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Guru Talk: An exclusive interview with Geoff Hart

by Geoff Hart and Ramesh Aiyyangar

Previously published as: Hart, G.; Aiyyangar, R. 2006. Guru Talk: An exclusive interview with Geoff Hart. MITWA News, November 2006:3–8.

"It's important for each of us to understand what we know, what we don't know, and what we only think we know."

In an exclusive interview with MITWA News, Geoffrey Hart, popularly known as Geoff, discusses with Ramesh Aiyyangar about his work, the challenges in the field of technical communication, the future of technical communication and much more.

Geoff Hart is an Associate Fellow of STC who works as a writer, editor, translator, and information designer. With nearly 20 years of experience in scientific communication, Geoff participates regularly in the techwr-l (technical writing) and copyediting-l (editing) Internet discussion groups, edits and publishes the Scientific Communication SIG's newsletter, and contributes frequently to various STC publications. For more details, visit: www.geoff-hart.com

Could you please give us a brief introduction about yourself?

I began my career as a forestry graduate student at the University of Toronto, and midway through my studies I discovered that I enjoyed writing and helping others to write more than my own research. Therefore, I began looking for opportunities for a career in this field.

You have been working in the field of technical writing for so many years now... can you tell us how it all started?

I have now been working as a technical communicator for nearly 20 years. My first job was with IBM, and I got the job in an unusual way. I saw that IBM was advertising for what seemed like hundreds of engineering jobs, and it occurred to me that someone would have to document all that technology these engineers would be producing. So I wrote to explain this to them. A week or so later, I received a photocopied rejection letter—not really surprising given my academic background—and as I was putting it in my file cabinet, the phone rang. It was a bored manager at IBM who saw my resume and found himself wondering what a forester thought he could do for IBM: "After all, we don't really grow any trees at IBM." I explained to him exactly what it was I could do for IBM (communicate more clearly than their engineers!), and had an interview 2 hours later, and a job the next day. And now it's been 20 years! As we foresters say, "mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow."

Do you remember your first TW assignment? Can you share with us your memories of your early days?

I arrived at IBM in the middle of a huge software migration project, and since they largely had the writing end of things well covered, I was assigned to edit the work of others, largely by comparing their writing with the interface that was being documented. But the more memorable "first job" was when I learned that IBM was about to go through a major downsizing, and as a contract employee, I would soon need to be looking for work. When an opportunity came to apply for work with the Canadian Forestry Service, at their Great Lakes Forestry Centre research institute, I immediately applied. And the job became a search for how to convince them to hire me.

To qualify for the interview, we all had to take a typing test, and when I arrived and found myself with a half dozen other candidates, I started chatting with them. To my horror, I discovered that all of them had many years of editing experience—something I desperately lacked. When I passed the typing test and moved on to an actual editing test, I figured that I had nothing to lose by doing whatever I could to impress my employer: so rather than just correcting spelling errors and poor grammar, I aggressively attacked the logic, the sequence, the consistency, and all kinds of other crucial issues not normally considered to be part of basic editing. As everyone else apparently did nothing but correct typos, I stood out quite dramatically from the rest of the crowd, and was quickly hired.

Could you please tell us about your current position?

Since 2004, I have worked as a freelance science editor. My clients are primarily researchers who have English as a second or third language, but who must publish their research in English-language journals. My job is to help them polish their text so well that the peer reviewers at the journal can ignore the words and concentrate on the science. But I also know enough science and enough about how journals work that I also help them with their logic and any scientific problems with their manuscript. All this lets me make the journal review process much smoother and less painful by using my long experience in this field. At a very conservative estimate, I have helped authors to publish a minimum of 2000 scientific papers of various lengths in more than 200 journals; a less conservative estimate based on my current productivity would be nearer to 4000 papers.

What experience do you need to get into your field? What experience do you need to get the position you have?

Experience needs are changing. When I first entered the field, it was easy to find work based on nothing more than a demonstrated skill at writing or editing. You can still find work with only these skills, but increasingly, employers want accreditation, such as a university degree, and are demanding "tool skills"—a demand that in my opinion, ignores the fact that we should be hired for our communication skills first and foremost. Anyone can learn to operate a word processor; few people can learn to write really well.

How did you find your job?

