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Technical Writers of India interview

This document summarizes my responses to interview questions by Mak Pandit of STC India and the Technical Writers of India discussion group and Web site.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your educational background, and your family.

My original education was in the biological sciences. Although I had a broad background in science, I went on to specialize in ecological sciences and plant physiology. I ended up switching midway through my degree from a regular B.Sc. program into a B.Sc. in Forestry, with an emphasis on forest biology and ecology. I continued that interest by starting an M.Sc. degree, but midway through graduate school, it became clear to me that I wasn't really interested in working as a government forester or spending years working on a Ph.D., and that I was more interested in reading about other people's research than I was in doing my own research.

I was also at the stage in my life where I was beginning to consider starting a family, and if I had chosen to continue in my academic career, it would have been as many as 8 years before I would be likely to find a permanent research position. (That is, 1 year to finish my Master's degree, 4 to 6 years to finish a Ph.D., and 1 to 2 years working as a postdoctoral researcher.) There were not huge numbers of jobs close to home, and family is very important to me, so I didn't want a job halfway across North America. My wife and I also agreed that we wanted one of us to raise our children while the other worked, instead of both having careers and letting someone else raise our children for us. I was earning much more money at the time, so I kept working and she stayed home to raise our children.

I now have two children, a son (Matthew) who is 20 and a daughter (Alison) who is 18, and might not have had either child if I had pursued my academic career. I've known people who survived graduate school while raising a family, but it takes a huge toll on one's life, and I wasn't prepared to pay that price.

When did you come into Technical Writing? Why did you choose it as your career?

I've always loved writing and helping others with their writing, so it gradually became clear that my future would have something to do with writing. Midway through my M.Sc. degree, when I was starting to seriously question my career path, I discovered that I was spending more time helping other people with their writing (including doing peer reviews of articles for journals) than I was spending on my own research, and that gave me a strong clue about what direction I should look in for my future.

About that time (late 1987), I started looking for work that involved writing. There wasn't much, and I didn't have much experience other than the editing work I'd been doing. So I decided to think way outside the box, and asked myself who might need writers even if they weren't hiring writers. I was staring at a two-full-page newspaper advertisement from IBM, who were only hiring engineers, when inspiration struck: clearly, if they were hiring scores of people to develop products, they'd need someone to teach people how to use those products! So I wrote to IBM Canada's Toronto lab and (not a word of exaggeration here!) just as I was filing their predictable rejection letter in my file cabinet, the phone rang and a manager from their lab was on the phone. He'd been idly looking through resumes, and wondered why I'd wasted their time sending in a resume when I had no computer industry experience and no formal writing experience. (I have a vague memory of him remarking, tongue in cheek, that IBM didn't develop trees and therefore didn't hire foresters, but I may have invented that memory.)

I explained why my lack of experience with their hardware and software made me the perfect candidate to document their products (because I could empathize with their audience), offered to show samples of my writing (I'd documented some software tricks purely for my own use while I was learning how to do some complicated things with WordPerfect), and to make a long story short, I was sufficiently compelling that I earned an interview that same day and a job the next morning working as an editor for the documentation development group for a large and important software project. (Basically, they were developing software to migrate their clients from an aging standard mainframe computer to the new model that replaced it.)

IBM was a poor fit for me; at the time it was a rigid and unpleasant bureaucracy, and this was right at the time when there were strong signs they'd be laying off many staff in response to an industry downturn. So I started looking elsewhere, and found a job advertisement for an editorial position with the Canadian Forest Service in Sault Ste. Marie, in northern Ontario. This would let me combine my love of forestry research (mostly "pure" or "basic" science) with my love of writing. I met many of the candidates before the interview, because we all had to show up at a government office to take a typing test using IBM Selectric electric typewriters. (A bad start, since I had taught myself to type on a computer, which was a very different skill!) Talking with them, it soon became clear I was by far least experienced editor in the group, and that my only hope of getting the job would be to take serious risks on the editing test that would accompany the interview. So I read the Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover to brush up on my grammar and knowledge of publishing, particularly document production, and on the test itself, I went way overboard, fixing not only the minor grammatical issues but also identifying problems with logic and presentation and suggesting how to fix them. Apparently I was the only one who had the courage to do more than fix typos, and that earned me the job.

