Geeks With Blogs
Technical Writing by Mark Metcalfe, Publications Professional

It's Saturday, so I feel like writing about how I got started in technical writing.

I took a computer class in high school and really liked it. I then took all the computer classes in college that I could. I was a business major at the time, but the computer classes were more appealing to me. When the school created a bachelor's program for computer science, I jumped in.

I became one of the computer lab assistants, and my professor noticed that I also had a knack for describing how to do things. He asked me to put together a document to help freshman get started with their own computer accounts, and performing the necessary tasks to use the computer. I was happy to do so, and they used the document for quite a few semesters. (This was at a transitional period for technology when some students were still bringing Smith Corona typewriters to college to do their papers.)

I wrote about using a text editor to write college papers, and students began to submit dot matrix papers. At the time, some of the professors did not approve of the perforated paper and strange font. Also at the time, my dad was a pastor at the college and he had been developing his sermons on the typewriter, too. I got an account for him on the school computer and introduced him to the ability to move an entire paragraph from one part of the body to another, and the backspace/delete keys. These were great innovations that some believed actually hurt compositional writing because it was too easy to amend one's writing on the fly.

I was one of the first three people at Eastern Nazarene College to obtain a bachelor's degree in computer science. I had little idea of the number of functional areas available to me in the computer industry. I thought I had to program code somewhere. (I was pretty good at COBOL and Pascal.) I landed four interviews out of college: two were for writing code, one for corporate training, and one for technical writing at Wang Laboratories in Lowell, Massachusetts. Thanks to my professor who saw potential in my helping abilities, I wanted to get into the technical writing field.

I was hired at Wang and really enjoyed my work. I still remember my first assignment, which was a 20-page document about a utility. I also remember the engineer's name with whom I met to gather information. I liked my job because I could play with computer software, point out the bugs (and not have to fix them), advise on how to make a program more intuitive, and write about it to help others use it. In many ways, I looked at my writing craft as programming in the English language.

My computer science degree helped me to quickly understand the more technically challenging products with ease and translate engineer-ese into common parlance for the user audience. It also helped me to develop macros for my colleagues and me to use to insert screen shots (back then, little more than a large text box) and to develop editing shortcuts.

I really appreciate my start in technical writing at Wang and still have friends from that time to this day. It has been a great career.

Mark Metcalfe

Posted on Saturday, June 20, 2009 2:33 PM | Back to top

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