On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger


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The only writing sample you need is your resume

I came across this article recently, which states “code is the new resume”. It asserts that people seeking coding jobs should be contributing to open source and using those contributions as proof that they have the skills for the job they’re seeking. I wholly agree, but it got me thinking about the equivalent for writers.

When I have had prospective tech writers come to me for advice on where to start, I have always pointed them towards an open source project that I think would meet their skills and interests. I usually have three main reasons for this. I want them to get experience working with processes within a docs team (particularly a mature docs team that functions well, such as Libre Office or OpenStack). I want to give them an opportunity to get familiar with the tools and programs used by highly technical writing projects (things like Docbook XML and Publican, rather than proprietary tools like Madcap or Adobe). And, perhaps most importantly, I want to give them a chance to write things that they can share with prospective employers.

But contributing to open source docs, while beneficial in career terms, rarely ends up being something you can confidently wave in front of an employer. Rarely, if ever, will you get the chance to create a new document from scratch, something you can call truly yours. And even if you get that chance, rarely will it remain the piece of art you crafted for very long. Open source software moves quickly, and by the time you publish your meticulously researched and effectively written document, there will be a team of hungry writers circling, ready to rip into your virgin words and tear them apart. Within months, your perfect book could be an almost unrecognisable crime against information architecture, full of passive voice and typoed commands, with a title that no longer reflects its content. Certainly not something you want your name anywhere near.

Herein lies the tech writer’s dilemma: when asked for writing samples, what do you do? You don’t want to admit to authorship of something that (through no fault of your own) makes you want to quit the industry, but you also don’t want to say that you’ve been contributing to a project for months and have nothing to show for it. My answer: make your resume your writing sample. You won’t always get away with it, because some employers will ask for writing samples as a matter of course (at which point, having kept a tech writing blog for a while can be very handy. Just sayin’), but having plenty of prose in your resume and making sure it shows off your skills will do wonders for proving you can do the job.

There are no rules saying you need to deliver a two page resume, developed using a standard Word template, to apply for a job. Designers have been handing in creative resumes for decades, and we can take a leaf out their book. Offering something different, something that screams “I’m a writer, and I’m damn good at what I do” is going to make any recruiter or hiring manager stop and look. Remember how many resumes these guys see. Offering a bog-standard resume means that yours will get thrown away at the first typo.

shakespeare

First of all, do your research. If you can, find out what writing tools your prospective employer uses, and use it. If you don’t have that in your repertoire, then use the closest thing you can do. When I applied for my first job that used Docbook XML, I delivered my resume in LaTeX (complete with “Typeset in LaTeX and TeX” in a footnote at the bottom of each page. Nothing like rubbing it right in). I later found out that the hiring manager ran around the office showing it off to all his existing writers, pointing excitedly to the footnote. Once I’d learned Docbook XML, following jobs got that instead. If the company you want to work for uses Word, then deliver a beautifully formatted Word resume (and don’t forget to use styles!). By the same token, be aware of internal culture, and the fact that people get very passionate about their tools. Never deliver a resume built in Word with a .docx extension to an open source company if you don’t want to be teased about it forever after (assuming you get the job despite it, of course).

And, perhaps most importantly, don’t just deliver a series of dot points. This is your chance to prove you can write. Include a fairly long prose introduction, but don’t waffle. Be clear about your goals, the job you’re after, and any relevant work you’ve done previously. If you can, do some research into the company you’re looking to join, and tailor this part to the role you want. Mention how your experience meets their demands, not as a canned response to selection criteria, but as someone who has gone looking for core values and culture clues, and is addressing the human beings that work within that group. Write directly, succinctly, but passionately. Don’t use words too big for the subject (with apologies for paraphrasing C.S. Lewis), make your language casual, but not informal. Get your writer friends to proofread it until you are confident it is perfect. Feel free to email me with your text and I’ll also help.

Don’t make recruiters ask for writing samples. Get creative, use your skills to your advantage, and don’t be afraid to have some fun with it. If you have your own stories of resumes (good or bad), or hiring, please share!

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An exit, and an entrance

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts
— ‘As You Like It’, Shakespeare

It is not often that you have to make a choice between an amazing job, and another amazing job. But, after six years with Red Hat, I have decided to take up a new position with Rackspace, effective 28 October.

I have grown up with Red Hat, in particular the Australian writing team, and in many ways the person I am today has been shaped by the people and the culture here in the Brisbane office. I am sad to be leaving, but I take a little piece of that crimson fedora with me. To all my friends and colleagues at Red Hat: keep up the great work, keep innovating, and know that there are Red Hat alumni out there, cheering you on from the sidelines.