As noted above, I found my first job by thinking outside the box: rather than confining myself to advertised jobs for writers, I looked for areas where a communicator could add value, and convinced the employer that they needed a writing position, even if they didn't know it yet. I obtained my current work the same way: by writing to every English science journal in my field (environmental biology) that I could find, and convincing them that their authors needed my help.

Can you name the qualities and skills you think are important for a technical writer?

There are two crucial and indissociably related skills: comprehension and communication. The ability to understand is arguably most important, whether that means to understand a complex product or the mind of the reader. Once you have that understanding, you can try to communicate it to someone else—and that means the second skill is communication. But you cannot communicate what you do not understand, and your understanding is not very valuable if you cannot communicate it to someone else.

What do you feel about technical writing in India?

From watching the TWIN discussion group and talking to colleagues, I see that the profession is vibrant and exciting in India. But I have no direct experience with it, so I cannot comment further.

How does your typical day look like?

I start the day with an hour or two of e-mail, since I do a lot of mentoring via the copyediting-l and techwr-l discussion groups (and recently, via TWIN) and since all of my work arrives by e-mail. After I've finished my mail, I spend a bit of time prioritizing work based on the client deadlines, then spend most of the day editing or translating. (I also do French to English translation for a couple of clients.)

So, who are your typical clients and what do you write for them?

My clients are all researchers who are publishing the results of their scientific research, and I primarily rewrite what they have written. In some cases, I write new material that they haven't written but must include in the manuscript. My area of true expertise is environmental biology, but I read widely enough in science that I can get by in just about any field of science—though I'm always careful to warn my clients where the limits of my expertise lie. It's important for each of us to understand what we know, what we don't know, and what we only think we know. I'm gradually getting better at the latter two.

How do you get the value of documentation appreciated by clients?

Most of my clients come to me because journals have been telling them that no matter how good their science may be, their writing is not good enough for anyone to understand this. I guarantee my clients that after I've done my work, their paper will never be rejected because of the quality of the language. In 20 years, I've never been proven wrong about this—something to be proud of—so my clients quickly learn my value.

Tell us how you quantify the value that documentation will have for clients?

In my case, a 100% acceptance rate for any manuscript for which the science is basically sound. And a guarantee that I'll work with the author until the language is perfect, or as close as we can get.

What are the main challenges to get a technical communications team to interact with other departments?

When I worked with my former employer, the biggest problem was always personal: you had to spend enough time developing relationships with clients that they treated you as a human being and possibly even a friend, not just someone who dumped work on their desk or took them away from their own work.

How do you manage the responsibilities involved, deal with change control issues and so on?

I emphasize for my clients that if they don't understand why I've done something, they should ask: editing is a dialogue between author and editor, not one-way dictation by the editor. When we work together, we achieve synergies that aren't otherwise possible.

Can you share with us any memorable events?

Much of it has been memorable. I've been working with scientists on every continent except Australia and Antarctica on work ranging from the mundane to potentially world-shaking science. I'm particularly excited by my work with Chinese authors, since they are facing horrifying environmental problems, and are running as fast as they can to forestall a catastrophe. I'm hoping to return to China in a few years to teach technology transfer, so that the scientists can do a better job of transferring their knowledge into the hands of the people who will use that knowledge. Similar opportunities exist in India, and that's also a future opportunity I would eagerly embrace.

What do you think is the balance needed between understanding authoring tools and having writing skills?

I give the tool skills less than 10% of the weight. Most of us can learn the 10% of a tool that we use for 90% of our day in a few hours. I taught myself InDesign in about 6 hours (reading a "for dummies" book and playing with the software), and even though I'm not expert in the software, I'm good enough to publish books using it—and what I don't know, I can find out and learn in a few minutes. I don't believe that I'm somehow superior in this way; most technical communicators learn really fast. But like most of us, I probably spend at least 10 times as much time writing as I do creating layouts or doing other tool tricks. So creation of information is far more important—possibly even more than 10 times as important.

What new trends and emerging technologies will effect writing in the future?

The biggest one is probably how our profession is fragmenting into a wide range of specialties: usability, internationalization, and so on. Technology seems to be simply a matter of doing new things with old tools; I haven't seen any paradigm shifts in how we use those tools, other than perhaps a greater understanding of the need to focus on the audience.

What do you like about technical communication?

Meeting interesting people from around the world and helping them to communicate.

As a technical writer, how do you promote technical writing?

I've given presentations to university graduate schools and at their career days. And I mentor constantly. I don't have time to mentor a single person at a time, so my mentoring is done in discussion forums such as techwr-l and copyediting-l and TWIN.

