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WRK4US GUEST SPEAKER DISCUSSION 1
Technical Writing
with Tom Wilk
Hosted by Paula Foster

Tom's Introduction

Educational Background
Battelle / ER Group background
Daily Responsibilities
Managing a Process, Working with People
Closing Thoughts
A Typical Day

Salary Questions
Adapting from Academia
Reading Suggestions
Comparisons with Academia
Missing the Academy?
Background Required
What are "Editing Skills"?
Required Computer Skills

The following conversation originally took place on an email discussion list called WRK4US, which was founded by Paula Foster in 1999 as a place for people with graduate education in the Humanities to discuss nonacademic careers.

Because WRK4US has a confidentiality policy, all subscriber email addresses have been removed, and all names (except for Paula Foster's and the Guest Speakers') have been removed or reduced to two initials which are different from the person's real initials.

If you like this discussion and would like to subscribe to WRK4US, send an email message to listproc@lists.acs.ohio-state.edu saying subscribe WRK4US Your Name, or email Paula at foster.242@osu.edu.

Edited by Gwendolyn Bradley
Adapted to .htm format by Wendy Waters

Date: Thu, 11 May 2000 17:40:34 -0400
Subject: Introductory posting of Tom Wilk, professional technical writer/e ditor

Hi,

My name is Tom Wilk, and I've been asked by Paula Foster to join the WRK4US listserv and contribute to an ongoing conversation about the links, connections, and transitions between academic and nonacademic careers. Specifically, she has asked me to write a lengthier posting about my experiences with technical writing/editing as a career option in general (and at my firm, Battelle, in particular), and then to participate in a series of briefer yet detailed Q&As next week. So, thanks very much to Paula for providing this forum for exchange, and also many thanks to the listserv for this opportunity to share my experiences and learn from yours. Now, on with the introductory post!

Educational/Grad School background
As an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to develop background skills in the areas of both language and science. I started in 1987 at UIllinois U-C as a chemistry major, switched into the English program two years later, and ultimately graduated in 1991 with an English major and math and chemistry minors. I also spent three of those years working for the student newspaper as editorial writer/editor and as chief copy editor/night editor, which helped develop skills in working effectively under tight daily deadlines. In retrospect, it was this newspaper experience that ultimately has led to my current interest in working in the field of document writing,
editing, and production.

In 1992, I started what turned out to be a six-year detour into graduate school, entering Ohio State University's English program full-time to pursue an M.A. and Ph.D. For the first few years, I planned to pursue a tenure-track position as an 18th-century literature specialist, and had mapped out a dissertation on the politics in and censorship of Restoration and early-18C stage. I also taught the usual first- and second-year composition courses, as well as several literature courses ranging from Shakespeare to World Lit. However, about the time of my candidacy exam in 1996, I began losing interest in working in the academy, since to me the career track involves too much solitary work and seemed very removed from the everyday 20C world.

In 1997, I began to refocus my energy onto pursuing projects in business communication, and determined to shift from an academic career to a non-academic career. In 1998, I responded to a job description for technical editor that was posted on the English department's listserv, and got the job after an interview process that involved three face-to-face interviews and two editing tests. (As it turned out, the job description was posted by a recent OSU English Ph.D. who was already working at Battelle and figured that other grad students seeking private-sector jobs might be interested, so I have always been grateful for that particular job pipeline.) Since that time, I have been nominally working on a dissertation about the ways texts are used in the workplace to resolve conflicts, but lately have chosen to put nearly all of my energy into developing a budding career as a technical writer/editor for Battelle in the field of environmental remediation and restoration.

Battelle / ER Group background
Battelle is a large not-for-profit organization that develops and commercializes products, and provides management and technical solutions for industry and government. Battelle has a staff of more than 8,000 scientists, engineers, and other specialists who provide innovative solutions for clients in 30 countries on more than 5,000 projects each year organization, and has an annual business volume exceeding $900 million. Battelle's key claim to fame is helping to perfect Xerox reproduction technology in the 1940s and '50s. Some more recent Battelle success stories that involve familiar products include developing zinc-copper "sandwich" coins (such as the quarter) in the 1970s, and developing the Universal Product Code and associated scanning technology in the 1980s.

Battelle's Environmental Restoration Department responds to client environmental technology needs with a full spectrum of capabilities and experience in technology development, demonstration, testing, and evaluation. In essence, this group works to clean up toxic spills, develop new cleanup technologies, and provide technical support and oversight in order to protect human health and the environment at various government and private sites. The ER group currently conducts more than $15 million worth of technical research and consulting work annually for clients including the Air Force, Navy, EPA, and DOE, besides several other government agencies, private companies, and international clients in Europe and Asia. To meet these demands, our group has grown in the last 5 years from about 40 staffers to more than 100, and has come to be recognized as a leader in the ER field.

One of the things I like most about working for Battelle ER is the sense that what our group is doing has an immediate, relevant, and positive impact on the world around us. As an example of the work our group does, we currently are working with California health officials to develop and implement cleanup solutions for the gasoline additive MTBE from groundwater. You may remember the problems associated with this chemical from a "60 Minutes" piece that aired in March; as that story aired, I was literally in the middle of editing a presentation by our group to the U.S. Navy on innovative MTBE cleanup methods and technologies. Talk about relevant and
timely--it is projects like that one which make me look forward to getting up in the morning and meeting whatever project challenge comes across my desk.

Daily Responsibilities
As one of two full-time technical editor/writers in the ER group, I provide both editorial and supervisory support to project managers at various Battelle offices nationwide by coordinating the editing, production, and delivery of most hard (paper) and soft (electronic) document deliverables produced by the group. When it comes specifically to the editorial aspect of this job, my key job responsibilities include making sure that the document is clear, reads well, and presents data, conclusions, and recommendations in a clear and concise manner that is consistent with the purpose of the document and yet is understandable to audiences who may not have a technical background in the field being addressed. At its simplest, everyday level, this means keeping work (letters, proposals, and reports) moving along smoothly through the editing, production, and delivery process, and staying informed on the concerns of our clients. Work weeks are always 40+ hours, same as academic work, but it's rare when it takes more than 46 hours a week to meet my current job demands.

