Spotlight: Lois Patterson

An avid STC West Coast chapter participant since 1999, current Technical Publications Manager Lois Patterson is this month’s featured writer. Her endless enthusiasm for this profession, curiosity and constant desire to learn from everyone, and advice for beginner to advanced technical writers make her a sought after expert in this field. Lois most recently gave a presentation to us on API Documentation at our Making Tracks workshop earlier this year.


Question (Q): What was the most interesting technical writing project you’ve ever worked on?

Answer (A): My favourite projects include documenting an application that provided a GUI (graphical user interface) for setting up trades and market data, and then displaying the risk analysis results as probability distributions, working on programming documentation for some scripting languages, designing screens and writing specifications, and API documentation for an exciting enterprise platform product for financial applications. I am currently working on the latter. In many cases, I am also testing the application.

Q: What aspect has kept you working in the field for as long as you have?

I have been fortunate to receive work opportunities at companies that produce interesting software. It’s never boring for me, as the software is so challenging, and I am always playing catch-up. Stagnation is a technical writer’s enemy.

Q: Is there someone in the field that has stood out and helped you altering how you thought or continued your career? How did they impact you?

A: I have been lucky to meet many talented writers, developers, and UX/UI designers. Everyday, I learn so much from my brilliant and hard-working team members. I have attended various conferences with lots of keen and very bright practitioners. Recently, I attended the “Write the Docs” conference in Portland, Oregon.

Q: If you could stand on a rooftop with a megaphone and tell the world one thing about the field, what would you say?

A: You cannot write about software without understanding it. Test the software and think about creative uses and misuses.

Q: What do you like to do outside of your career? Interesting hobbies or pastimes?

A: I love to attend cultural events, and I blog about them. Theatre, music, dance, literary events, interdisciplinary works. I also love to travel; in the past year I have been to various US cities, Hong Kong, Macau, Poland, and Nicaragua.

Q: What skills should people interested in the field of technical writing develop?

A: These days for technical writers, I recommend a combination of skills in writing, editing, programming, design, and empathy. It is a lot to ask, and you may not need them all, but the more you improve all of these, the better your chances are. And regardless of experience, we can all improve in each of these skills.

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the field? 

A: For my current products which use advanced, Ph.D-level math and sophisticated financial principles, it is a challenge to understand well enough to have productive discussions with SMEs.

Q: If you could take elements of the tools you use to create a hybrid program for technical writing/communication, what would you put together? 

A: The power of DITA, the ease and universality of Markdown, the adaptability of wikis, the format control of InDesign, the project control of MadCap Flare; this is fun to imagine.

Q: What do you do when you get “writers block” or aren’t sure exactly how you want to start writing something?

If you are not sure, ask questions. Try it yourself. Read JIRA or other ongoing logs. Write what you think might be true, and get an SME to review. If he or she is a good reviewer, you will find where you went wrong.

Mala Rupnarain is the past president of the STC Canada West Coast chapter.