Image courtesy of Missouri Southern State University
When people who don’t know me ask what I do, I usually hesitate. “I’m a writer” is misleading; it causes people to think that I’m a journalist, maybe, or perhaps a novelist, a short-story writer, something like that. And while I aspire to that, I’m not there yet, and it’s not what I do to earn my daily bread. “I’m a computer nerd” is safer, but that has its own issues; people usually assume that I’m an engineer, maybe a QA person, in IT perhaps (I’ve never had anyone assume I’m in sales or marketing; I have no idea why–maybe because I don’t wear a tie?).
Unfortunately the honest and easy answer–“I’m a tech writer”–is almost invariably followed by a confused expression on the part of my interlocutor and, if they think I won’t mind, the obvious question, “Oh; and what’s that?” Which brings me back to the first two answers, only now I combine them: “I write computer manuals for high tech companies; right now I work for HP.” (“Oh, how interesting!” people often insincerely say; I appreciate the effort, but I know it sounds boring.)
Despite being a surprisingly-large industry, with college degrees being offered in it, it pretty much flies below the radar. While my career is not sneered at as much as it was when I first fell into it–and most tech writers do indeed fall into it rather than seeking it out–there are still plenty of people who blame me for, e.g., badly-translated-from-the-Japanese VCR instruction manuals, or poorly-translated-from-Finnish cell phone booklets, or things of that nature. As I am the first to admit, there is a lot of bad tech writing out there. I think it is because it requires two separate skill sets that both require years to master, and are almost mutually exclusive in most people: Being a nerd, and being a good writer. Most engineers in my experience can’t write a decent English sentence to save their lives, and most writers don’t want to go anywhere closer to nerdly topics than researching them on WikiPedia. (Though this has changed some in the last 5-10 years.) With a C.S. degree but some nominal gift at writing, I’m one of the few overlaps. Hence the huge supply of crappily-written technical documents. (“I’m only one person,” I often tell folks; “I’m fixing them as fast as I can.”)
But it’s a decent-sized industry. There are thousands of us out there, all over the country, doing out level best to help you understand how to work your tech. Where do you think the online help for MS Word comes from? Those pop-up bubble-help pieces of text you see when you hover over that button that you don’t know what its for. The text that comes spilling out when you type “Help [whatever]”. Someone like me. (And my wife Sami, too. That’s how we met, in point of fact.)
I mention this because if you’ve been paying attention to the “mainstream media” at all–particularly the print media–in the last 15 years or so (i.e. shortly after the Web really got rolling), journalist and journalism has been engaged in a fairly epic level of navel-gazing, trying to figure out (poorly, for the most part) how to adapt to this Brave New Online World. And almost invariably, they completely ignore the tech writing industry. Which on the one hand I can understand–they’re journalists, not tech writers. But on the other hand, the tech writing biz started wrestling with this issue a good decade before the Web got going. We have experience with this. We were only targeting customers who were buying our computers rather than the world at large–SGI computers, Sun Microsystems computers, Windows boxes, what have you–but it was all going online. I was helping an engineering team design something that looked a lot like the WikiPedia interface, only specific to that company’s computers (it was a small startup you’ve never heard of) . . . in 1992.
I’m not telling you all this to impress you with my knowledge or how far in front of the curve I was, but because when I read posts by people like Noah Davis who talk about the early days of online writing and oh those young innovators while totally ignoring the entire area of tech writing, it makes me want to bang my head against something hard. To folks like Davis, the idea of an online writer in his or her 40s is mind-boggling, and the thought of one over 50?
What happens when you get to be 45 and don’t have the drive to stay up late and continuously react to flash-in-the-pan online controversies? What does middle age look like on the internet?
The point here is that there is a huge store of earned knowledge out there, and it lives in the heads of tech writers. And if journalists and other online writers were smart, rather than talk about how the media world is changing and shrinking and how oh no one understand what they’re going through, they might want to consider tapping some of that knowledge, and maybe leveraging it to help themselves for use in their own journalistic areas.
Because let me clue you in, Mr. Davis: There’s lots of tech writers out there with extensive experience with online writing, and plenty of us are over 45. We know what “middle age looks like on the internet” because we’ve been there. For a while now. So maybe you should consider asking some of us how we managed it. It would be a lot more productive than writing another navel-gazing article about how tough the online journalism world is, I guarantee you.