When a document comes across my desk for editing, the author assigns a deadline for the project and than specifies one of two levels of edit available. Level A edits usually are requested for longer, more research-oriented documents and/or project summaries, and involve a reading of the document for comprehension, with greater attention toward improving sentence structure, word choice, style, logic, transitions between ideas and paragraphs, and overall document clarity and flow. Also, when the editors are asked to write, it is usually for a Level A edit; the majority of my work with documents to date has been to edit them, and to not write much more than a few paragraphs at a time for them.

The Level B edit is the more common level requested, and involves a thorough check for accuracy in syntax, mechanics, documentation of sources, and cross-references, as well as attention to visual impact and consistency of the document format. This level is usually performed on shorter, yet very data-intensive documents, such as a monthly monitoring report on levels of hydrocarbons recovered at a given number of wells, or a bimonthly summary of work accomplished under a given contract. The text is not usually read for
comprehension at Level B, although editors are expected to understand the material enough to recognize basic errors of content as well as smooth over. At various points during the editorial process, the document originator or an appropriate technical specialist will perform an internal technical review to help eliminate errors of content that sometimes are introduced during the drafting and/or editorial process.

Also, when a client requests that a document be delivered in soft copy or electronic format (i.e., downloadable .pdf files and MS Word files), my job responsibilities include monitoring the integration of electronic text and figure bitmaps; paging carefully through the integrated document to ensure that all sections of a document have been either pulled or scanned into a single file; consulting with graphics staff to maximize the readability and crispness of all text, tables, figures, and appendices; and coordinating the production of any requested CD-ROMs (both disc-burning and label-making) with in-house graphics/IM staff.

Managing a Process, Working with People
The other aspect of my job is managerial: as the senior writer/editor for our group, I'm responsible for supervising the production workflow of all ER group document deliverables and seminar presentations. This workload translates into about 100-120 projects every 6 months (about 4-5 projects a week); and of that project load, about 60 are medium-length documents (40-70+ pp.), about 10 are lengthier guidance and project summary deliverables (150-200+ pp.), and the rest are an assortment of conference presentations, contract bids/grant proposals, and Web pages. In this supervisory context, my key job responsibilities are to coordinate the input
received from multiple sources; work with those sources to harmonize the style, tone, and content of their material; work with clients and authors to resolve conflicts and potential sources of confusion in the text; coordinate with text processing, graphics, and production staff to create a visually pleasing layout; and see that the documents move through the production process as efficiently as possible and make their deadlines.

Finally, perhaps the most key responsibility of my job is to develop and maintain positive working relationships with the high number of people involved on each project, and to tailor my edits to the needs of individual authors and clients. To keep the documents moving through the pipeline, it is necessary to keep a large number of people working in a similar direction. Normal responsibilities include meeting daily with the graphics staff, checking in almost daily with the text-processing staff to reserve blocks of their time, making courtesy phone calls to authors and project managers to confirm and/or negotiate project deadlines, and checking in with the print-shop staff to plan special work ahead (e.g., pre-ordering binders and tabs for hard copy deliverables, or coordinating the production of electronic docs). If there is one fundamental difference between academic and private-sector jobs, in my experience this is it: the vastly increased amount of human contact, and the necessity of building effective working relationships with those people.

Closing Thoughts
There have been several advantages and very few drawbacks to making this career shift. The largest drawback is that my dissertation has been put on hold, perhaps permanently. This writing/editing position tends to exhaust my ability to process texts as much as academic work does and did, thus leaving little time and even less energy to read and write for the extra 2 or 3 hours a day that finishing the Ph.D. would require. For me, the best reason to continue would be to add to my earning power, but finishing also would be good for general peace of mind that closure would bring. However, some brief advantages:

*Access to technology. Humanities departments seldom seem to have the budget lines necessary to purchase state-of-the-art information technology, and can find it even more difficult to make that technology accessible to
graduate (and undergrad) students, which then leads to students being underprepared to compete for non-academic jobs. Battelle, as a leader in industrial R&D, regularly makes top-line hardware and software available to employees, enabling them to build value into products and develop the skills necessary to compete with other leading organizations.

(read further discussion of this issue)


*Salary / Quality of life. For several years, and like many graduate students, I made a sacrifice in salary (and, essentially, in planning for my financial future) in exchange for the opportunity to study and teach. By 1998, it was time to shift direction and earn enough to plan for the future and enhance my general quality of life outside of work. The hours can
sometimes be long, but seldom as long as academic hours, and this job permits me to leave most projects each evening on my desk and temporarily out of mind.

*Working with people. The most common form of academic groupwork--committee-work--tended in my experience to be contentious and overly time-consuming, and the success of such work rarely involved tapping the specific expertise of individuals in the group. However, as an editor in a group full of scientists, I have the opportunity to bring my skill with
language and information technology into contact with specialists in science, geology, chemistry, text processing, and graphic design, and this combination tends to turn projects into intense and pleasurable leaning experiences. I also prefer social interaction on the job the writing and curriculum-development work associated with the academy--the more person-to-person contact on the job, the more energy I bring to the project texts.


A Typical Day
Here's a diary of what's been happening in my office since Monday morning. Hopefully this will be a useful window into the kinds of tasks that happen here on the micro, daily level, and can generate more specific questions/observations on how things happen here, perhaps in comparison to how things happen in your own workplaces too.

Monday, 5/15 (10-hour workday): After taking a vacation day last Friday, I returned to the office and was faced with one main task: coordinate the final assembly, printing, and distribution of 60 copies of a 250+ page document due to the client by Tuesday. This document had a 30-page main section and five appendices, with about 25 color figures throughout. Most of the prior week was spent editing the various component parts, each of which trickled in by email from various subcontractors. On Monday, decisions to make included: how many copies, who to send them to (i.e. exact external distribution list), how to format two of the appendices, would we need an electronic version, and how many copies we would be able to get from the print shop (turns out I got 40 of 60 that day, and 20 on Tuesday).

Other Monday catch-up-type tasks included scheduling dates for (and assigning text processing to) two medium-size documents that came in for editing/formatting, and working on three or four large conference posters for next week's international bioremediation conference. Most of our group is going to the conference, so prioritizing the poster work was pretty
easy, but finding time on people's schedules for the other two documents was more of a challenge. The posters were finished by 5 p.m.

