Prior to the establishment of the South Carolina Honors College in 1978, the University of South Carolina had an honors program – of which Dale Callison ’74, is a proud alumna. Dale majored in English and extended her stay at the University of South Carolina where she graduated with her master’s degree in Mass Communication.
Following graduate school, Dale spent five years as a copyeditor at The State newspaper. One day, she decided to move to Seattle and that is where she stumbled upon technical communications. At the time, the advice was “Go technical. Don’t apply for jobs; apply for contracts.” She started with a proofreading contract for Microsoft Press, and so it began. Since then, Dale has spent her career in both contract and staff positions such as Senior Technical Editor, Documentation Manager, Technical Writer and Senior Technical Writer.
During her time in Seattle, Dale also attended the University of Washington where she obtained a master’s degree in Technical Communication.
Dale shares with us her experience, advice and how her passion for writing led her to unique roles and opportunities.
What does an average work day look like for a Senior Technical Writer?
In my area of technical writing – providing writing support for software and hardware products – a typical “writing” day rarely involves sitting quietly at my desk writing. There are schedules to meet, project communications to conduct with an international engineering team, technical reviews to coordinate, articles to shepherd through daily web releases, screen reviews to conduct, and customer needs to research and scope for new features. As a senior writer, I also mentor writers and may take the lead in development of processes, templates, styles, and terminology for a project or for the writing team.
There is no clear line between the product and “documentation.” The technical writer refines text on the screen, errors, and alerts. The writer also may review parameter names for consistency and clear meaning or help write the script for a usability test.
While developing an article, a technical writer spends about 20 percent of that time actually putting pen to paper. The rest of the time goes to research, planning, information design, edits, technical reviews, publishing to the web, and project communications.
Each day typically involves a mixture of several of these activities. Time management is very important to avoid randomization and be able to schedule blocks of time when I can concentrate on the writing.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is working with international teams of smart, dedicated engineers to create products. It’s challenging and fun participating in the design and development of products, and I get to know people from many different cultures.
I develop working relationships over conference calls, and enjoy the occasional opportunity to travel. As an embedded writer for the Bluetooth special interest group (SIG), I traveled internationally four times a year to meet face-to-face with the working group I supported. The organization’s by-laws required that the face-to-face meetings be distributed geographically to accommodate members worldwide. The meetings allowed me to get to know the specification authors as people, and as writers. The travel was a nice bonus.
What made you decide to pursue a career in technical writing?
From an early age, I knew that I would be a writer. I prepared to be a journalist. After I completed my English degree, I earned a master’s degree in Mass Communication from the College of Journalism and then worked as a copyeditor for The State newspaper for five years.
I entered technical editing through expediency after I decided to move to Seattle on a whim at age 31. I was feeling the urge to get out and see the world, to try something different. In Seattle, I was one of many journalists and publishing professionals competing for a few jobs in the traditional media. The advice was: “Go technical. Don’t apply for jobs; apply for contracts.” So, I did.
My first break was a proofreading contract with Microsoft Press, and the Domino Effect began. When the management team for one of the book divisions started their own firm, they hired me as their staff editor. To help make ends meet, the book publishing firm contracted me out for several months as a technical editor in Microsoft’s Systems Division. After three wonderful years in book publishing, I took a job as Senior Technical Editor for that Microsoft group. In the engineering environment, I found that the high-level editing and design skills that attracted me to editing were owned by technical writers rather than editors. To enjoy my work, I needed to move to technical writing. And I needed to understand the engineering environment better.
The move to technical writing was a special challenge. Most engineers thought the ideal technical writer was one of them, but with a knack for moving around commas. I was an English major and a woman. How could I possibly understand technology? Building my skill set and developing technical acumen took discipline and determination, but it was well worth the effort. When I moved into technical writing, I knew I had found my place. I gravitated to the more technical end of personal computing, writing about systems, networks, security, and cloud-based technologies for IT professionals and developers.
I would also note one more important transition. Over the years, I have developed a specialty as an embedded technical writer on engineering teams developing early releases of products. In that capacity, the technical writer joins that engineering team and provides writing support for any issue that involves communication or language throughout product development.