That was my first real editing job, and I was fortunate in having an excellent mentor (Connie Plexman) who taught me everything I needed to know to become a successful editor. She reviewed everything I edited, pointing out things I missed as a way to help me learn, and each time, I went back to my office depressed, but vowing to do better next time. It took a year before I achieved the first edit that she accepted without revision, and it was an exciting moment! Connie also let me try my hand at many other things, including French translation, desktop publishing, small bits of software documentation (she was a bit of a computer-phobe, so I wrote small manuals to help her use our software), and information design. I never missed an opportunity to learn something new.

Years later, when I moved back home to Montreal, I found myself working for the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada—this time, working with researchers who were doing applied research rather than basic science. I continued eagerly embracing opportunities to learn new things, expanding my repertoire even further by seizing every opportunity to learn a new skill. For example, when I learned that we had begun developing decision-support software, I volunteered to do the documentation so the developers wouldn't have to do it; when I found out they needed French translation, I became a translator; when they decided they needed a Web site and intranet, I learned those skills too.

For the last 5 years, I've specialized as a scientific editor who helps authors for whom English is a second language to publish in English, as well as doing a fair bit of French translation. I've been sufficiently successful at this that I no longer accept new clients—there simply aren't enough hours in the week.

Can you describe for us the Technical Writing industry and job scenario in Canada? When did it start? How did it develop?

I've written about this at some length, and you can find the article on my Web site: Technical documentation in Canada. In short, we have a significant number of jobs in this field, most of which aren't greatly different from those in the U.S. In addition, the profession is very diverse, and includes all the usual branches: writing, editing, translation, instructional design, and so on. I don't consider myself an expert on the job situation any more, so I won't comment further, other than to note that the most recent recession has been hard on Canada too.

Are there any distinct differences between Technical Writing in USA and Canada?

There are obviously differences in the legislation that affects our work; for example, there is no equivalent to the "Americans with Disabilities" and Sarbanes-Oxley acts in Canada. A bigger difference is that Canada is officially bilingual (English and French), and although French Canadians are concentrated in eastern Canada (Quebec and New Brunswick), there is a requirement for the federal government and New Brunswick government to offer services in both languages. (Quebec is not legally required to offer English services, but often does.) We also have many aboriginal peoples in Canada, and some government departments provide services in their native languages. I don't have any experience in that particular environment.

Although Spanish is a ubiquitous language in many parts of the U.S., Americans have resolutely opposed any move towards bilingualism. And although the U.S. recognizes the linguistic challenges of globalization, I don't get the sense that they have embraced it quite as naturally as Canadian companies have.

What percentage of Technical Writers in Canada would have got formal education in Technical communication?

I don't have any statistics, but I assume that it's comparable to the percentages in the U.S. Most older technical communicators acquired their expertise "on the job", but an increasing number are looking for academic programs to obtain "credentials".

Does Canada have any Technical Writing Courses offered by Universities?

You can find out full details on the current programs in STC's academic programs database. There seem to be far fewer options than there are in the U.S. In part, that reflects the fact that the U.S. population is 10 times the Canadian population, so there are proportionally more universities and academic programs, but it's also a consequence of the fact that STC is headquartered in the U.S., and has done most of its evangelism there.

Any there any other courses available? If an Indian student wants to do some courses from India (as distance learning), would you be able to suggest or recommend any?

I cannot recommend any courses based on personal experience, but I know that there are several listed in the STC academic programs database.

How many Technical Writers' associations does Canada have?

STC is well represented, but there are some members of IEEE's Professional Communication Society and Tekom. Other main associations are for editors (the Editors' Association of Canada), translators (Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council), and instructional design (Canadian Society for Training and Development). There are other groups, but these are the ones I'm most familiar with.

How many STC Chapters does Canada have?

This is in a state of flux. With STC's recent disastrous financial situation and the global recession, some chapters have closed down and others are barely surviving. Some are sufficiently upset with STC's central office, for both good reasons and bad, that they are seriously considering withdrawing (seceding!) from STC and forming a Canadian version of STC. I personally think that's misguided, and that there aren't enough volunteers to make this work, but there's a long political story behind this that I won't go into here. I'm working as best I can to keep these people part of the STC family, since I believe that we can remain part of the family while still achieving considerable independence, but I don't have the time to do the work necessary to make that happen on my own.

What is the typical salary that a Technical Writer in Canada gets? How do these salaries compare to those in USA?

Salaries are quite healthy, but as is the case elsewhere in the world, they depend on the location, the industry, and the state of the economy. I have no recent statistics on salaries, but from conversations with colleagues, it's clear that an experienced senior technical communicator can earn (very crude average) C$50 000 annually, with good benefits. Taxes in Canada tend to be significantly higher than they are in the U.S., but the cost of living here is often lower. In particular, we have universal healthcare, which is a huge cost saving compared with living in the U.S.

Does Technical Writing happen in any local languages (French, and so on) in Canada?

Our communication is primarily in English and French, with French only a dominant language in Quebec and in the federal government; there's also significant French used in New Brunswick, but I don't have personal experience in that province, so I can't provide details. In Quebec, the majority language (by far) is French, and that's the language of government, but a large amount of writing occurs in English because Quebec's total market (ca. 8 million people) is tiny compared to the English speaking market in the rest of Canada (ca. 25 million) and in the U.S. (ca. 330 million). Economic self-interest forces Quebec companies to work in English, at least part of the time.

You have been a member of many mailing lists and many Special Interest Groups (scientific writing community). Why do you think is it essential? Is it not taxing on your time?

Last year, I resigned from all the discussion groups and SIGs I was participating in as a conscious decision to devote more time to my own personal projects. While I was a member of these groups, I loved every moment of it: the chance to learn from the expertise of hundreds of other people (sometimes thousands), and to learn from helping them solve their problems, is an opportunity I would never pass up were I starting my career over again. Participating was one of the most rewarding things in my work life, and I greatly miss those communities.

In terms of personal projects, I've always wanted to write fiction, so I'm now spending much more time doing that and reviewing other people's fiction as a way to learn to improve my own craft.

You have written more than 300 articles on/related to Technical Writing? Please tell us about them.

I spend a large amount of time solving problems, both for myself and for others, and during my career, I've been blessed with a large number of challenges to overcome. (Many people fear challenges; I've always tried to look upon them as an opportunity for personal growth and a way to remind myself of my love for learning new things.) But I also enjoy teaching what I've learned, both because the interaction with students is such a pleasure and because I believe I have a responsibility to share my blessings with others. This has led to a surprising amount of writing—the sheer volume took me by surprise when I compiled it all together on my Web site. And that doesn't even include the (literally!) thousands of lengthy messages I've written in discussion groups.

Because my interests are so diverse, and because I've acquired expertise in so many areas, I can help solve problems in these many different areas. Whenever a solution seemed to be of broader interest, I've written it up as a longer and more generally applicable article. I have a great many such articles hidden away on my hard disk, waiting until I have time to write about them. Despite that diversity, most of my articles are about editing and writing, with lesser amounts about information design and translation.

I still travel to teach what I've learned whenever I have an opportunity, though primarily in North America these days. But before the recession, I've taught in India and China. I'm currently working on the red tape to return to teach in China this October, and I would return to India without the slightest hesitation if I were invited. There are also chances that I'll be invited to Japan and Korea to teach, and I hope those opportunities come to pass. I've worked enough with authors from other countries that I've also learned a lot about cross-cultural communication, and I write about that too when I have an opportunity.

When did you write your first article? What inspires you to write? Do you have any favorite subjects?

I started writing essays for the staff newsletter of the Canadian Forest Service back in 1988. My first STC article was in 1994, and between 1995 and 1998, I began publishing articles more frequently. By 1999, I was publishing more than an article per month, both for STC and elsewhere. I believe I still have the distinction of being the only STC member to have ever published three articles in the same issue of Intercom! I would probably have written many more articles if I'd spent less time in discussion forums, and currently, I spend five days a week editing scientific journal articles, which leaves little time for writing.

I'm inspired to write whenever I suddenly understand something new; the excitement of that understanding is what motivates me to share the excitement with everyone else, and that leads to a great many articles. I'm fortunate in having a muse with a very active imagination, and in having an innate curiosity that is never satisfied without knowing "how and why". That means I'm rarely bored, and that I'm always finding new things to learn and write about.

As you can see from my Web site, I don’t have any favorite subjects, although lately I've been writing more about cross-cultural communication, scientific communication, and information design than other topics. As I noted earlier, I'm also fascinated by the craft of writing fiction, and have begun writing about it in my blog. I'm particularly interested in science fiction and fantasy—the good type that speculates about the impacts of science and other aspects of the human condition, not the "evil giant insects from Mars want to kidnap human women" type or the (generally poorly written and bordering on insultingly stupid) TV and Hollywood types.

You are very popular as an editor. Can you please brief us on different types of edits and the differences between them?

You can read a lot about editing on my Web site, and the contract I borrowed from the Editors' Association of Canada contains detailed descriptions of these types of edits and the differences among them. I revised their definitions somewhat to reflect my own prejudices about the different types of editing. Currently, I have the freedom to do what I call the "everything that needs doing" type of edit: I critique the logic, sequence, consistency, and clarity of every manuscript I work on, as well as routine things like grammar, and I no longer accept work where the author tells me what level of edit I should perform. I'm the expert, and I'll tell the author what I believe to be necessary! They're free to disregard my advice, but I've guided on the order of 5000 manuscripts into print at this point, so I know what I'm talking about.

Do you use any special tools while editing or indexing?

I edit exclusively on the screen these days; I mostly use Word 2003, but have played around with Word 2007 and 2008 enough to be competent in both programs. I've written a book on the topic, Effective Onscreen Editing that is, so far as I know, the only book on the topic. I don't do much indexing, other than for my own writing; I've worked in InDesign using that software's built-in tools and I've used the built-in tools provided by Word. Both are primitive compared with dedicated indexing tools, but they work well enough to get the job done.

Are you doing projects for companies with offices in India? Have you worked for any projects of Indian IT majors? Have you worked with Indian Technical Writers on any project? How was the experience?

I have worked with a couple Indian scientists on journal articles, but not many. When I was getting started as a freelancer, most could not afford my pay rates, and these days, I simply don't have enough time to take on new clients, so I probably won't expand my list of Indian clients. I still get many inquiries from potential clients, and I usually pass them along to colleagues who are not as busy as I am. I briefly considered hiring subcontractors to do the work, but I didn't want the hassle of having to supervise "employees". I'd rather spend my time doing the work I love than handling paperwork.

I haven't worked with Indian IT companies because I no longer specialize in the computer and software industry; almost all of my work is articles for scientific journals. I've mentored a few Indian colleagues over the years, and wish I had time to do more of this—but these days, I simply don't have enough free time to establish that kind of long-term coaching relationship. When I was the keynote speaker at STC India's conference a few years ago, I spent three days talking continuously with my Indian colleagues, and loved the experience. Their enthusiasm and excitement about the profession were tremendously energizing, and I still correspond with some of these people frequently.

You have worked as a freelancer for quite some time. What advice would you give to candidates who want to freelance?

There are two important criteria for success. First and foremost, you must be good at what you do, and must never stop trying to get better. Not everyone is willing to pay a premium rate for work of the highest quality, but many are willing, and they are the clients we should seek out. Never compete based on the lowest price unless you are desperate for work; when you do that, you devalue our profession and end up competing with unskilled amateurs, who are always going to charge less than we can. Please note that this is not a hidden criticism of my Indian colleagues; in India, as everywhere else in the world, there are highly skilled professionals and there are complete amateurs, as well as a whole range of skill levels in between. I teach my Indian colleagues the same thing I teach my Western colleagues: develop enough expertise to stand out from the amateurs so that you won't have to compete with them, and charge a professional's price.

Second, never forget the importance of customer service. I offer my authors as much or as little handholding as they request, and I sometimes go to heroic lengths to remove obstacles from their path and make working with me as pleasant as possible. This works so well that word of mouth advertising expanded my client list to the point that I could no longer accept any new clients within 4 years of starting work as a freelancer.

Can a freelancer totally rely on jobs available on the Internet?

In theory, yes. In practice, it can be a bit more difficult. Jobs such as mine lend themselves naturally to working at a distance (exclusively by e-mail), but some jobs really do require being physically present. And it can be very difficult to demonstrate your credibility to a potential client. I've acquired that credibility over the course of 22+ years of working as an editor and in other fields, not to mention by publishing so many articles, and that lets me reassure potential clients that they're working with someone they can trust. There's no easy way to establish that trust other than to prove that you're trustworthy. But I also guarantee my work, which not many people do; that means clients get a sense that they can rely on me.

What was the most challenging project/assignment that you worked on? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

There have been many over the years. Probably the most challenging project was learning to use Interleaf's technical publishing software and then having to edit and lay out a 300-page full-color book. This job came up within a couple weeks after I'd received only 2 days of training with the software. I learned very quickly about problem-solving, triage (identifying and focusing on the most important things first), and "just in time" documentation—in this case, learning to use thousands of pages of manuals and fairly primitive online help to teach myself what I needed to know as soon as I needed to know it. This experience cured me of my fear of learning new things—or to be more precise, it gave me enough confidence to overcome that natural fear.

If an Indian Technical Writer wants to migrate to Canada, do you think it is possible?

Yes and no. Canada has not been very welcoming to immigrants in recent years, and that makes me sad. We have a much less racially tense environment than in the United States, though we're by no means immune to racism, and I believe that every new "color" we add to our mosaic makes each of us richer. Not everyone agrees. A young, skilled, educated professional with a good employment record will have an easier time coming to Canada. Quebec has slightly different immigration laws, and has a very strong bias against non-French immigrants, so it can be difficult to immigrate to Quebec unless you're fluent in French.

Canada has a large Indian community, which makes it easier for someone to arrive and be welcomed. (As is the case in any ethnic group, the people who have been here for one or more generations are the best introduction for immigrants into a new and often very different culture.) However, the climate will be a bit of a shock to most Indians. In most parts of Canada, our summers are very warm by North American standards; we often reach 30°C during the summer. But we have harsh winters in most parts of the country, with temperatures routinely reaching –20°C and sometimes descending as low as –40°C. Then there's the snow: despite global warming, most parts of Canada have snow for at least 2 months of the year, and a few years ago, the snow was nearly 2 m deep around my home in Montreal.

If given an option, which of the following will you prefer and why (feel free to make and specify necessary assumptions)
- Canadian Technical Writer OR US Technical Writer to work with you on a project
- Secured job OR Freelancing
- Writing OR Editing

I don't have any preference whatsoever in terms of who to work with; I've worked successfully with both Canadians and Americans, not to mention clients on every continent except Antarctica. My criteria is that the person must be skilled and enthusiastic, and willing to both learn from me and to teach me.

I don't believe that the choice of the word "secured" is a valid alternative to "freelancing". I understand that the intent of that word was to refer to full-time employment, with a regular salary, but it's important to note that there is no longer any real employment security. As North American technical communicators learned when so much writing work was outsourced to India, there are skilled workers elsewhere in the world, and there will always be somewhere in the world with lower salaries who can learn to do equally good work. India has a natural advantage in having English as the national language, since this provides a large pool of highly skilled English writers, but the Indian technical writing community must remember that there are other large sources of English writers, and as Indian wages continue to rise, employers may start looking elsewhere for less expensive workers. I have Chinese colleagues who have reported this phenomenon is already affecting their work within China.

I believe that the only security we have lies in our ability to produce sufficiently good work, at a sufficiently reasonable price, that clients or employers are willing to continue paying us. To retain that kind of work, we must continue to demonstrate to our clients and employers that we are worth the price we charge.

In terms of the choice between writing and editing, my current work is almost exclusively editing, and I love the work. But I would never consider this an either/or situation: I continue writing whenever I have the opportunity to do so. And I love French translation, and would happily do more of it.

If you had the option to choose a simultaneous second career, what career would you choose? Why?

I already have a second career as a teacher, and enjoy that. But the second career I'm working on right now, purely for the love of doing it (since I don't earn any money from it), is writing, including fiction when I have time. Why? I've never examined that too closely and asked myself why. Part of the pleasure comes from the connections I form with other people around the world, and that may be the strongest single factor that motivates me to write. I also find that I think things through more clearly when I try to explain them to someone else in writing, so the journey of writing also becomes a journey of exploration and understanding for me. But it's also true that the act of writing is simply a pleasure, and no other reason would be necessary.

Any other thoughts or experiences that you would like to share?

Only this: Love what you do, or find something else to do with your life. Life is simply too short to waste 40+ hours per week doing something you don't like. No matter where you live in the world, there's a certain amount of unpleasantness involved in earning enough money to survive, but if you're as lucky and blessed as I have been, and if you're willing to muster your courage and take the leap of faith to try something new, I believe that you can find something you're passionate about and that will also earn you a good living. The challenge is to find that passion and work hard at it until you're good enough to earn a living doing work related to that passion.

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