At the end of the day (6 p.m.), the print shop called up and asked that I check to see if they had assembled the 250 page document correctly (Battelle's last FedEx drop time is 7 p.m.). Turns out, they had put Appendix E in front of the other parts, and had also inserted four pages from the main document right in the middle of Appendix E; also, they had already bound the document with plastic spirals, so from 6-7 p.m. I pitched in and helped tear apart the 40 copies and rebind them (also helped rearrange the main document into proper order, which the print shop had dropped or something and reordered incorrectly). From 7-8 p.m. I stuffed FedEx boxes with the documents (our undergrad office aides already had gone home to study--the nerve!), and at 8:30 I arrived at the FedEx main office to drop the boxes
off (they close at 9 p.m.).

Total
8 hours: large Work Plan
2 hours: posters
(two hours taken as comp time instead of vacation from last Friday--nice silver lining!)

Tuesday, 5/16
Arrived planning to work on one of the medium-sized reports that arrived on 5/15, but instead was handed a 150-page proposal by our department head manager, and was asked to give it a quick editorial look and to return it by 3 or 4 p.m. About an hour later, we got word that one of our clients was ready to have his document finalized, so I had to coordinate the final page changes and printing of a 160-page document (60-page main section, six
appendices). So, two surprises to work on, and also four more conference posters rolled in.

After lunch, the remaining 20 documents being printed from Monday were ready, so I took some time to see those out the door (we had four extras, added there by me in case of emergency, based on the profile of the author in our Excel-file schedule log). By 2 p.m., the 160-page document was in the print shop (15 copies, to be ready for shipping by 5/17). By 4 p.m., all but 30 pages of the proposal was done, not really a Level A or B edit but more
like B or C. By 5 p.m., the posters were done. At 5:30 p.m., as I was writing a WRK4US posting, an emergency email came in concerning the Monday order, wanting to know if we could run another copy and add a name to the external distribution list. :) The package was ready for pickup by Battelle's 7 p.m. deadline.

Total
4 hours: proposal
2 hours: 160-page document
2 hours: finish up Monday's document/emergency


Paula Foster: Hey Tom, how much do technical writers make?

Tom Wilk: Hi Paula and everyone,

WHAT WE CAN MAKE: According to the current STC salary tables, which were calculated based on survey data collected from STC members, starting tech writers/editors make from $30,000-$40,000. The range results from differences in degree, experience, and region of the USA. Experienced writers/editors can earn more--the salary tends to top out at the $65,000-$70,000 range.

WHAT I MAKE: Going by the 1998 STC survey, Battelle got a bit of a bargain with me---they started me part-time at $15.50/hour (about $32,000), and after 18 months and two employee reviews I'm now making a bit over $36,000 with full-time benefits (health insurance etc.). This figure takes into account that I'm an M.A. (technically ABD) and live in a small-to-medium-size town (low cost of living anyway), so I'm guessing it would be higher in major metro area like Chicago.

Here's the Web address of the STC salary tables; to print them out/read them, an Acrobat reader is required: http://www.stc-va.org/fjobstart.htm

Adapting from Academia

Question 1: I'm curious about how you found the adaptation from academia and the kinds of project coordination that involved (both your own work, and helping numerous students all work on projects) to supervising projects by a team of paid co-workers.
Did you just figure it out? find some interesting articles or books that helped? take a course?

Question 2: How do you handle the flow of new information with political consideration for the already existing assumptions and loyalties of the people with whom you work? This is obviously a common problem for academics and I am curious how it plays out in your environment.

Tom Wilk: [These are] similar questions about how my interactions in work teams at Battelle differ or are similar to my experience in academe. I've developed two ways to handle the flow of information, one mostly private, and the other public. The public method is a large markerboard project calendar that I use to keep track of incoming and outgoing work (blue ink for incoming, green for outgoing, red for editors' days off). Since our group has an open-door office policy, anyone is welcome at anytime (with or without me present) to look at the schedule board and get a sense of where their project is in the pipeline (the color coding has really helped, since authors don't have to know my shorthand for them to be able to read the board).

The private method is an Excel file that I keep as a mirror of the schedule board, with my own additional notes added on how well the projects turned out (i.e., whether a project arrived as scheduled, whether it arrived unfinished, whether an author asked for too tight a turnaround time, whether there was no money left in the budget for a thorough edit, etc.) This way, my private file can be used as a more detailed supplement to the schedule board, and also as a backup in case any problems or conflicts crop up over the project. In fact, the Excel printout has been useful several times for resolving project conflicts tactfully. The Excel file also helps me to see trends in the habits of authors, so I can better accommodate their personal quirks into my schedule (and vice versa, I suppose).

For example, if Bill Smith always changes his project deadlines three or four times per project, I can help Sandra Johnson plan her work by mentioning that, although one of Bill's documents is technically in front of hers in the pipeline, we can start on her work first because he will probably change his deadline anyway. There is enough give and take in the schedule that between the marker board and the Excel file, projects pretty well line up OK. In the rare case of a project conflict that requires intervention by a senior ER group manager to solve, we simply ask the two project managers to work out whose comes first; the most common of these conflicts are those involving several projects from the same manager anyway, so all the editors do in that case is check with him or her on what the project priority is.

Some ways Battelle's ER department works, especially with group work:
1. Deadlines rule, not egos
2. Proposals/grant applications come before any project work; project work comes before any scientific publication work
3. Always say "Please" when asking for help/support on projects (I'm serious--"please" is the code word here for "Incoming work obligation--is your schedule free?"
4. Don't use "no" on a regular basis, and take "no" seriously when you do hear it
5. Always fill out your electronic time card on time--it's the only way to record billable hours, and is the basic responsibility we all must meet, and so is used as the baseline indication of whether people habitually make deadlines.

The shift from academe to my current job involved two things in particular (these may sound familiar if you've been shifting too):
(1) drawing on the editing/teamwork skills I developed working at the UIUC newspaper (1988-91) and on the academic journal the "Journal of Business Communication" (1998-9); and
(2) revaluing myself and my skills, from thinking of myself as an unfinished quasi-professional student and changing that to a skilled, professional private-sector worker.

