You earned a degree with your G.I. Bill, and while being an English major made sense at the time, now you’ve got to get a job. Though your clearance is current, the humanities might not seem like a pathway to a good job in aerospace—but it can be. The most valuable resource in any business is knowledge, and that knowledge must somehow be preserved and conveyed to others. Technical writers are the men and women who do exactly that. Anyone who has ever held a job has run across—if not worked daily with—the work of technical writers. It is found in every dense document of company policies or occupational detail. There’s more to it than that, as the products of technical writers can sometimes reach across time in a way otherwise reserved only for the works of the finest poets or novelists.
A couple of years ago, I co-authored a magazine feature on battlefield nuclear weapons, which were built during the Cold War for demolitions and special operations units to destroy key infrastructure and prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The balloon might go up—“The Soviets are crossing the Fulda Gap!”—and Special Forces would strap on small atomic bombs and parachute behind enemy lines, where they might blow up bridges or enemy motor pools. Obviously, this never happened, so the foundational knowledge of the weapons and the men who carried them was practically nonexistent, nearly lost to a future that never was.
Enter technical writers. Documents which might at the time have seemed staid or prosaic—“Minimum Airdrop Altitudes Using Standard Parachute Equipment” or “Revised Safety Rules for U.S. Forces,” for example—became vital windows into a secret past. Some pages were redacted during the Freedom of Information Act process, but the details revealed—some as innocuous as a strap or latch mechanism—helped jog the memories of the soldiers we interviewed for the story. They could fill in the blanks on the documents, and vice versa. The technical document authors did not explicitly write for the future, which makes their work all the more reliable and influential. They did not aim to shape history, but to convey the practical present. The shape of history followed.
Technical writers keep information flowing. To say that the job of technical writer is to write technical documents is a gross oversimplification. And though the job title suggests its practitioners hold some sort of arcane knowledge of extremely difficult subjects, that’s not necessarily so, either. When the CEO of, say, McDonalds becomes the CEO of IBM, it’s not because he or she is a closet computer genius. Rather, it is because the principles of the job of CEO are universal and cut across company or industry. So too does the job of the technical writer, who doesn’t have to be an expert at mechanical engineering, but does need to be an expert in breaking down the intricacies of a mechanical engineering project, and presenting it in an easy to follow, easy to understand document. To that end, a good technical writer is a force multiplier. The product and methodologies of a small team can be captured and presented to other teams, or other organizations, or used as the baseline for improved performance.
And the opportunities for deeply interesting and diverse work abound. Physical security, environmental protection procedures, cyber-warfare techniques, malware analysis: a good technical writer could apply to any of these positions and win the job. There’s a certain pressure release valve built into the occupation that doesn’t necessarily exist for others. Every few years, who among us doesn’t want to throw it all away, run off, and join the circus? Who doesn’t grow at least somewhat bored in his or her job? A technical writer can decide that writing legacy mainframe maintenance volumes is a dead end, and change jobs to, say, writing communications satellite operations guides. That amounts to a leap to a new company and an ostensibly new and exciting job, wholly unrelated and yet entirely the same. It’s a major job change that actually improves one’s resume.
FINDING A technical writing JOB
The listings on ClearanceJobs are flush with technical writing positions, and the requirements of the job are right in line with the skillset of any English or creative writing major. Pre-writing, composition, and editing abilities are essential. The jobs frequently involve collaboration with other writers or teams, and any writer who has ever endured a workshop would know how to do that successfully and constructively. Research, of course, is vital for complex subjects (making all that essay writing invaluable), and just as important is the ability to express complicated ideas in a simple, direct way. An active security clearance, or the eligibility for one, is a given.
It sometimes seems the clearance world is stacked against jobseekers lacking Advanced Java Cybersecurity Networking degrees. Poets of the world breathe easy, however. There are jobs for you, and they are broad and meaningful and quite possibly, the products of your labor will have legacies measured not in months, but in millennia.