also_huey (also_huey) wrote,
  • Mood: pretty drunk, at this point

On Writing

I'm pretty sure that I've written this at least a half-dozen times before, but maybe it's Friday, maybe I've already had a couple stiff gin & tonics, and maybe John Scalzi has made me respond right now, so I don't particularly feel like googling up whatever I wrote last time, and instead will type this all in again.

I became a professional writer entirely by accident, for two, maybe three reasons. First, I can't remember shit, so I write it down. Second, because I'm not a great teacher -- I lack patience and I hate stupid people -- so instead of walking someone through all of the steps necessary to accomplish something, I would much rather hand someone a document that contains everything I know and say "Here. Read this. It contains everything I know about this subject, and if you read it and understand it, you will know everything about this that I do" instead of holding their hand through the sometimes difficult process of learning. And maybe thirdly (I don't know, but I've been told) because I have some skill at it.

If you're one of the Invisible Hand of the Free Marketeers, then that third one probably has some validity. After all, when you multiply the number of books I've written by the number of people who have actually read them (or at least have claimed to have read them) and then divide by what they paid for the privilege, the result you get is that every book I've written has sold for around a quarter of a million dollars a copy.

Granted, the contract tech writer industry is markedly similar to the conventional author publishing industry in that I haven't seen one-fifth of that, but I am doing okay. I have a nice little house inside the beltway, with a backyard big enough for big dogs to go rampaging in, and I'd be stupid if I said this wasn't about as comfortable a life as I could ever reasonably hope for.

It all started when I was in college. In 1990, I was at a small state school in Minnesota where the computer science department, the academic computing center, and official school policy all agreed on one thing: "we do not provide our students with internet access". They were all lying. The truth was this: they DID provide students with internet access, they just didn't tell anyone about the bizarre and undocumented chain of DECnet and BITNET gateways you needed to puzzle out in order to make that happen. But puzzle it out I did, so I had access to a huge trove of resources that most other students did not. I should probably add that this was right around the time that the Macintosh started to get popular, and this was something that I despised. My theory was that, if you built a computer so simple that idiots could use it, THEY WOULD. And then you'd have to deal with a lot more idiots.

I hadn't really caught on to the fundamental ideas behind the internet at this point: "be conservative in what you generate, and liberal in what you accept", "information wants to be free", and so on. I was mostly thinking about myself. At the time, this was all about me.

At any rate, other students saw me looking at things on the computer that they simply couldn't get to, and asked. "How do you do this?". I taught the first few. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth guy, I started to think "Shit, this took me a long time to figure out. Since when am I YOUR teacher?". And, unbeknownst to me, people had been going to the computer science faculty and the head of the academic computer center and asking "Huey is doing THIS. How do I do this?", and their response had been "I don't know. Why don't you ask him?".

So I'm getting a steady stream of people expecting me to be their free tutor in "Hacking the MSUS network 101", and I got sick of it. So I wrote it down. I made a big text file, put it online so other folks could get at it, and even used to carry a printout of it with me, as a shield against erstwhile tutoring students. Somebody would say "How do I get on the internet?" and I would hand it to them. "Here, read this. Once you've done so, you will know everything I do. ...and the next time someone comes to me and asks this question, I will send them to you, and say 'Kinda busy right now, but [your name here] knows everything I know, so maybe you should ask them?'."

Not a lot of people asked after that. But a lot of people got online. In my own antisocial way, I'd become the leader of a movement. And information really did want to be free, if only because I really didn't want you to ask me for it. It's online! Fucking look it up! What, do you want me to read it to you? Fuck you!

Couple years later, I'm in Detroit, driving a forklift for $7 an hour in the warehouse of a Japanese air freight forwarding company. Since there's only a couple flights a day between Japan and the US, this job largely consists of sitting around, waiting for something to happen. After a few months of showing up at work, reading the both the News and the Free Press front to back and doing both crossword puzzles AND the scrabble puzzle, the office manager sees how catastrophically bored I am and offers to teach me HER job. And this mostly consists of pulling out the dozen or so various shipping and customs forms and saying "put this HERE, and put that THERE, unless this is HERE, and then THAT goes HERE...", and somewhere around the second HERE my mind says "No, that is too many, let me write this down". A month later, there is a manual that explains how to do her job.