That second shift was a bigger one than I thought it would be, but it has done wonders for my sense of self worth and confidence, and has helped me develop the confidence to really stretch what I can do and who I can be professionally. In general, my experiences working on teams in academe were less than satisfactory, and have been useful on my current job only as object lessons on how not to work effectively in groups. Same goes for academic coursework. (And here I have to isolate my experiences in OSU's English department from other academic departments and universities, because there are plenty of departments nationwide that are more effective at communicating and at building unity than OSU English people are.) The more useful models I drew from were the meetings of the editorial board at UIUC, where the nine or ten section editors and the three executive editors would meet for up to six hours, every Sunday afternoon, in the newspaper's board room and hash out the 8 to 10 editorials we'd write that week. It was a pretty positive democratic process, especially since we each brought our specialties to the table (city/state desk, campus desk, sports beat, editor-in-chief--mine was the opinions desk), strove for consensus, and didn't fuss (much) if we had to go to a vote in order to settle what the position of the board would be.

Also, it was a gentle but present learning curve to figure out how far my authority extended, and to be frank, I made a pretty big error in judgment that took some work to undo (I called a mandatory meeting over an issue that our head manager didn't feel was worth it, and also made a lot of people mad because I didn't and still don't have the authority to compel their attendance at all). To fix things, I ended up taking personal time to visit those most offended (and those who were most involved with the grapevine here, the talkers) and smooth their ruffled feathers first; then I slowly patched things up with the rest.

The next time I needed everyone's help, they were there for me as if nothing happened, I think because I learned from the mistake and changed the strategy of bringing people on board (i.e., adhered more closely to the five ER group unwritten rules I posted previously). Before this gets any longer, I'll finish by adding that teaching also wasn't a very good model either, for the main reason that the omnipresent authority dynamic of a classroom (fairly vertical, despite all the theory over decentering) simply isn't replicated in the ER group (fairly horizontal, and full of experienced professionals/peers, not students).

There's some aspects of grading papers that carried over on a basic level, but the editing process here is differently complex than grading papers. The process of adapting was to a large degree sink-or-swim, and the best I could do was draw on old models, watch others closely to understand the organizational culture operating in my group, and go through several trials by fire (i.e., large projects and other, more painful learning experiences).

In grad school, the amount of solitary work became deadening to me after a while; my job at Battelle is about a 60-40 balance between working in groups (60) and working alone at my desk on the documents (40).


Three excellent books:
1. Getting to Yes, by Fisher and Ury. Guide to conflict resolution and team/consensus-building.
2. Working 9 to 5, by Deborah Tannen. Guide to (and examples of) gendered patterns of speech in the workplace, especially in managerial jobs.
3. The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communication, ed. Lutz and Storms. Collection of essays on tech writing/editing careers, including chapters on environmental restoration/management, the computer/online industries, and government/nonprofit agencies.

Comparisons with Academia


Question: The discussions about professors vs. editors and negotiating teamwork have gotten me thinking about one of the key differences I see between academic and nonacademic group work. I'm interested in finding out whether others share my perspective and/or have another way of accounting for this difference. Tom's description of the tech editing team (in his initial posting) suggests that they are a group of people who have a very diverse set of skills: the graphics designers know visual design and design software; the tech editors know language, terminology, grammar, style, tone; the processors know the word processing software, the report and citation formats, and so on. So everyone has their "turf," their areas of expertise.

In my experience, the most effective academic committees also make use of delegating tasks, maximizing the skills the individuals bring to the whole. (This is also true of students doing group work in class, of course.) However, within any given department (or even college), you're going to find a larger number of people with the same basic set of skills. For example, an English department committee is going to be full of language and literature experts, highly skilled at reading and writing, but perhaps less inclined to know--or be comfortable with--number crunching, management techniques, etc. This complicates the question of delegating tasks, because more people share a narrower piece of turf, and in the worst cases, they fight over control of it.

There are some very effective managers in the humanities, but I'm not convinced that departments *routinely* offer guidance or encouragement in developing these skills. Teacher training can cover some issues, but since the nature of the teacher/student relationship is basically vertical (even in its most student-centered versions), and committees and teams seem to require a more horizontal structure (in my opinion), there's still an inherent conflict between the skills that are encouraged and those that are effective within a department.

Does anyone have a different take on these observations, or experience in a nonacademic setting that would contradict my interpretation?

Tom, are there teams at Battelle that are less diverse in terms of skills (to connect back to the main threads)?

How do you handle the more horizontal organizational structure? (I think you already indicated you were going to address that...)



Tom Wilk: The most common form of academic groupwork--committee-work--tended in my experience to be contentious and overly time-consuming, and the success of such work rarely involved tapping the specific expertise of individuals in the group. However, as an editor in a group full of scientists, I have the opportunity to bring my skill with language and information technology into contact with specialists in science, geology, chemistry, text processing, and graphic design, and this combination tends to turn projects into intense and pleasurable learning experiences. I also prefer social interaction on the job the writing and curriculum-development work associated with the academy--the more person-to-person contact on the job, the more energy I bring to the project texts.

Earlier questions on work groups have had me thinking and bouncing ideas for a couple of days now, so no more dancing around these crucial, difficult issues. The subtext of your question seems to indicate that information is a commodity in the field of academe, and that information can be a source of power and also of friction in academe (I agree wholeheartedly).

In this context, then, your question seems to ask whether my position as editor (i.e., as someone who controls the flow of information to some degree) requires me to treat information and/or people in ways similar or different from the way academics do, with special attention to the way the editors handle "political considerations" when they work with other ER workers and workteams. Whew. Well, let me draw on the academic strategy of defining terms first. :) If by "political" you mean national party affiliation and dedication to social concerns, the short answer is that in the ER group people keep a discreet distance from having too many conversations on the job about politics. As long as we stay focused on the job at hand and share interests we have in common (choral music, baseball teams, etc.), ER folks work together fine. In our group too, we all share a concern for the environment that links us politically, so through a combination of discretion over differences and passion for the environment we all pretty much get along. (To quote a cliche, the personal is far less political here than in the academy.)

But by "political" I think you're wondering how the considerable flow of information through my office informs the power struggles that play out in the ER group, and that definitely is another issue. In general, academics' power comes from what they know (their own theories) and how high-profile the channels are in which this information is disseminated (books and journals). In the ER group, power comes from applying knowledge (operating successful projects) and generating revenue (bidding and winning new contracts). So, the biggest difference between how I handled information as an academic and how I now handle it as an editor is the difference between hoarding and sharing.

Admittedly, this is a generalization, but overall my academic career depended on uncovering new or site-specific information, and developing my own theories to interpret it. At Battelle, I work with texts that aren't my own and rely on the considerable aid of other production staff (graphics, text processing, etc.) to get the job done--I literally must share information if I want to meet deadlines and do my job, and must develop **ways** of doing things efficiently in order to keep my job and gain power (title, raise, authority, etc.). And I do like ER's way much more than OSU English's way.



