These attributes are essential for working in virtual teams. MS: Lone writers often become resources, mentoring other corporate employees in the use of the tools we use as well as reviewing documents produced by others. JDS: Loners have to be careful when getting invited to teams. When you are accustomed to working solo, it is easy to get exasperated in a team setting, including the frustation of dealing with people who cannot make a decision. It is important to be in the loop, but be careful not to become frustrated.
  7. As a lone writer/illustrator/designer, you probably work with SMEs to copy-read your work, but how do you address a need for proof-reading, peer reviews, brainstorming, or simple commiseration from a professional colleague? Answer: I’m fortunate – our company owner is a better proofreader than I am (product of McGill University and a Canadian education). JMS: The Lone Writer SIG is a “virtual water cooler” and a tremendous resource for lone communicators. For proofreading and reviewing, however, I have to rely on myself. Fortunately, I can also task-switch to a different project for a while, and then come back to my document with somewhat fresher eyes. MS: The sad fact is that as a lone writer, I seldom have a resource for proofreading or peer reviews. For that matter, it’s often like pulling teeth just to get SMEs to review what I’ve created. I’m on a number of technical writing-related mailing lists that are valuable resources for brainstorming and commiseration, with the LW list being the best of the lot. JDS: One of the benefits of having more than one writer is mutual reviews. When a company cannot afford a second writer, then the loner has to do the job, but it is not a good situation. Brainstorming is best done with other local loners orr on the loners email list. Commiseration is not much of a problem for me - I can talk to my colleagues about most anything, and my boss leaves me to my own devices to I have little writer-specific angst to deal with.

Part II: Technical Communicators and Lone Writing, Illustrating, Designing

  1. How long have you been a member or a participant in a lone writer SIG? If you’re not a member, would you be interested in participating in a “lone communicator” local SIG? Answer: 7 years. JMS: I’ve been a lone writer for 4 years, and a member of the LW SIG that whole time. MS: I’m not sure how long I’ve been a member of the SIG… seems like at least 10 years. JDS: ditto
  2. What factor(s) influenced you to become a member of this SIG or to be a lone writer/illustrator/designer? Answer: I am a lone writer and need the support of more experienced people. JMS: I chose this position because of the opportunity to work on a variety of projects. Joining the LW SIG was a no-brainer. MS: I joined this SIG out of curiosity… not really sure what it was all about. It quickly became a valued resource. I prefer to be a lone writer for three reasons. First, most positions as a lone writer are with very small companies and I really prefer the corporate culture in a small company. On a recent assignment that lasted a year, the whole company (although it was a captive division of a larger company) was three programmers and me. I never once got invited to a single meeting. The second reason I prefer to be a lone writer is that as I stated above, I get to be the corporate style guide. Third, I can really see how what I do makes a difference within the organization. JDS: It seemed the logical checkbox on my STC membership.
  3. Do you have specified education or training that helps you as a lone writer/illustrator/designer? If yes, what was the education or training? Answer: Certificate in technical communication from Houston Community College. JMS: I have some training in technical communication, but not specifically in being a lone writer. MS: I have Associate degrees in Electromechanical Technology (Robotics) and Technical Communication. Electromechanical Technology got me my first job as a technical writer 22 years ago and I’ve been one ever since. However, since all of my positions have involved me doing it all, there was no specific training that taught me how to be a lone writer. The degree in Technical Communication came after having been a technical writer for long enough that it was just a formality… it was the same school as my other degree so I already had sufficient courses to cover most of the curriculum, I tested out of several other courses and ended up taking about three classes over two semesters to finish the degree. Those classes were rehashes of stuff I already knew but were classes I wasn’t allowed to test out of. Other than that, I’ve been entirely self-taught when it comes to the tools I use. I’ve never had the opportunity to be given training in any of them. JDS: Certificate in Tech Writing, but nothing about being a lone writer.
  4. Do you specialize in a particular area of technical communication, or do you work across /among several areas? Do you find that you need more project-management skills than might be expected of most technical communicators? Answer: I don’t manage projects – I take orders and do whatever anyone needs done. JMS: I work on many areas of technical communication, as well as related areas such as marketing communication, visual design, and web development. While my work is often connected to larger software development projects, I am responsible for managing the documentation projects, as well as coordinating resources (i.e., me) across multiple projects. Technical communicators in larger departments might leave those responsibilities to a documentation manager or project manager. MS: I’ve been doing mostly software documentation for a number of years although I have done some hardware documentation as well. I tend to fall into documentation assignments for complex software products for very specific market niches, often in industrial automation. As a lone writer, I’m also the documentation project manager. JDS: These days I do software, but I used to do robots, scientific instrumentation, medical devices, and some manufacturing. That was fun.
