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BTS 16: Lessons from 30 years of technical writing

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My name is Suzanne Kelchner and I’m currently the senior manager of technical documentation at Procore — creates software for the construction industry.

I have been freelancing both on and off for the last 30 years but I can say the last 20 years have been focused solely on technical writing full-time.

What other industries have you explored as a technical writer?

I’ve been in the clinical trial space. I have been in other healthcare spaces where I have been working with companies that place their nurses into home situations. I’ve worked in manufacturing as well. In fact, I have been pretty varied.

Did you always want to be a technical writer?

It’s kinda funny, I fell into it more than anything. I started out with desktop publishing and as I gained clients there, a lot of them asked me if I could write. So, I started writing policies, procedures and instructions. Eventually, that became the bulk of my business.

Was this really what you wanted when you were growing up?

I bounced around a lot, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to be a teacher or in advertising or exactly what. I found that technical writing really brings together my love for technology and my love of teaching but in a really simple way. 

What were your best experiences?

Going back to my early days when I realized that technical writing was actually something that I enjoyed.

I had a company I was working with, it was not my first technical writing job and I didn’t realize it was technical writing at the time.

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I was doing a policy manual and I realized how much I enjoyed it. That’s one moment that was pretty special to me.

 Another time was when I worked with a software company. They had two teams in the same area of the code. The second team broke something that the first team had written and I’m just trying to write it and it wasn’t working. 

I was a little frustrated because nobody was listening to me and they just kept telling me I was doing it wrong. 

So, I made the lead developers from each team watch me do it and I showed them exactly where the code broke and they both went “oooh”

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It was good knowing that even in a technical writer position I could do that.  I realized that we technical writers had a different view than everybody else. 

We look at the products from a holistic viewpoint. The development teams were focused on their own area, and it was great for me to see that I could make that difference. Also realizing that what I wrote affected people out there was a great feeling. 

I know a lot of people don’t read the manual from beginning to end but we help make sure that not only are people using the products correctly but people don’t get hurt too while using the products. 

That’s really important, that we’re helping make somebody’s life better, not just easier. We’re making it better and safer. It’s a perspective that I think we tend to forget.

Can you point out any experience that stood out for you as a bad experience well?

Well, there are some clients that are a bit demanding and they want more than what was specified in the contract.

That’s frustrating because no matter what you do, even if you fulfill the contract 100%, they won’t be happy, they always want to feel the need to get something extra so that’s frustrating.

I’ve been able to fire some clients simply because they don’t stop demanding. 

In the beginning, you need the money so you’re just willing to do the work. But when you get more secure about where you are in the market and in your expertise, being able to say to somebody, “I’m sorry but I don’t have time for that” is great.

 It really enables people to control who they are with. Anyway, you’d always get clients that you wish you got, I think that’s the biggest frustration. 

I mean there’s been other times when I’ve recommended something and for whatever reason, my client doesn’t agree with me even though I know that I am right.

Whatever you do, it doesn’t matter what it is, if you’re not looking forward to working with people that you’re working with, it does weigh on your mental health and eventually, it weighs on your physical health.

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I don’t want to feel horrible every time I go to work so that makes a big difference.

So, if you could turn back the hands of time as a technical writer would you want to change anything in your career path?

No, not really, because everything I’ve done has led me to where I am right now.

It’s a learning process, you don’t know a lot. And there’s so much to grow in. And as you learn these lessons, you adjust accordingly.

I think that’s important.

How do you manage negative critique for your work?

If you’re looking at the content, maybe there’s something wrong with the content that’s one thing. There could be a variety of reasons: maybe I didn’t get all the information that I needed, or maybe I didn’t know there was extra information that was supposed to be in there. 

In that case, negative critique doesn’t bother me so much, it’s frustrating, but it doesn’t bother me.

But if you’re attacking me, the way I work, that’s the difference that’s harder to take and to without out internalizing it. 

I try asking them how they would have preferred something to happen. I try to do that because a lot of times people are negative for no reason.

 Maybe they’re having a bad day and they’re taking it out on you. Some other times I try to get to the root cause of why I’m getting negative feedback and that way I can see if it’s really valid or not. 

Not easy though. It definitely weighs on you but again, it’s a growing experience as well. Keeping calm and talking through things is the biggest benefit you can have but once you’re alone it’s OK to fall apart and work through your own emotions to be able to go back and look at things rationally, but not easy.

Is there anything you want to say to freelance writers out there what would that be?

Decide how you want to work and stick to it. You absolutely need a contract that has to be written down and that way, you and the client have the same expectations. 

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Make sure that if they’re going to change the contract, they understand that there’s an additional charge and all that kind of stuff. 

Be as professional as possible. As you grow and take up jobs, keep revising your processes. Keep revising your contract. 

Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you’re happy with the people you’re working with, and the kinds of jobs you’re taking up. It’s a learning process, it’s a growing process and there are definitely jobs I wished I had not taken but, I wouldn’t change it.

 I would have made the same decision if I had known the same thing at the time. So it’s the process of learning and understanding what you want.

Could you share the progress with your earnings when you started and now?

It’s been quite a while so, that has a lot to do with it. I started part-time as well, and my hourly rate has gone up 10X from what I originally started with. It’s the experience.

I’m looking more at the more complicated areas that were helping them to redesign their technical documentation department, so that makes a lot of difference. 

That’s one of the reasons I work with Procore and they’re growing so much that they’re realigning and redesigning not just technical documentation but quite a number of departments. That’s why I feel I’m a great fit for them. I was happy to be able to set up the department for them.

Connect with Suzanne

  1. Linkedin

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