Question: To what extent does the generation of new knowledge and new ideas occur in settings outside of the academy?


Response from KP: I'm not sure what you mean by new ideas. If you mean new theories of an intellectual, philosophical nature, I'd have to say no. But if you're talking about ongoing creativity, problem-solving, brainstorming, new ideas about how to optimize systems currently in place and rework a written text to fit a new need or new audience, my job's got it in spades. I manage content for an online scholarship search service. My job offers a great balance of creativity and compositional activity with administrative, supervisory and even mentoring duties. In addition, I'm learning all the time -- about marketing strategies, business practices, Web architecture, journalistic practices and even some Web programming. It's extraordinarily satisfying.


Tom Wilk: In the Battelle ER group, new ideas happen a lot. Our group ends up as a subcontractor most of the time, which means that the ideas for project work aren't initially our own (i.e., if the Navy says they need help cleaning up toxins in the sediments at a given Naval Base, we submit a proposal and budget, and then do the work if we win the contract). However, the group is expected to develop new cleanup methods (both theoretical and technological) and disseminate those methods through the proper channels (including professional conferences, journals, and spin-off companies).

It's not quite a 50-50 balance between cut work and idea generation, but it's pretty close. And, I get to recycle new and innovative concepts for my own creative (science-fiction) work, not that I've made great progress there lately! Since a wide variety of documents come through the ER tech editing office, the general process of production has been streamlined and routinized, and tedium admittedly does set in after too many Level B edits (i.e., correcting verb tenses, cross-checking data points, etc.).

But the editorial work is rarely routine--dealing with the varying mental shifts demanded by the 50-50 split described above tends to keep my mind active if nothing else. And there's always some sort of new software to learn (like SourceSafe, ArcView, Coreldraw, etc.) or some sort of side project to work on (like pulling together a portable editorial style guide for the group, or developing the Web page that allows our clients to download their documents) that keeps both halves of the brain going.

This job just doesn't require the analytical/rhetorical skills of me that a dissertation would, and it's a good thing too, because ... ...

I also disagree on the purpose of the (humanities) dissertation. To me, new ideas are the byproduct of the dissertation process, not the primary function. I believed this before starting at Battelle, and I recognize the similarity between this outlook and the way the ER group functions as a subcontractor--work comes first, new ideas are the byproduct--so I am definitely not trying to pull the moral high ground with my outlook toward dissertations.

It's the other, more institutional functions associated with the dissertation process that stand out to me as more important than asserting new ideas:
(1) Inducting scholars into acceptable forms of scholarly discourse and knowledge,
(2) Adding a good-sized page count to one's vita for tenure-review, and
(3) Learning how to handle long-term projects independently. Of these three, the third function is the one that keeps me going on my own diss, and is the one that involves the most transferable skills between academe and nonacademe. The diss is an accomplishment that I hope to achieve someday, and no matter what I think of any given department or diss, I do have a lot of respect for anyone who does completes the work required of a dissertation. But (to quote another poster) the academy does like to mint replicas of itself, and it seems that the dissertation is the humanities' primary method of doing this.




Question/Comment: Academics in liberal studies seem to be ill equipped to play the competitive grantsmanship games that colleagues in the hard sciences and engineering have done by going for government support, consulting contracts and other funds to supplement their research, promotion and tenure. Thus, they seem to have neither the experience or temperament to pass on to their graduate students seeking teaching positions or engaging with the outside community. And, often, they lack even the interest in pursuing such venues for themselves, much less their students.


Tom Wilk: The above comment squares with a conversation I had last week with another Battelle ER person, concerning points of similarity and difference between humanities and sciences professors. He was absolutely staggered to find that the main (and often only) revenue stream humanities professors generate for their universities are the tuition collected from class enrollments (at OSU this includes first- and second-year writing course, both required of about 7,000 students every year). It's unclear to me how much the state of Ohio budgets to OSU vs. the revenue that faculty, endowments, alumni, etc. bring in, so I do wonder what piece of the budget pie is provided by humanities faculty/endowments. As for my colleague, who has worked as a scientist in the private sector and armed forces over a 15-year career, he was under the impression that English professors play the grant games and solicit the subcontractor work that science professors do, or that at least some of the revenue from scholarly publications was flowing back into the departments. His reaction took me by surprise, and Tom's post reminded me that humanities professors may be the exception to the rule when it comes to faculties' generating revenue for their departments/universities.

Question/Comment: My comments concern the cliche we all hear - that we live in an information age, that we are all information brokers now, whatever career we follow. But brokering information is rarely, if ever, just a business of analyzing, reworking, and passing along data in the form of some rationalized commodity that people can use according to their own self-directed interests - this narrow concept dear to much economic rhetoric doesn't make much sense if trading information is a business on which our lives are centered. Rather, trading information as the means to building a career, a life, a better world, greatly affects the people involved. So information is not easily rationalized; and trading it is a highly complex political process we could endlessly theorize. If information is a commodity, it is one whose commerce continually reminds us of, and makes us rethink, the many relationships of which we are a part.

I guess I am curious in hearing how the business of "information" is shaping people's sense of themselves and the world of which they are a part, if anyone cares to take up such an impossibly unfocussed question. I agree with Tom, given my recent experiences in academia, that there is a tendency there to hoard information, which is perhaps at odds with an official academic ethos that knowledge is freely shared, because the pursuit of it must be facilitated. While control of knowledge is of course important to building careers in the humanities, academics are also under some pressure to share it through publication, and to enable colleagues and themselves to reach the point where their ideas are worth publishing, etc. And so guardedness might seem counter-productive.

In any case, I have found people in the history circles I have crossed quite reticent (admittedly also over-worked, stressed, tired) in matters of discussion and ideas, and while I recognize this is in part a reaction to me (I am also at times reticent and abstract), this is not a question that can be resolved, for me, in terms of any kind of explanation of academics' weaknesses. It is somehow a question of anthropology and sociability, of personal fears and dislikes that are part of a relatively small world in which one is judged by peers (academics live the ethos of village life where there are all manner of gossips and unofficial policing).

