Need a different writing career to pay the rent?

By Mary Forlenza

You’re a writer in a low-paying job. You enjoy the work and the people, but not the dilemma of coming up with the rent each month. You wish you had more job options – perhaps even technical or scientific writing, which would be more lucrative. How do you know whether you’d even like it?

Writing is a logical endeavor, and being a logical thinker is essential for technical or scientific writing. You might be required to write a scientific report, product overview information, or instructions that require stepping through a process and including all the necessary details. Think about products you’ve bought and the instructions that come with them – to a customer, the product information can lead to satisfaction with a purchase, or dissatisfaction and a return. It really is that important. While engineers often think of writing departments as support groups for their highly innovative work, we know better.

You might be called upon to write a variety of deliverables from fully developed papers to online information. Before making a leap toward a technical or scientific writing career, consider how you’d answer these basic questions:

Do you like technology?

I’ve known very good writers who can cope well with technical writing, but really hate technology topics. As you would expect, this leads to rampant job dissatisfaction. The tools that technical writers must use to “code” their documents are becoming more technical all the time. You should enjoy learning about technology, learning to use sophisticated documentation and graphics tools, and being surrounded by scientists or technologists, which leads to the next question.

Can you communicate with techies?

Scientists and technologists are busy and, like all people, possess varying levels of social skills, communication skills and willingness to help others. You must work with them constantly to get the information for your writing. It takes a strong constitution and great persistence to ensure they spend the time you need to explain their area of expertise. They may try to avoid you, claim to be too busy, or even chase you away by making you feel inferior. This can sometimes be motivated by the fact they don’t know the answers to your questions. If they don’t, they will need to find out and get back to you. If they do know the answers, they must take the time to explain them to you. You can’t let them cause you any fear or doubt about your work. If they don’t help you, the product or project can’t be completed on deadline and they will be to blame, a concept that may, however, elude them and their management. My father-in-law has a saying that applies to a lot of life situations, “You have to use psychology and diplomacy.” You may even have to get mean.

Would your ego survive the dreaded review cycles?

After spending weeks or even months perfecting a draft paper or book, you will go through a review process. This can be painful when reviewers want to change your priceless prose into something that may seem awkward or erroneous to you. It’s important to see beyond a text alteration to determine what problem the reviewer is trying to fix. Once you understand the problem, you can apply a fix with wording that you choose. You will not win every battle in the process of getting your work approved. Expect to emerge from a review process with some painful scars to your ego. If you can separate your ego from the work, you will be able to cope well with the changes mandated by reviewers and approvers.

Last, but not least, can you meet deadlines?

Technology changes rapidly and technical teams must work quickly to produce new products to beat the competition or complete scientific reports. At the same time, organizations may not have the money to hire the number of people needed for their projects. This may require you to work long hours to meet deadlines. Being very organized may not be a writer’s forte, but you must find a way to plan your work so that you can achieve tight deadlines. Writer’s block isn’t a recognized excuse for missing project dates; you need to be highly productive to be successful. Determine what is reasonable for you to achieve, and let your team know early in the project or product cycle when adjustments can still be made to the plan.

When considering a career change, go into it with open eyes, understanding the pros and cons of the job. Good luck and remember – it’s always comforting to have that rent money.

Mary Forlenza is a senior communications writer and editor who also enjoys helping technical professionals publish articles and books. Her past jobs include ghostwriting executive communications, technical writing, reporting for the Fort Lauderdale News, writing PR for Florida International U., and editing papers for marine researchers. She has won professional society awards for creating a style manual, brochures and newsletters. Mary has an M.A. in Communications and lives in Austin with her husband.

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