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Young Writers, Get Out There and WRITE!

STC speaker

Charles Crawley, lead technical writer at Rockwell Collins; Liz Herman, deputy director, policy and professional development, General Dynamics Information Technology; Michelle Felser, staff technical writer and team lead, Schneider Electric North America; and Michael O’Neill, product communication specialist, Geonetric answer questions during the STC meeting Oct. 9 at Mount Mercy University.

Perhaps, I went into the wrong field. The Eastern Iowa chapter of the Society for Technical Communication held their annual “college” program Oct. 8 at Mount Mercy University.

I was pleased to see more than half a dozen MMU students or recent alums there. There were four panelists on the program, and I thought they said many good things that I hope students take to heart.

One clear message from the STC is that technical writing, even in today’s slow economy, is a growing field. It’s not the kind of writing that many English or Journalism students first think of as a career, yet it’s an industry with a large presence in Iowa’s “creative corridor,” the Waterloo/Cedar Falls-Cedar Rapids-Iowa City region. Not to mention that many people make their living doing technical writing in Iowa’s largest city, too (shout out to delayed twin!).

Liz Herman

Liz Herman was a journalism student in her undergraduate years. I hope she gave some MMU communication and journalism students some ideas.

One of the speakers, Liz Herman, deputy director of policy and professional development at General Dynamics Information Technology, made the point that there is a clear way for university students to get technical writing experience while they are in school.

It’s called “journalism.”

Yes, indeed. As she said, and I believe Charles Crawley, a lead technical writer at Rockwell Collins agreed, the point of journalism is to learn to talk with people, gain information and package that information in a concise, readable form for an audience. With the exception that the stakes might be higher—speaker Michelle Felser, staff technical writer and team lead at Schneider Electric North America made the point that in her work, bad grammar could cause something to explode—that is a pretty good description of what technical writers, as well as journalists, do.

Use “any outlet” to get your writing published, Herman also urged. At MMU, a student can be published, for the most part, in one of two places: Paha, the literary magazine; or the Mount Mercy Times, our student newspaper.

I encourage students to aim to be published often in both. As Michael O’Neill, product communication specialist at Geonetic, said, you don’t want 9-to-5 to be your only source of validation. A writer should seek multiple outlets. (He also noted that blogging can be one of those outlets, another point I’ve made to students).

Michelle Felser

Michelle Felser made an important point–bad grammar kills! In her line of work, poorly worded instructions could lead to BOOM.

Anyway, an MMU journalism student who was at the program last night noted that she isn’t sure that she wants to work for a newspaper when she graduates. In fact, that probably puts her with the majority of J-students. Journalism, as it’s taught at MMU and most universities, involves fungible writing and information gathering tools.

So, heed these writers’ wise words, MMU students. If you’re seeking an outlet for your writing, look first in the lower level of Busse Library.

There’s a newspaper office down there where you should spend some time.

And why was I concerned that I might have chosen the wrong field? STC presented some salary data. In Iowa, the median technical writer salary tops $50,000. One speaker last night shared how her salary changed during her career path, starting two decades ago with a grand sum of $18,000. Today, since she has an advanced degree and has moved into management, her salary tops $90,000.

She wouldn’t say by how much. She coyly noted that “it’s over that ($91,000)” and left it at that.

Well, nobody becomes a professor to get rich. It’s a good living, but not the most lucrative career possible. It does lift me into the middle class and affords me plenty of job autonomy and gives me the chance to do work I love. So if it doesn’t pay me as well as technical writing would, well, there are other rewards.

I’ll just keep telling myself that.

Anyway, students, the point is clear. If you’re serious about writing, whatever your major: Take steps to ensure that you’re regularly published now. And the quickest way to do that is in your weekly student newspaper.


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