Academic history is not often a field that turns on the importance of any particular data, but is a developing conversation about ways of seeing the world. So, of course, it is a question of being involved in the right conversations, and perhaps keeping one's conversation focussed by limiting its participants. But a little more courage and openness would no doubt help many academics on an intellectual and political level so I am at times miffed by my experiences of guardedness. There is something about it which is intangible, dare I say ritualistic. But, I guess my point is that I don't completely believe suggestions that non-academic worlds can be entirely different, even if projects are streamlined, deadlines given priority, sharing information an official ethos, and rewards accorded to those who are efficient in getting projects done and pleasing clients.

Tom, my question came from your initial posting in which you mentioned some of Battelle's clients - navy, airforce, federal government departments, etc. You mentioned that you are currently working on MTBE clean-up for California health officials. I guess I thought something like: MTBE what a complex political issue, involving things like scientific debates over the positives and negatives of this fuel additive (originally introduced as an anti-smog measure, I think); the claims of the Canadian manufacturer of MTBE, under the NAFTA, to be compensated (in the billions) if the State of California attempts to exercise its sovereignty and bans MTBE; the politics of water in California, etc. There is no doubt much more to the question. Of course I don't expect you to get into the details of your projects as that is confidential, but I was generally wondering, how does an issue like that get focussed so that the people at Battelle can be given a job to do, one the client would like, without getting sidetracked when some contentious point of science (contentious for its broader political implications) comes up? Of course, science is all about focussing questions so that people can do a specific job, but I guess I was thinking, since we live in the information age, there is always another piece of news, another social-natural implication coming down the pipelines. Does this affect politics at work at Battelle? At times, does your work require a lot of top-down authority, any control of information, to keep all the environmentally concerned people in line - or does everyone agree on what the client wants, should want? Don't feel obliged to serve my curiosity on these points. But this is the gist of my inquiry.


Tom Wilk: There are plenty of similarities and points of common ground between academic and non-academic work worlds, especially when it comes to issues of information-trading and intellectual property. By drawing a certain blunt opposition between hoarding and sharing information, I didn't mean to suggest the opposition held in every case. For example, ownership of intellectual property is a common concern in each world of work. However, a key difference is that faculty members (and not universities or departments) generally own their published ideas, whereas private-sector organizations generally own the intellectual property of their workers; and, in my experience, the overall types of work and the expectations of who owns the products of that work have tended to magnify the very real differences (as Kay P.'s articulate post on "new ideas" made very clear). Battelle's status is as a subcontractor (i.e., organization for hire), and how deeply we get involved with these issues depends at what point we are brought in to the redemption process at a given site. The more common question our group faces is not any of the above questions (except maybe scientific claims on chemical toxicity levels), but rather whether our group will take the work on in the first place (or, more commonly, whether we can refuse work from long-standing clients and not harm key in-place business relationships).

The government tends to prefer working in large contracts, adding or subtracting individual work tasks with their subcontractors as the work opportunities come up, and the ER group only has so much leeway to accept or reject work. Let's say hypothetically that the Navy wants ER to clean up a gasoline spill that happened two months ago at a functioning base? OK, we do it, no complications, add it to the contract. But let's say hypothetically that the Navy is trying to sell property, and in the middle of the sale their buyer discovers a spilled pool of gasoline lying 10 ft below ground surface and 2 ft above a semi-porous aquifer, and that we are asked to work for the Navy to delineate the exact extent of the spill. Well, do we say yes, and take on potential client pressure to minimize our findings, or take on the added legal liability if a lawsuit develops?

Do we say no, and risk future work from the Navy that can run into the multi-millions of dollars a year? The questions we face as a subcontractor end up being these more mundane (and less abstract) issues. Our focus is always toward (1) bringing in new business, and (2) keeping existing clients happy. The academic departments who function in similar ways tend in my experience to be the hard sciences, where doing subcontract work is as much a key to advancement as publication is, but there probably are humanities departments that operate this way too (but definitely not OSU's English department). Our specific group is structured pretty horizontally, with one department manager at the top through whom all authority flows, 7 or 8 sub-managers who act as intermediaries to keep the top manager from getting overwhelmed, and then the other 90 or so staff. Also, in our organization, the manager does exercise the authority of the position, and the rest of us try to work as people with responsibility but very little authority (especially over other people, as in "manage processes but not people").

Admittedly, there are some jobs in my group (including my own) that don't involve direct contact with clients, but the top manager explains the pros and cons of this limit to new hires during the interview process, and tends to find ways to help people into more powerful jobs after they've proven reliable and valuable on the other end (i.e., getting jobs in on time). One way we all stay in line and on project is to follow the mandates of the top manager, who really does a good job of setting the general agenda and then getting out of the way (if that person wasn't good at delegation, he/she would be demoted quickly). Another way we all stay in line with those goals is to recognize that today's project manager is tomorrow's project worker (i.e., what goes around, comes around). As Alisha R. pointed out in her post on work teams, the ER teams tend to cooperate both because we're more effective that way but also because it's in a person's own self-interest--if you want cooperation from your own hand-picked team, you start by being cooperative yourself.

Missing the Academy?

Question: Do you miss any aspects of academia? if so, what? For example, there are aspects of teaching and mentoring students that can be highly rewarding (and aspects that are tedious and frustrating). Do you miss any aspects of it? Could you ever see yourself returning to the academy full time?


Tom Wilk: When it comes to teaching, I really miss the chance to disseminate some of what I've learned over the years, and then to listen, read, and learn as it gets processed in new ways by the students. Curriculum development was pretty satisfying in particular--trying to read the audience, changing the syllabus at one or two points a quarter in response to student needs and interests, that sort of thing-- the more sharing aspects of teaching I guess.

Mentoring never has been as attractive--in fact, what I like about this editing job in particular is that I have the chance to work with people who have made firm career decisions rather than teaching people who more often than not have yet to hold down a full-time job in their chosen profession. Academic work doesn't hold much interest for me anymore (as these posts probably make clear)--the work I prefer is more team-oriented in nature, and the daily deadlines are a great way to achieve closure on projects and, at the end of the day, to leave the job for the most part in my office.

