"Baby Writer" Hits the Scene at InterChange '99

by Jane Martin

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On Wednesday, October 20, I attended the STC InterChange Conference. This was my first work-related conference and my first encounter with more than three technical writers at one time. I'm a "baby writer" or, more formally, an Associate Technical Writer at Availant (formerly CLAM Associates) in Cambridge. I'm also working on my master's thesis in dramatic literature at Tufts University. There's plenty of writing going on in my life. Would this conference prove useful to me?

I slipped into technical writing field propitiously. Right after college, I did lots of Theater while supporting myself with jobs that never meant much to me. I originally joined Availant as a contractor in another department; then when an internship opportunity came up in the Documentation Group, I humbly but eagerly expressed interest. And here I am today, appearing in technical communications magazines and everything. Oh, OK, so this is my first time.

Before the formal discussions began at the InterChange Conference, my coworker and I visited the exposition room where technical writing books were sold. And where some recruiters congregated. The book topics gave me a sense of what's currently popular in the industry: XML, anything O'Reilly, Web stuff. Speaking with the recruiters (briefly) was interesting too, in terms of learning what the larger technical community expects from its writers.

My first session was "Challenges and Advantages of Modular Documentation" where Linda Greene discussed the underlying concepts and organizational style of writing documentation according to this method. Truth be told, I felt no deep affinity for this style, but the talk itself was helpful in focusing my attention on fundamental components of documentation such as categorization of information.

At lunch, I ate more than I usually eat at Thanksgiving dinner. (Mental note: Writers know how to eat.) As my coworker and I stood with our food trays in the gazebo doubling as a salad bar, I got a panoramic view of my tech writing colleagues. I was the only one sporting a facial piercing.

A bit worried about fitting into this scene, I attended two more talks punctuated by a chocolate break. The first was "Stayin' Alive: The Online Writer's Survival Guide," by David Locke. The second of these, "Getting Started with Internet Multimedia," was presented by Bob Boeri, an enthusiastic, kind man. Bob spoke of different applications which complement each other to create, say, a Web page which visually and audibly guides you through a tour of Notre Dame de Paris. Not only did I realize how such a multi-faceted approach could be helpful when working with work-related Web projects but, heck, if this likeable representative of the technical communications field seemed to like me, nose-piercing and all, perhaps I'd found myself a lovely career.

In the final lecture, "Tips and Tricks for Extracting Information from Subject Matter Experts," the speaker and audience members gave multiple anecdotes related to peacefully getting information from people who are busy, incommunicative, disdainful of your existence, etc. This exercise provided good preparation for thoughtfully approaching work peers (and perhaps even one of the West African playwrights I'm writing my thesis on). Well, I haven't had issue with Availant's incredibly helpful subject matter experts, but since the conference, I have had a fruitful phone conversation with the aforementioned playwright. Maybe chocolate and beer bribery really is the secret to success.

The conference was in fact a great way for me to become more familiar with the technical communications field. Discussions, peers, food, books, ideas, and anecdotes all worked admirably well to bring me several "baby-writer" steps closer to technical maturity. And to completing that darn thesis.

Jane Martin is an Associate Technical Writer at Availant in Cambridge, MA. She is also getting her Master's in dramatic literature at Tufts University.

© 2000 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published January/February 2000 in the Boston Broadside