In April’s spotlight, we feature Heather Sommerville, a senior technical editor, STC Associate Fellow, and active member of the STC Canada West Coast Chapter. In this interview, Heather discusses how she came to the profession of technical communication. She also shares her experiences working on different projects, and offers some tips to aspiring technical writers.
Question: How did you get started in technical writing?
By accident, as many people do. I’ve always been a wordsmith – I started writing a mystery novel at age 10, to the great amusement of my parents – and have always been interested in how things work. Fast forward to adulthood: I had two university degrees and a career as a business librarian, but wanted to expand my skills. While I was completing a business admin program, I heard about technical writing. A lot of the librarianship skills overlapped: explaining things clearly, researching, understanding new subject areas quickly, interviewing people to find out what they really need, knowing when facts need checking or don’t add up. I’m now focusing more on business and technical editing than writing, but they’re all part of the same continuum.
Question: What is one of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on?
All of them! It’s not so much the subject matter as the process – working with SMEs, planning, scheduling, organizing, clarifying, writing, editing, indexing, learning new subjects, and picturing someone on site using your work to help them accomplish a task. Each project is different but builds on knowledge you’ve gained from previous ones. However, a few that stand out: a manual for helicopter pilots; safety manuals for underwater hazardous waste cleanup; a set of documents for an ISO 9000 certification; an engineering report on a diamond mine. You can tell that I love my work!
Question: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
As a contractor, it can be hard to predict the workload. You sometimes have wild swings between too much and too little. I try to enjoy both the peak income times and the peak holiday times.
Question: What inspires or motivates you about the field of technical communications?
The opportunity to learn, to teach, to make my clients look good by adding a final polish to their documents, to condense and clarify a jumbled mass of information so it’s useful and easy to use.
Question: What advice would you give to aspiring technical writers, and those new to the field?
Network. Be visible. Keep learning. Volunteer! It’s a great way to demonstrate that you can meet a deadline, deliver what you promised, work well with others, have good ideas, show initiative, add value, organize your thoughts, and communicate clearly.
Question: What do you enjoy most about working with the STC-CWC?
Working with great people. Giving back to my professional community. Helping fellow technical writers. Bringing people together, whether it’s a job-hunter and a potential employer, or two people in the same subject niche who can discuss common areas of interest, or someone new to the field who wants advice from a long-time writer.