Also, I don't miss the way my English department treats its graduate students, and I don't miss being treated by professors in general (conferences, etc.) as if I am a professionally unpolished person until tenured somewhere. So, I find it hard to imagine returning full-time to an academic community or to that kind of work. However, I also think that either career path can work for people, or a blend of careers can work (like teaching/consulting), especially if they know that they are suited to the kind of work these paths entail. To build a little on Alisha Rohde's post, if you like working with similarly skilled people and like a lot of alone time when writing and researching, then academe may be the primary answer, for all of the hassles that kind of work also can mean. The editing job, though, is much more the kind of work I thrive under.

Background Required

Questions: How important is your undergraduate science background to your ability to do your job well? Do you think you would have been hired for this job without it? Or, to put it more generally, do you think technical writers have to have a strong technical background?

Given the amount of time you seem to spend on the computer and the various tasks you are expected to perform, can you suggest any software programs, etc. that techno-novices should familiarize themselves with in order to be better prepared for the job market?

Tom Wilk: When I interviewed, the experience didn't hurt my resume, and it might have helped, but the way I understand it after talking to the hiring committee, I was hired for my language skills and on the strength of my interviews, and not on the basis of my scientific background. They were looking for someone who had editing experience, did well on the editing test(s), could speak intelligently on the topic of editing, and could relate well interpersonally with other ER group staffers. In fact, the key question was the one about editing, which went something like, "When you sit down with a report to be edited, what is your strategy?" And I scored high on the editing tests. Also, when I was in the position of hiring a new editor, the person we went with turned out to be a historian with little scientific background (all historians cheer here). However, he had worked with reports like ours before, he was familiar with working with authors on editorial changes, and he had the passion and the friendliness that the committee was looking for (even though he didn't do so well on one of the editing tests). But ... knowing chemistry has meant that the learning curve here wasn't as steep, given the subject matter of these reports, and also has meant that I could build a deeper common ground with authors pretty early on in my tenure here. When I got here, I was very much a techno-novice, and I still can get by about 90% of the time using only the MS Office 98 package, Post-It notes, and a red pen (it's a pretty hard-copy-intensive department), so I really couldn't say whether it would have helped me on the interview to be familiar with certain software. From what I can tell from Web editors and online help editors, help-authoring tools like RoboHTML and read-only tools such as Adobe Acrobat might be useful to know. If you're at all interested in graphical layout, then knowing Quark or Pagemaker (and definitely the latest versions of Word and PowerPoint) probably are a good idea. (Visual SourceSafe is a program I've become somewhat familiar with, but it's another learning curve.)

What are "Editing Skills"?

Paula Foster: Would you mind defining exactly what you mean by "editing skills"? I mean, as a teacher of composition (and rhet/comp major), I know that there are many levels of editing: there's proofreading and locating surface-level mistakes, for example; there's adjusting and unifying tone; and then there's the shaping, developing and paring down of content, which is entirely different. There's even more than that, really. What do you mean, then, by editing skills, and what did the editing test consist of?

Tom Wilk:

ER group Level B (style/consistency)

ER group Level A (comprehension/tone)

You pretty much hit it dead on here on the language and levels of edit I've encouraged the ER group to use, so there's a lot of overlap in this case between comp pedagogy and editing strategy. The biggest difference from student papers is involved with ensuring consistency between the **component parts** of ER group documents, and this activity also falls under "Level B" edits in our group. The normal set of components are: text, references, executive summary, table of contents, tables, figures, and appendices.

So, when I edit (as opposed to grading papers), the key thing to watch for is consistency between components. When the text says see Figure 3-1 for a hydrocarbon plume diagram, for example, Figure 3-1 should show that plume. If the text says that the highest hydrocarbon levels are 35,000 parts per billion, I have to make sure that all figures and tables that also quote that figure are accurate and consistent. And a common error in these reports is when the data don't match; sometimes there will be four different numbers quoted across figures, tables, text, and appendices for the same data point.

Both editing tests were comprised of 10-page journal articles that had problems on every level: syntax, spelling, and verb tense consistency; transitions and paragraph flow; but also (and most importantly) section numberings out of order, missing references, unfamiliar acronyms not identified, data in tables not matching text, and missing tables and figures. During the interview, when they asked me what my editing strategy was, they wanted to hear how I integrate these editing tasks into one efficient, thorough process, and I think they also wanted to hear that I had the vocabulary to identify these components of the editing process.

So, if you can identify the pattern by which you grade papers (for example, first do a quick read through to look for glaring content/format errors, then read slowly for content, and finally do a third brush-though for typos etc.), then you have a sense of what the interview committee wanted to hear from me.

BTW, the worst kinds of edits are the most data-intensive, because they involve the most tedious kinds of cross-checking between tables, text, and figures. Also, some figures and tables are in pretty small type, so one solid 40-page groundwater monitoring report can wipe out a whole afternoon and leave my mind very tired.

Required Computer Skills

Comment/Question: I am an English PhD student at Texas A&M, and for the third summer in a row I have a tech writing internship at a major software company in Austin, TX. With that said, I want to respond to Krista's very smart question regarding software programs that techno-novices should familiarize themselves with in order to be better prepared for the job market There are three main software writing programs that I've heard of tech writers using: Word, Interleaf, and Framemaker. Word seems to be preferred by many small to medium companies. Bigger companies seem to go for Interleaf and Framemaker. Interleaf I've never seen. I hear it's great, but hard to learn and expensive.

Framemaker is the one my company uses and I found the learning curve was gentle. I began working on online documents the very first day I used it -- but then, I had teammates all around for support. I believe it is also expensive, but less so than Interleaf. My recommendation to anyone who wants to get into tech writing is to get familiar with Framemaker by any means possible. Your university is unlikely to have a copy of it because it's very high end, but I'd ask computer services anyway, just in case. (If you're in an English department that teaches tech writing or grants a tech writing certificate, you might even be able to put a buzz in your chair's ear that a copy of Framemaker would be a good investment for the Tech Writing Program).

You might visit the Adobe Framemaker website and download the free beta version of Frame 5.5.6 for Linux if you have the resources:

If that doesn't work, then do a web search on Framemaker training and think about signing up for a class. They average about $500 but are worth the expense if you're seriously going on the tech writing job market. You could even think of the expense as just more college tuition, but instead of taking a whole semester, it'll only last three days to a week. And if you get a tech writing job, the cost is about the equivalent of a week's salary. So really, not an outrageous investment overall. But don't panic if you just can't get any Framemaker experience. Word is still the old reliable. There are lots and lots of jobs for tech writers who know only Word.


