In April’s Spotlight, we feature Stephen Gauer, current Vice-President at STC Canada West Coast. He is a senior technical writer who also has experience as a newspaper reporter, playwright, and author. He recently moved to Vancouver from Toronto, and we look forward to him sharing his knowledge and experience with us at STC Canada West Coast!
Question: How did you get started in technical writing?
My first writing job was as a newspaper reporter for the Thompson Citizen in Manitoba. I also worked as a playwright and freelance writer in the past. It wasn’t until 1990 that I was hired as an IT software trainer. This is when I first started writing training materials and user guides.
Question: What is your current work as a technical writer?
I work as a freelance technical writer specializing in user guides and online help. I take on large and complex projects (not all are necessarily technical) and produce clear, simple directions for the end user. I balance that with teaching writing at the post-secondary level. I just finished teaching a 3rd year technical writing course for Technology students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
Question: What is your writing philosophy?
Three principles: Simplicity, brevity, and clarity.
These principles are the same across different fields of writing. This philosophy was especially useful when teaching technical writing to students. By applying these principles, students were able to summarize the bigger picture with clarity in their writing.
Question: What is your experience in interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs)? Any tips in this area?
My work as a reporter has given me valuable interviewing experience, especially when it comes to thinking on my feet! When interviewing SMEs in the technical world, it is important to be well prepared and flexible. You may want to change your interview approach depending on the personality of your SME. Communication and comprehension are key, so don’t be shy in revisiting topics with your SME until you have a complete understanding. As a technical writer, your focus is on clarity and accuracy.
Question: What do you think some misconceptions are about technical writing?
Technical writing is often mistaken for not being creative, when there is actually plenty of room for it! Both the writing and visual elements require creativity, and a good eye makes a remarkable difference when it comes to layout, typography, and graphic design. Technical writing is also misunderstood as a field requiring no people skills, and this is definitely not the case. The most important part of this job is working with people—your SME, your team, and your reporting manager.
Question: What are your interests outside of writing?
I’m an ocean sailor with a 28 ft sailboat in West Vancouver. I find sailing to be very satisfying, and enjoy the elements of risk and danger associated with being by myself on the ocean. I enjoy travelling with my partner and my dog, and I am also a blues guitarist!
Question: Any words of advice for new technical writers?
Always have empathy for the end-user. Remember to ask yourself—who is my audience? How technical are they?