A couple years later, and my aunt wants to send me the piano she'd promised me from the estate of her mother-in-law, except I'm in Hawaii. It just happens that I know an air freight forwarding company. So I called them up. Turns out that they're still using the operations manual that was written a few years ago, by a forklift driver.

Meanwhile, although the Army has decided that I should carry the machinegun through the woods, the battalion staff has decided that, since I know how to use a computer, I should fly a desk and be the intelligence analyst and security clerk. And in the process of learning how to get people security clearances and inspect arms rooms, while the outgoing sergeant is explaining "take THIS form and then do THAT and then take THAT form with THIS form..." and somewhere around the second THAT my mind says "no, that is too many, let me write this down". And a month later, there's the battalion security manual. And when I left, instead of having to teach my replacement, I could just hand him the manual. "Here's everything I know. Knock yourself out."

Fast-forward another couple years, and I'm pulling third-shift ops room duty in the MCI WorldCom midwest terminal ops NOC. This is another job where I basically sit around and wait for shit to break, so when it does, I can wake up engineers and be 'remote hands'. A couple things happened here: I discovered online radio and online crossword puzzles, I got into the antispam hobby (since the number one alarm that went off in the machine room was 'mailserver overloaded by spam', and while spam didn't bother me all that much, I really fucking hated that alarm), I learned how to write shellscripts to automate a lot of the system accounting, and I built a webserver and wrote an online manual for all of the crap that I needed to take care of, because there was just too much to remember. And when I left, "Here's everything I know. Good luck."

So when I'm job-hunting in DC, looking for the cool computer security job I've come here for but can't find, I run into someone who says "What we're really looking for is someone who can help out with the documentation. I see you have a lot of computer experience. Have you ever written any technical documentation?" ...yeah, okay, I guess you can have my resume. A month or so later, after my third interview, I get hired.

That was in April of 2002. My then-wife bought me, as a gift to commemorate my being hired as a professional writer, a wonderful Sensa pen. That wife has been gone for years, but the pen still rides around in my shirt pocket every day. At first, I was terrified and disdainful of such a silly and extravagant gift; who pays this much money for a pen, and what kind of an idiot will I feel like after I've lost the damn thing? But I've learned two things: a really nice pen is worth it, and when you own a really nice pen, you always know where it is.

Now, if I had to list the most important things I've written, I'd say they were probably two eulogies and two usenet posts (one about abortion and one about 9/11) and none of the couple thousand pages of technical documents I've cranked out even crack the top 20. They're just not important, although they are a decent living. But I suppose they are important, in their own context.

One of the central tenets of any business process management framework (ISO9000, CMMi, what-have-you) is that processes and procedures are kind of like unlawful orders in the military, or promises from used-car salesmen: if they aren't written down, THEY DON'T EXIST. NEVER HAPPENED. If you say that you have a business process, but none of it is written down, that's not actually a process, it's really more somewhere between a folklore and a religion. People do things, but they're not really sure about the details (and different people in the organization often disagree on those details, because there's no authoritative reference) and they have no idea WHY they do those things, beyond maybe "Donna told me to do it this way" or "but that's the way we've ALWAYS done it!". That's not a process, that's a mysticism. You want a process? There are steps that must be followed; write them down. Once they are written down, that's the process. It's not real until it's written down, and it's the writing that makes it real.

Here's the miracle of technical writing: take something that you've done so many times that you don't even think about it, like making your grandmother's lasagna or changing the oil in your truck or folding your laundry or whatever it is that you're good at. Now, write a set of instructions to do that as if you were writing it for someone from the planet Mungo, who has absolutely no idea what lasagna or your truck or laundry or whatever even is. And don't just explain what to do, but why you should do it that way. This will force you to think about every step, every little thing that could go wrong, and every assumption you make.

If you do this, you will probably teach yourself something. By forcing yourself to examine a thing so mundane that you've never really thought about it, you will come to understand it more fully, and be able to explain it better. That's where the magic comes from: the learning. Not that I have "World's foremost authority on air freight forwarding for this one Japanese company at Detroit Metro Airport in the mid-90s" on my resume, because I don't, but because the process of going from "I dunno shit about that" to having written a manual that was the authoritative source on the subject in the space of a month was an intellectually rewarding experience. The fact that what I learned is largely irrelevant to me now is immaterial; I learned something, and that was challenging, rewarding, and fun. And that other people have benefited from it isn't all that important to me.

...I guess it still is mostly about me, huh?
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