Question/Comment: My bottom line: If you can get a company to train you, try to go that route. It's more common than you might think and will save you a lot of money. Besides, I was paid for my learning time on top of it!

Tom Wilk: This is very true in my experience too--I had the basic editing skills and personality that Battelle was looking for, and they've taken care of the rest of the training particulars. Thanks for the tips on Framemaker--sounds like the ER group leans harder on hard copies than I thought--good to know this!

Comment: Overall computer skills are also important. If you don't know how to install software on your computer--learn. If you don't feel comfortable moving files, changing preferences, and otherwise altering the files and set up on your computer, work on this. Specialized training on the software others have mentioned, most companies will pay for. Your basic general knowledge is your responsibility.


Tom Wilk: Yep, fully agree with this. Reminds me, though, that "specialized training" is defined differently by profession, and that (since this listserv is set up in part to compare academic and nonacademic worlds) academe has radically different ideas on what kinds of training it funds (i.e. scholarship) than do most organizations in the private sector.



WB Comment: Given a choice of an editor/writer with solid computer skills, and one with shaky abilities, I don't think many companies would opt for the latter, even if he/she were a better editor.

Tom Wilk: I guess my experience persuades me that this is not the case as often as might be expected. Both when I was hired at Battelle and the year after when I was on a hiring committee, candidates were interviewed who had decent computer skills but were not as skilled technical editors (especially on the hard-copy tests, but also in terms of having an adequate vocabulary), and these people were passed over in favor of the stronger technical editors. Also, a buddy of mine who is a CIO in Chicago mentions that when he hires, he notes that all the candidates he brings in generally are qualified for the position, and that it's the intangibles (like personality fit) that tend to tip the balance rather than skill deficiencies in areas that aren't as necessary to the job as the core skills he advertised for in the first place. In sum, he says, he requires that core skills be present, and then that he get staff he can work with and train rather than people who might have additional skills but who he can't work with on a daily, personal level. (Reminds me of the ways job searches are run in OSU's English dept. too). This hiring strategy might not always work, but my friend's organization (and especially his team) are pretty successful.

Comment/Question: In my experience, there are different expectations in academic and nonacademic work environments. I was actually surprised to discover that computer proficiency that was considered the norm at the university was extensive and/or impressive when I went to a temp agency. Granted, the jobs I worked for them were primarily clerical ones for which I was rather over-qualified; higher-level jobs of the sort we might be seeking as career choices probably require different computer skills. But I tend to see those as easier to acquire than the communication skills--the "soft" skills--that are also prized. I must admit I hate the whole "for dummies" concept (we are NOT dummies), but there are some good, quick-to-read books out there on specific software products. On one temp job, I was able to learn Microsoft Outlook very quickly by reading one of the "Ten Minutes or Less" books that someone had in the office. I might have figured out the software just by playing with it, but the book saved me some guesswork on the advanced tasks. All the brilliant "hard" skills in the world can't necessarily make you a good team member. And some jobs require far less interaction/communication (although I suspect they can be hard to find now), but generally I think you wouldn't want to introduce too much friction or disagreement (caused by a clash in communication, organizational or personality styles) with your current staff. Since you mentioned the OSU English department hiring (of faculty, I presume), I think the analogy is apt. The department routinely hires people they feel will make good colleagues and/or share their (intellectual) values, *whether or not* those individuals will actually fulfill certain departmental work needs. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.

WB Comment: On Tom's experience of the less-computer literate being hired. I guess my experience is with "start ups" -- new and growing companies related to the internet. There just are not the resources to have to hold someone's hand while they try to figure out their computer and its basic software. I can see that for an established organization like Battelle trainable computer skills are less important to have since much work is done "on paper." And, I do agree that the intangibles of "ability to work in a team" are essential. This is not really something that can be taught easily to an adult not naturally pre-disposed to it. The HR person here mentioned to me yesterday that if she checks references on a potential employee, she doesn't ask about their ability to do a job (which from the resume and the job interviews the candidate has proven). She asks about their abilities to work in a team environment and to get along with co-workers, and how they handle a crisis.

Technological Allotments (response to Tom's initial post)

Question: I don't think you can properly compare resources allotted to grad students with those allotted to full-time employees. A better comparison would be between professors and editors. Here, I'm sure you will find professors getting good computers, and getting them on a need-to-have basis. The English professor needs a PC with a good word processor, email, and maybe a spread sheet program. A science professor has other uses. Grad students too need word processors, for teaching and for their course work and research. But I was always able to get by with our departmental dinosaur computers. In the end I invested in a laptop for the dissertation, but I considered that an investment in my education, and did not expect the university to provide me with a "workstation."



Tom Wilk: Thanks very much for your comparison between editors and professors--it's a useful one, and one that I hadn't thought of, since it helps point up out the levels of professionalism and productivity expected of each type of worker (which raises the question of how professional grad students are expected to be at various points in their programs).

The comparison weakens a bit when the authority dynamics of each position are considered, though; in the ER group, anyway, only about 7 or 8 of 100 people have the freedom to pursue their own research projects in the ways that most professors do, and even those 7 or 8 must bid for funding contracts (perhaps a little like finding a scholarly publisher?).

As another point of comparison, I got to thinking of grad students and entry-level workers (in this case editors): both spend the first 18-24 months getting acquainted with their careers and discourse communities, and both experience a certain extended training period during which they are inducted into various kinds of skills required on the job. On this level, it could be argued that university departments (like nonacademic employers) have a responsibility to equip their staff (in the dual capacity of both students and TA employee) with the materials to get the job done as effectively as possible.

My Battelle workstation is admittedly average in the great scheme of private-sector employment workstations, but I (like everyone else in our group) tend to get what is needed to add value to our reports, which frankly is more than many OSU English TAs can say when it comes to photocopies for their classes.

If academe is supposed to equip its workers with the resources to compete with other workers, then OSU's English department is weighted quite heavily toward scholarly tools and not toward private-sector resources. So, I suppose a next logical question would be: What do academic employers equip their staffers with (i.e., in which capacity, student or TA, do departments budget the most resources for their staff)? What should they be doing?

One last thought that goes with these postings: if the professor-editor comparison holds, and I think it's a useful one in several ways, then it points out that the commodity of **privacy** (which I enjoy and which faculty tend to enjoy) is one that grad students simply don't have a right to expect from their employers/departments. Just a thought.