Where do you see Technical Documentation in 10 years? Will it be automated or will there always be a need for human writers?

I'm a big fan of good speculative fiction—not the bug-eyed monsters you see on TV, but rather the kind of rigorous writing that asks important questions about the nature of being human, how our changing world changes us as humans, and how we change the world in turn. So I don't doubt that at some point, possibly even within our lifetimes, we'll have semi-intelligent writing assistants. But it's important to remember that it takes nearly 20 years to grow a human brain that contains enough information to cope with the complexities of our world. Technology can certainly shorten that time, but it's not at all trivial to encapsulate that much information, in a usable form, in a software tool—not even if there's a sudden breakthrough in computational linguistics.

What are the upcoming areas of specialty you would recommend?

Usability testing is the one most people think of, but I think that's looking at the world backwards. User-centered design, in which we don't even think about features until we understand what the product's user wants to accomplish, is far more important. I study information design so that I can understand how people think and use information, and apply that to product design whenever I have a chance. One of my favorite English poet-philosophers, Alexander Pope, observed that "the proper study of man is man", and I heartily endorse that philosophy. One of the reasons I enjoy travel so much is the opportunity to expand my worldview by learning how other cultures view the world. That mental flexibility is an asset to any technical communicator.

Describe the personal growth opportunities that exist

My career has progressed from primarily editing work, to just about anything to do with communication and information design. This past year, I've begun to do a lot of teaching, including at the upcoming STC India conference, and that's a greatly satisfying continuation of my career.

Who are the major employers in the field?

This varies regionally. But rather than immediately answering "software in Cyberabad", it pays to remember that humans are communication organisms: every human spends most of their day communicating, and most don't do it very well. So there are many opportunities to improve that communication, and that's where we come in. Any company that employs more than a dozen people requires communication, even if it's only mundane writing such as "how to use the office coffeemaker".

Are you married? What does your wife do?

I'm married to Shoshanna Green, who is also an editor. But she works primarily for a university press, doing copyediting in the social sciences and humanities, whereas I work exclusively for journals in pure and applied science, and do heavy substantive editing. [Written but not published in the interview: She says that my work would drive her crazy; that's fair, since her work would drive me crazy. But we teach each other many different things about our respective worlds, and that's very enriching.]

Do you have kids? What do they like doing?

We have two children, Matthew (16) and Alison (14). Matt is a young entomologist (I taught him a love of ecosystems at an early age), but has also gotten hooked on online computer games and chat with people around the world—much like his father. Alison is becoming a great reader, and spends a lot of time online chatting with friends—also like her father!

What activities do you share with your kids?

[Written but not published in the interview: The usual things families do. Matt is old enough now that he's becoming much more independent, but Alison still likes going to concerts and theatre with us.] I spend a lot of time outdoors when possible, hiking and exploring. My wife and I spend our vacations learning about other cultures and their history, whether in modern cities or in ancient ruins. I play ball hockey during the winter with some friends, though since we're all approaching 50 years, this probably won't last much longer. "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." And reading, of course—I spend far too many hours reading just about anything, from history to science and from fiction to humor.

Who is your favorite personality? Who is your role model? why?

Nobody in particular. I don't subscribe to the modern cult of personality.

What is your favorite quote? What is your favorite book?

Nothing in particular. I believe that most people and most books have something to teach me.

What do you believe in very strongly?

I believe that if you have a gift, as I do, you have a responsibility to share it with others to the extent of your abilities. I also believe that international relations are too important to leave to politicians, and that a safe and peaceful future depends on the ordinary citizens of all countries getting to know each other as people and hopefully as friends. That's one reason I spend so much time teaching others and working with people in other countries.

What would you like to see happen in technical writing...the world... life... to people...

More and better communication. It's hard to hate someone once you understand them, and the more we can eliminate hatred from our world, the better the world will be for everyone.

Finally, if you had one wish, what one area would you change related to the technical writing industry?

I'd put the technical communicators in charge of product design, and make the engineers and programmers subordinate to us. Okay, that's just a little bit facetious, particularly since we have our own flaws and blindnesses. The really important point is that we should work together, since we each have strengths the other profession lacks: in our case, our greatest strength is that we start from the viewpoint that the user of our product is most important, not the features, and that perspective is sadly lacking in most companies.


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