By Andy Gale
After spending decades in the field, Tim Slager is someone whom many people would consider an expert in technical writing.
Tim, who is now 54, was born in Minnesota, raised in Iowa, and grew up in Washington. Following a few years in Montana, he came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he attended Calvin College. “I don’t remember what I started out in. I think I was interested in Political Science, then History, then Philosophy,” said Slager. “I think it was my sophomore year that I settled down with Classical Languages,” the program in which he earned his bachelor’s degree. As he went on to higher education, Tim earned a Master’s of Linguistics at the University of Washington and also a Master’s of Literacy from the University of Oklahoma.
Once finished with college, Tim spent a few years as a copy editor at the Advance Newspapers, a weekly in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After many long nights at the editing desk, Tim was ready for a change of scenery. “I moved to West Africa for seven years, which was interesting, especially when the war broke out.”
While living with his family in Liberia, West Africa, Tim worked with a Christian mission doing literature development and literacy work. They would have stayed more than seven years, but civil war erupted in 1990, and Tim and his family fled the warzone. Tim returned to the country and worked with Catholic Relief Services for a little while during the war, during which time he helped distribute food and other essential supplies.
Tim snagged a residential construction job when he returned from Africa, though not for too long. This position, as well as his previous construction experience and writing skills, brought him into the world of technical communication with a job at McGraw-Hill (publishing company) in their Construction Information branch, building a database for classifying constructions products.
“It was mostly writing definitions, like a dictionary. You had to define each category so that people could find what they needed,” said Slager, describing the position. “It was a really weird job, but sometimes those strange jobs are the ones you like the most. I loved that job. I would have stayed there happily for the rest of my days.”
Tim did not, however, stay there for the rest of his days. McGraw-Hill consolidated in New York and closed down the Grand Rapids branch where Tim worked. From there, he moved on to Dematic Corporation in Grand Rapids for nine years According to the Dematic website, Dematic “designs, manufactures, implements, and supports automated material handling systems that reduce operational costs and optimize supply chain performance.”. Tim mainly worked writing software documentation designed for conveyor units. “Here [at Dematic] I worked sometimes collecting information and collating it for the engineers to use while setting up. And other times you’re writing for somebody who hardly knows how to use a computer.”
No longer with Dematic, Tim is now self-employed. He still does freelancing in the technical writing field, contract writing with companies such as Steelcase. He is also starting his own building company that does mostly insulation work.
When asked to identify the best part of technical writing, Tim responded, “I think the best part is the variety. You have to learn whatever it is you’re documenting, however temporary, and you have to understand how it works well enough that you can explain it to somebody. And as soon as you’re done, you can forget it all and move on to the next thing.”
When asked if he had advice for incoming tech writers, Tim replied, “Always stay curious.” He then thought about it for a second, after which he said, “Another one is… do you know the book The Elements of Style by Strunk and White? There’s a chapter in there, and it goes something like ‘Clarity, clarity, clarity.’ Those are my first three rules for tech writing.”