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Momma, Don’t Let Your Babies be Tech Writers

By Karen Wormald



I was obviously overdosing on Oprah’s mantra to “follow your passion” when I decided it was time to write for a living by leaping from a comfortable management job into technical writing.


When I used to moonlight as a freelance writer in the innocent ‘80s, the first thing I ever had published was a book. I placed it without an agent after querying only 11 publishers. When I recall that fluke now, I see myself as the coyote in a "Road Runner" cartoon, sailing off a cliff through the air until I looked down, realized I couldn’t fly, and took a plunge. I’ve been writing magazine articles and unpublished novels ever since.


To break into technical writing, I compiled a résumé listing everything I’d ever written, no matter how irrelevant, and sent it to every technical contract agency in town because so-called permanent positions never appeared in the classifieds.


It took three months to get my first nibble. This agency was so eager to pair me with its client, they met me for the first time in the client’s lobby right before my interview. So much for careful screening.


The client hired me, and I quickly learned that companies will pay exorbitant hourly rates to contract agencies (not to writers) for the luxury of having disposable human resources.


Fortunately, this first gig was with a large permanent staff of technical writers who took it so seriously, they had regular meetings to debate things like capitalization. Shelley was their leader, and she tucked me safely under her wing to show me how to write technically. I had no idea there was so much to it.


I owe Shelley and her gang big-time for everything I learned, and I like to think my innocent questions made them remember how far technical writing had pulled them from creative writing, which was a first love for most of them.


Many technical writers dabble in “real” writing on the side, with a drawer full of short stories to prove it. However, I’ve found that anyone who can hold a pencil thinks he can call himself a technical writer. It certainly explains all the nonsensical DVD manuals.


But what makes technical writing so different and separates those writers from the rest of us?


First, technical writing doesn’t have to be interesting-- not even a little bit. In fact, if a plot emerges, there’s something wrong.


It’s no place for personality or style. It’s declarative tone all the way. Question marks are forbidden. Humor falls on deaf eyeballs. If you take any pride in your writing, you can just park your ego under the keyboard and leave it there.


The progression of ideas must always be linear. Leaps of logic and flights of fancy are not tolerated.


Forget about elegant variation. You’d better call a widget a widget every time, even if it qualifies as a “part,” a “device,” or a “component.” This makes the writing absurdly redundant, but that’s a good thing: “Insert the widget into the widget socket where the widget base meets the widget connector.”


You must remember that pronouns are not your friends. Your reader needs to be able to tell if “Use them to affix it to the wall” means to use the nails to hang the picture, or the screws to hang the shelf.


Omit commas at your own risk. The AP Stylebook may say the word “and” is as good as a comma between the last two items in a series. In technical writing, dropping that comma could result in death: “The three color-coded batteries that discharge a lethal level of voltage if handled are black and white, blue and yellow and red.”


Feeling lucky? Go ahead, touch the blue one-- no, the blue and yellow one-- no, the yellow and red one-- no, maybe the red one.


Forget your audience-- you don’t have one. I spent whole years on single projects for companies regulated by the FDA, only to find out they wanted a manual just to show the FDA it existed if there was ever an inspection. Otherwise, no one read my work, not even to see if it was complete or correct. I could have filled a binder with blank paper and become a master at PC solitaire, or inserted my Great American Novel as a ticking bomb set to explode in the FDA’s face.


If you have the stomach for it, technical writing can be the path to a full-time writing career. I did it for three years before switching to general business writing, which offers more variety. If you decide to go technical, be sure to keep reading the work of authors you admire so your day job doesn’t make you forget everything you ever knew about “real” writing.



Karen Wormald offers freelance business writing services through Kew Publications. She’s a contributing editor to Office Solutions and PC Solutions Magazine, and her work has appeared in numerous others. In case you’re curious, that book she had published was Mastering English Skills for Word Processing. You can contact her at kewpubs@aol.com.



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