To anyone who is considering embarking on a technical writing career, or expanding their tech writing horizons, consider joining the team at Red Hat. They’re doing groundbreaking work, they’re doing it out in the open, and they’re having a huge amount of fun as they do it.

I’ll be blogging a lot more in my new role, so please stay tuned as this site gets a bit of a nip and a tuck, and before long you’ll start seeing a lot more from me.

the-weird-writer

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I wrote this several years ago at this time of year, and it still feels very relevant.

Happy Diwali, everyone 🙂

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Today marks the start of the 8-day long diwali (or d?p?vali) festival. It is a festival of light, celebrated in Hinduism and Buddhism, among others.

Traditionally, people light candles, wear new clothes, and celebrate with sweets and snacks. What got me thinking, though, was the many and varied stories of how diwali came about, through legend and history. I won’t go into detail (if you want it, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start), but the stories are all essentially about a homecoming, a return from exile, the release of detainees.

In the past few days, I’ve been bothered by our government’s reaction to the 250 Tamil asylum-seekers, who are now on hunger strike in a boat in Merak, Java. These people are apparently so evil that both sides of politics agree that they shouldn’t be allowed in to our country, to enjoy our freedoms.

We quite happily advertise our wealth to the world. When those who have nothing; those who live daily in fear and poverty; seek to improve theirs and their childrens’ lives by giving everything they have to come here, we turn them away. We turn them away.

What evil do these people encompass? The detractors will cry that we will be over-run. Well, so what if we are? We have boundless plains to share, after all.

Even if you have never heard of diwali before, even if this day would normally have passed for you without a glimmer of recognition of what today means for so many Hindus and Buddhists, please just take a moment to think of those who will not be returning home. Take a moment to consider how many people are currently living in fear of their lives, in complete and abject poverty, and who are willing to give everything they have to try and rise above that. And think about the people who are so close to their dream of the future … yet so far.

Happy diwali. I hope that – for you – it is a time of light and happiness. And I hope that you will spare a thought and light a candle for those who cannot celebrate diwali this year, through no fault of their own.

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30 Things I Have Learned So Far

This blog turned three a couple of days ago. This auspicious occasion is usually marked by the precipitous drop into the crazy novel-writing month of November (see the NaNoWriMo website if you’re not sure what I’m talking about). This November, however, the only crazy writing will be the penning of assignments, and the ordinary crazy writing of work-as-usual. Yes, this year (and probably next year) uni comes first, and NaNoWriMo gets knocked back a peg on my list of things to do. Let’s aim for for a big 2012 comeback, huh?

Anyway, I would still like to celebrate the fact that this blog is three, and that in a few days I will hit the big three-oh. To do so, here are thirty things that I’ve learned so far:

30. Tea is good.
29. Raising a child is hard work and involves being spewed on a lot.
28. When a child gives you a sleepy hug, it is worth every bit of hard work (and vomit).
27. Work can be fun if you have the right kind of job.
26. The best way to learn about stuff is to either write it down, or tell someone else about it.
25. There are stupid people in the world, but for the most part they’re harmless.
24. There are really smart people in the world, but not all of them are harmless.
23. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between extreme genius and extreme stupidity.
22. Being involved with people that have passion helps incite you to be passionate too.
21. Teaching is more educational than learning.
20. Teaching can also be heaps of fun.
19. Learning is fun too. It is also addictive.
18. Going to uni once or twice is expected. Going back for a third go is just crazy.
17. Friends are important, but you only need a couple of really good ones.
16. It’s OK to say no to all sorts of things.
15. It’s OK to say yes sometimes as well.
14. You can be a good person, without having to help every bleeding heart.
13. You need to pick and choose who deserves to have slices of your time. Tell everyone else to go jump.
12. Love is about more than just sex.
11. Sex is about more than just love.
10. It’s OK to leave the party early if that’s what you want to do.
9. The only person who can control your health and fitness is you. No one is going to do this for you.
8. Life throws curveballs. Sometimes the only thing you can do is duck and run.
7. When you stumble, you are still in charge. Pick yourself up and carry on as best you can.
6. It doesn’t matter what you do, some people will still shit on you. Those people are not friends.
5. Writing is therapy.
4. Tea is therapy too. Did I mention tea already?
3. Don’t be afraid of massage. It’s several kinds of awesome.
2. Bikes are several kinds of awesome too.
1. Don’t ever be afraid to stand up and shout like you know what you’re talking about. Confidence can go a long way.

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