Mick Davidson is a technical writer and content producer with 30 years of experience. He is currently between jobs but has spent a lot of time working on his CV and writing a few dozen custom-written introductory letters.
When not devoted to job searching he can be found researching topics such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning and writing fiction.
How Did You Become a Writer?
I became a writer by accident.
A girlfriend knew I wanted to go to college and suggested writing as it was ‘the one thing you’re good at.’ So I took a one-year journalism course and then started freelancing. After doing that for several years I took a full-time job (with decent pay, 9-5, free coffee) writing training materials, and never looked back.
My career hasn’t been planned, though over the years I’ve fine-tuned the sorts of roles I will go for. After writing digital and paper-based training for a few years I got a job writing Help files. This is where I became known officially as a Technical Writer.
One of the best career decisions I made was getting into Atlassian software, i.e. Confluence and Jira. