A long-time member of the Shenouda Associates Inc. team, Donna Muldoon shares her entry into the technical writing business. Reluctant or not, her writing skills are strong and solid, and her editing skills are impeccable. — Judy Shenouda
I am a reluctant writer.
From my first aptitude test in junior high to my last career counseling tests as an adult, I was told that I should be a writer. Even Mrs. C, my high school English teacher with the feared red pen, commented that I should be a journalist. But I always disliked writing. It was painful, a dreaded chore, whether it was a simple thank you note or a speech to be presented. Sometimes the words came easily, but other times, they wouldn’t come out of my pen no matter how soon that assignment was due.
But here I am—after 22 years as a technical writer—still reluctant to do any real writing. I’m defining real writing here as creative writing—the opposite of technical writing. For me, creative writing requires thought, imagination, attention-grabbing sentences, interesting characters, and maybe some human emotion. None of that is in my wheelhouse.
So, when a career counselor suggested that I consider technical writing, I needed more explanation as to what that entailed. The counselor set up a meeting with someone in the field, with the warning that this was not a job interview. With a business writing sample in hand and absolute certainty that no amount of information would convince me that writing was for me, I went to the meeting. The expert in the field turned out to be Judy Shenouda! Over the course of two hours, Judy explained the concepts of technical writing and showed me some examples. The sight of 200-page finished publications did not fill me with waves of excitement, anticipation, or confidence! But Judy made me an offer that very few people ever receive: I could try out working on a technical writing assignment for a month to see if I liked it. If Judy was willing to take a risk, there was nothing for me to lose.
The first 10 years, the next 10 years, and still counting
I tried out that job for 10 years, becoming the sole writer for one complex product that encompassed over 50 manuals, totaling more than 2,000 pages. In addition to becoming familiar with the product, I learned how to write using a controlled language, how to publish on FrameMaker, and how to build periodic CDs for the distribution of the manuals.
Skip ahead to now.
I’ve finished working as an editor for the last 10 years—trying out another set of skills that I never imagined using when I was in school. Mrs. C would be pleased that I remembered so many rules of English. And I have learned that there are many people who didn’t learn those rules. I’ve joked that most of my editing job consisted of adding commas, deleting commas, and inserting trademark symbols. (As a technical writer, I am adept at simplifying and succinctly stating those facts.)
And in the course of these 22 years, I’ve discovered why this career path has worked for someone so reluctant to be a writer. Despite my dread of putting words on paper, I do like the sense of order and organization that is the basis of technical writing. Numbered steps, clear meaning, illustrations with purpose, instructions that teach—all concepts that correlate to my upbringing by parents who instilled a value for doing things the right way. Technical writing incorporated my skills from both teaching and the business world, further expanding my experience working with all types of people who were part of the technical writing process—engineers, subject matter experts, illustrators, graphic designers, editors, and even other writers.
So, while I’m still a little reluctant to write creatively, I now know that I can write—technically. And for the times when the words come out and the results are clear and organized, I am appreciative for the quiet confidence and faith of Judy—the one who saw through my reluctance and encouraged me to try out what I had managed to avoid for so long. Apparently, those aptitude tests were right!