  5. How long does it take to acquire your initial knowledge for each project or how does the time vary from project to project? How much of your training is on the job? Answer: Most of my training is on the job. JMS: Ramp-up time depends on the project, and whether I have done similar projects previously, either in terms of the type of project, or the domain. Most of my training is on the job. For project-specific skills, I usually read books. MS: I’ve always had to get my project knowledge on the job. However, the lone writer workflow I’ve adopted allows me to learn the product on the fly while still being productive in creating the structure of the documentation. Just going through the product and creating a documentation outline if amazingly effective at teaching me about the product. JDS: All my training is on-the-job. Ramp-up is not bad now because most projects are just expansions of what has gone before. Great Leaps Forward in my documentation tend to be initiated by me after I have learned what to expect at my own pace.
  6. For each new project, how do you estimate the time that you’ll need to learn the necessary skills? How many different “hats” do you have to wear (such as document design, template development, or project management)? Answer: I don’t have projects per se. I learn on the fly. JMS: My estimates for time needed to learn new skills is usually a SWAG. Typical hats for a software project: Project manager, editor, UI design consultant, document designer/template developer, online help developer, user guide writer, API doc writer MS: I always learn on the fly and have for the most part not been required to do any estimation… it’s usually been “here’s the requirement, here’s the deadline”. I’ve typically worn the writer, editor, graphic designer, desktop publisher, usability/UI consultant, web guy, help developer and mentor hats. JDS: ditto
  7. What do you do for continuing professional education? Answer: Lynda.com and occasional seminars paid for by my company. JMS: I read articles and occasionally take seminars or webinars, or go to conferences. MS: I took the usability certification course at the 2007 STC conference. Other than that, my continuing professional education has been to teach myself new software packages and monitor email lists where technical writing topics are discussed. JDS: Self-directed research on current topics and upcoming technology. About once every two years the company will pay my way to a conference.
  8. Please recommend any articles, books, online materials, or other resources that pertain to lone writing/illustrating/designing. Answer: “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams JMS: “Information Development” by JoAnn Hackos; “Starting a Documentation Group” by Peter J. Hartman MS: The Microsoft product newsgroups and the Word MVPs website are wonderful resources for learning how to do things. The forum pages for other products (Acrobat, Paint Shop Pro and others) are also highly useful. JDS: IMO the Lone Writers SIG email list is the single best source of information for any lone writer.
  9. What specific software, hardware, or other technical assets are necessary for being a lone writer/illustrator/designer? What “luxury” items are helpful? Answer: A good working computer and the necessary software. I use Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, Photo Editor, DreamWeaver, Adobe Acrobat Professional, Adobe PhotoShop, Irfanview, Visio. I have used FrameMaker elsewhere. JMS: Because I often work collaboratively with “non-writers”, I use Word rather than FrameMaker. On the other hand, for online help I use RoboHelp, even though I have the only license for it, because there’s no substitute for a real help authoring tool. I need to have the same software development environment (hardware and software) as the programmers, so that I can compile the software myself rather than depending on them for builds. MS: A developer-level computer is an absolute necessity. Most of the tools I use are much more stable when used on a computer with large amounts of available hard drive space and at least 2GB of RAM. My tools of choice are: Word, Acrobat Professional, Paint Shop Pro, Visio, Kompozer (HTML editor), Adobe Illustrator and Doc-To-Help. JDS: A big computer, 2 monitors, FrameMaker, Mif2Go, Adobe CS3 (esp Acrobat and InDesign), SnagIt, EditPlus, and a quiet home office and a boss who lets me work from home one day a week.
  10. How do you remain updated regarding software, hardware, and other technical assets that you need for lone writing/illustrating/designing? Answer: Our IT department upgrades us aggressively. JMS: My company is good about purchasing whatever I request, within reason. I got a computer upgrade after a developer complained that running examples on my machine was too slow, and was wasting his time. MS: I learn new programs or new versions of existing programs on the fly. On a contract assignment, I’m pretty vocal about the tools I need and the specifications of the computer I’m given to work with. JDS: My company gets me what I need. Everything on my work machine is duplicated on my home machine. I work from home a lot.
  11. What do you recommend that a novice technical communicator do to become a lone writer/illustrator/designer? And approximately how long might this process take? Do you recommend any different procedures for an experienced technical communicator? Answer: I found my certificate training sufficient to start. JMS: Any technical communicator can be a lone communicator if they have the interest and temperament. A novice should realize that they will make more mistakes because there will not be a senior communicator on hand to guide them. Their employer should realize this, too, and be willing to accept it. However, being a lone communicator can be a good way for a novice to break into the field from another area. MS: I’m not sure there are specific things I’d recommend to become a lone writer other than experience as a technical writer. Becoming a lone writer can be a trial by fire because there aren’t any colleagues to tap for help right within your office. JDS: I think the best thing is to get some experience in a department first so you know the fundamentals of doc management and archiving, strengthen your skills with your full toolkit, and learn to deal with people and projects in a stable setting before going it alone.
  12. Please include any other observations or comments that would add to the knowledge and professionalism of technical communicators. Answer: To document software, I would need a lot more training in specific documentation protocols. JMS: You don’t have to be a lone communicator to join the Lone Writer SIG. The pool of talent and experience in the SIG is a great resource for any technical communicator.