I discovered the potential of that role in the Technical Communication master’s program in the University of Washington’s School of Engineering. Enrolling in that program was the smartest career move I ever made. The program brought together professionals from many disciplines, most with at least one post-graduate degree, to explore what it means to be a technical communicator and prepare for their own niche in the field. I went into the program liking the financial security that technical editing offered. I came out a technical communicator prepared to exercise language and communication skills in areas I had not imagined.
What inspires you to work toward your goals and accomplishments?
At heart, I’m a writer. At the end of the day, I want to be a better writer than I was at the beginning of the day. In technical writing, that’s a complex proposition.
I’m inspired by the abundant challenges and opportunities of technical communication – by the challenge of keeping the focus on effective communication to meet people’s needs when the technology is morphing at the speed of light and new publishing technologies are adopted post-partum. There are so many interesting things to do and learn and many needs to meet.
How did UofSC – and the Honors College (honors program at the time) – prepare you for the challenges and opportunities you’ve encountered in your career?
I brought basic writing and editing skills to the field when I entered it. My studies at the University were important in developing those skills.
When I started out in technical editing, people were just beginning to develop the documentation standards for personal computers. Microsoft was a private company with only 300 employees. The Windows operating system and Word for Windows were still in development. I was fortunate to be an editor of the users’ guide for the first release of Word for Windows, which was a threshold publication, establishing high quality standards for computer manuals at Microsoft.
The early documentation was designed and developed in large part by people from book publishing, who brought in values, sensibilities, and standards from that field. My solid grounding in the English language, editing, and writing enabled to me take part in that conversation. My understanding of language, writing, and narrative forms was nurtured in the English honors program.
My Master of Mass Communications degree from the College of Journalism gave me a strong foundation in reporting and editing, which launched the 5-year newspaper editing phase of my career. Editing for a daily newspaper gave me a lot of practice editing, writing to size, and time management. I developed poise in meeting fierce deadlines. Reporting experience also taught me how to ask intelligent questions in areas in which I have limited knowledge. My writing is only as good as the information I can distill from subject matter experts. Technical queries may be the most important writing that I do.
What is your favorite memory from your time in the honors program?
I remember the academics most.
My first English course was Bernie Dunlap’s War and Revolution survey. Bernie believed that parody is the sincerest form of flattery (or so he said). We would read a book and then parody the writer’s style. It was great fun while requiring a close reading of the author and evaluation of the writing style – great practice for a person who would spend a lifetime playing with words.
I also have fond memories of Barbara Garland’s Theory of the Novel course. When we studied a novel, she would get out a marker and draw the arc of a plot like a football coach diagraming offensive plays. I was intrigued and found myself mentally mapping the books that I read. That’s what I do for a living today – find the structure in a collection of facts.
What guidance would you give to students who want to follow in your professional footsteps?
Students who want to prepare to be a technical communicator have many more choices than I had starting out, and a much broader range of specialties open to them.
If you’re adventurous and have the flexibility to earn a master’s degree in technical communication, there are many good programs available. Choose your program carefully. I entered technical communication already an experienced writer and editor. Earning a master’s degree in a school of engineering was the perfect bridge for me. To prepare for technical writing, I studied cognitive research into how people perceive, comprehend, learn, and process language; the design of information, information systems, databases, user interfaces, web sites, and computer-based instruction; usability testing; contemporary rhetoric, sociology of science. A degree based in an English or communication school will have a slightly different emphasis. Many of the technical writers and editors I have worked with earned master’s degrees with a media management emphasis.
You don’t need to be a “technical person” to enter the field. The field needs people with humanities backgrounds. You do need to be comfortable working with technology and interested in how things work. Corporations typically hire technical editors and writers after they gain 2-3 years of experience to make sure they have that technical facility.
Certificate programs in technical editing and technical writing can help you develop the basic skills to gain entry to the field. There are many roles for traditional editors and writers, and those editors and writers make significant contributions to the field. If you want to go beyond the more traditional roles, I recommend a master’s degree.
I live in a high-tech center, where educational opportunities in technical fields abound. If you’re not in one of those markets, it may be more challenging to find the training and education you need. A good way to get an overview of trends in technical communication is to attend the annual international Technical Communication Summit of the Society for Technical Communication.
What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received during your career?
When you set design goals, think only about what you want and need to do. Don’t worry about whether you know how to do it; someone can. If they can’t do it now, they will figure out how to.