Saturday, May 23, 2009

Articles? I don't need no stinkin' articles!

This is an article I submitted to the TechCraft E-Newsletter, so I thought I'd also post it as a blog entry.


Sometimes I wish the English language didn’t use articles. I also wish I had hot keys for a, an, and the on my keyboard. At my previous teaching position for a hakwon (after school academy) and my current position with a Korean company, articles were and are the bane of my existence. These simple words that native speakers take for granted seem to make up half of my editing tasks.

Even though my position is technically as a technical writer, I also handle the editing for my small tech writing team (3 members total), the manual team, and random software UIs. It’s a delicate balancing act to make time to do my own writing and edit everybody else’s at the same time to ensure we all meet our deadlines (especially since Koreans are famous for I-need-this-in-5-minutes assignments). So how do I attempt to catch all of the article issues and everything else (hopefully) quickly?

Meet with the writer

If the document is over something I’m completely unfamiliar with, I’ll meet with the writer before I start looking over it. This allows the writer to give me a quick overview of topic and who the audience is going to be. It also gives the writer a chance to tell me about any known issues in the document.

Give the document a quick once-over

Before I start any in depth reading or making any major changes, I’ll typically print out a hard copy and skim through it looking for any glaring formatting errors (e.g., formatting changes, figure labels, alignment issues) that I might miss if I’m editing on the computer screen.

Read through the document multiple times

I’ve found that if I try to split my attention between content, readability, grammar, etc, I usually miss something. In order to try and prevent this, I read through the document multiple times and try to focus on a different aspect each time.

One of the things that always drives me absolutely crazy while reading is grammar errors: I read through the document the first time and try to focus on only those problems. Since the writers are non-native English speakers, this tends to become the brunt of the workload…with most of that spent adding in/removing articles. Sometimes that can be quite a challenge for me as well since sometimes I’m not sure which article to use myself and have to leave a comment for the writer asking for clarification.

The second time I read through the document, I try to focus only on the content and if it will be understandable to the expected audience. Because of the Korean culture (low-context), I tend to find myself constantly asking for more information since that’s expected in the Western world. We don’t like guessing. Ambiguity and uncertainty can lead to mistakes/errors which in turn could lead to trouble for the company. If I could possibly misinterpret something, the reader could as well so I ask the author for clarification.

Also, since I work in R&D HQ, these documents are used as the basis for translation into about 30 languages. To make sure we can get the clearest and best possible translation, I try to make sure only Simple English is used and all idioms or slang have been removed. It might seem strange that non-native speakers would use these, but Koreans are taught idioms during their English language study. Also, oftentimes, the engineers they are working with have studied abroad and might use slang/idioms during the SME interview.

Take breaks

Let’s face it, editing isn’t the most thrilling thing in the world to do and can also be frustrating when you find yourself correcting the same things over and over again (“Find and Replace” in Microsoft Word works wonders for this sometimes). I try to take breaks every hour or so, when I find myself mindlessly scrolling down the document, or when I have to re-read paragraphs multiple times. If it’s not a very big document, I might just walk away and get a cup of coffee, or work on something else for a bit. If it’s a large document and I have time, I might take a half a day break from it or a few hours at least. A bored and unfocused editor doesn’t do anybody any good.

Pass it back to the writer

After I think I’ve caught everything, I send the document back to the writer to review and make changes. I also ask the writer to please make sure to send it back to me again for another review before finalizing the document. Sometimes this final review process can take a long time to happen. The writers tend to go back to the SMEs to clarify something or just to drag more information out of them. Also, since the writers aren’t native speakers, sometimes we have to meet to go over the comments I’ve made or just so I can explain why I’ve made some of the suggestions/ changes that I’ve made.

I tend to be a perfectionist and want my division to produce the best documentation possible, but I have to remind myself that nobody is perfect and sometimes I can’t remember a particular rule or question changes I make. To help combat these issues I keep Technical Editing (Fourth Edition) by Carolyn Rude on my desk at all times. Editing documents written by non-native speakers can be frustrating at times but also very rewarding. I like to think that they learn something each time I pass a document back to them and that makes the “article headache” worth the pain.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Advice for Tech Com Students

I was recently asked for advice on landing a job in tech comm by a student at my alma mater. I'm probably the last person in the world to be giving advice on this topic, but I'm always willing to give my opinion and hope that it helps someone.

I'm currently working for Samsung Electronics in Suwon City, South Korea so my U.S. job hunting experience wasn't that successful ;). But how did I manage to land a gig with a world-wide company at their HQ? Networking. While I was teaching English here, I met a fellow tech writer online (my buddy now: Rahul Prabhakar) that works for another division, interviewed, and was probably going to be hired. That position fell through (reorganizing and all that jazz). But then I met a manager while on an island trip and the rest is history. I was in the right place at the right time and met the right people. Don't be afraid to talk to people and sell yourself. It also helps that technical writers are nearly impossible to find in this country (ROK)...let alone western ones. So how can this help you find a job in the U.S.? It can't. But the advice to network still stands. Oh, another networking tip (other than taking island trips in Korea) is to join listservs. Listservs are a great way to meet people in the field and get advice and stay caught up on trends.


My experience in job hunting in the U.S. was very difficult. It's a Catch 22: employers want you to have experience, but nobody is willing to give you that experience. If you can find a niche field to work in and become knowledgeable in (e.g. some medical area, a specific area of IT), it will also help your chances. Most employers expect to spend 3 - 6 months training you anyway so they are more concerned with your writing ability and capability to understand technical ideas and break them down. However, sometimes your writing will be for people that are more knowledgeable than yourself in an area. For example, right now I'm writing stuff for Java developers. Am I a Java developer? No. Can I understand it enough to write it and organize it better than our Java developers? Yes. Bottom line is employers looking to hire junior technical writers want to know that you have the ability to understand things and play well with the engineers (SMEs).

Being able to use the tools currently being used in the industry is a bonus that employer's will definitely consider. Adobe's Technical Communication Suite is a good place to start. Microsoft Word and Publisher are 2 more that are handy to have experience with. Then there are things that you probably won't get experience with in the classroom and will have to explore and play with on your own: DITA, XML, etc.

The next piece of advice is be able to write correctly. If you are hired as a junior tech writer, you will have an editor at your disposal. However, still do your best to use correct grammar and punctuation. I personally don't have that luxury ( I am the editor) so I keep reference tools within reach to check myself and make sure all of my documents, and other people's, are correct.

Next, get experience. Try to get as much experience in as many areas of the field that interest you. Getting an internship would be ideal, but might not be feasible. Offer your services online. Freelancing positions can be difficult to acquire, but will be good experience if you can land them. Do projects with your university. If you go to my old uni, University of Missouri - Rolla (now Missouri Univesity of Science & Technology), you have a whole world of opportunities open to you since it's known for its cutting-edge research and patents.

My last piece of advice, and arguably the most important, is to not give up. Hang in there: something will come along. The current economic situation in the U.S. and worldwide has meant fewer new jobs opening up overall. This also means that companies are going to want to get their money worth. Why hire a green person and invest time and money into him/her when the newbie will just leave in a couple of years anyway for a better paying position elsewhere? They'd rather hire someone that has experience and will stay with the company for 5+ years.

So....there ya have it. That's my advice: network, get experience, learn as much as you can, write well, and DON'T GIVE UP. Take it or leave it, but I hope it's somewhat helpful.