Computer Software/Hardware, Business Publishing
By Andy Gale
With over 30 years of technical writing experience, Laura Small has witnessed first-hand how the field has developed over the years and has gained valuable knowledge of what it takes to be an effective tech writer.
Born in Cherry Point, North Carolina, Laura grew up in an ever-changing environment. Her father was a Marine Corps pilot, so the family moved to a new base every 2-3 years. During this time, Laura lived in California, Michigan, Hawaii, southern and northern Virginia, and North Carolina. “I liked being a military brat and experiencing lots of new places,” said Laura when discussing her childhood. When she reached 14, her family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where Laura spent all 4 of her high school years.
Following high school, Laura attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English with minors in science and education. Because internships weren’t offered as much then, Laura focused on the Madison House volunteer program and wrote occasionally for the campus literary magazine. She also has a graduate certificate as a publications specialist from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Laura’s resume is nearly a catalogue of technical writing positions that exemplifies the diversity of employment opportunities in the field. Her jobs have included:
- High school English teacher in Virginia for 3 years after college. “Loved the kids but disliked the education bureaucracy.”
- Editor for the American Council on Education, where she progressed from editorial assistant to managing editor of a journal. She also edited books and other publications—a little bit of everything.
- Editor for Electronic Data Systems (now part of HP). She was a technical editor and documentation supervisor. She worked on government contracts editing and writing everything from monthly reports to manuals.
- Project Manager for an accounting software firm where she worked as technical writing supervisor managing 4 writers. They wrote documentation for Accounts Receivable software programs.
- Freelance Consultant. Laura freelanced for about 7 years before and after her children were born. Clients included National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, EDS, SAIS, CSC, Westat, Aspen Systems, and many other Washington, D.C. area organizations.
- Communications Manager at Mycom, Inc. in Cincinnati, OH. She wrote manuals, brochures, and other documents for Procter & Gamble.
- Senior Editor for Research Triangle Institute. When Laura moved to North Carolina in 2000, she worked as a freelancer for 3 years and then began her current job at Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park, NC. She began as a proposal editor and is now a senior editor working on reports, manuals, proposals, grants, and other projects. She also coordinates and manages publications projects.
The best parts of her current job are her colleagues and the kind of work RTI does. Laura works in a tight-knit group of about 20 other editors who all share ideas and frustrations in a community-oriented atmosphere. In regards to the work RTI does, Laura says, “I love that RTI supports scientific, technical, and social research that really benefits mankind.”
Her main tasks at RTI include editing and coordinating production of whatever project she might have on her desk for the week, be it a manual, a proposal, a grant, a project report, a journal article, or a resume. On a typical day, she would discuss the job with the client (their scientific and technical staff), edit at the level they request (copy edit vs. substantive edit), and get assistance from their document preparation specialist to format the document. She usually has multiple jobs going at a time, and when she isn’t working on those she’s answering lots of email or attending meetings.
As technology has evolved over the years, Laura has just about seen it all. According to Laura, “Technology has totally changed the publications field. Before computers were commonly used, documents had to be retyped when changes were made. I worked on a journal 25 years ago that was typeset. Now it is so much easier to make revisions to a document, and turnaround time is so much faster.” Laura has worked with everything from typewriters and the very first, very basic word processors to the networked laptop computers we use today.
Laura has a lot of advice to give to incoming tech writers, advice that comes directly from years of experience in the field, so it’s probably a good idea to listen. “Hone your writing and editing skills in college—practice, practice, practice. Get as much writing and editing experience as you can. Try to get internships that offer practical experience. Volunteer for projects on your campus; maybe your professors can use help or another pair of eyes. Take a variety of classes and keep a portfolio of samples. Also, develop your networks-most people find jobs through their contacts. Talk to your parents’ friends and your friends or work contacts in the community. Don’t be afraid to work hard and start at the bottom of the ladder. If you are intelligent, efficient, and a hard worker, people will notice you and begin to rely on you.”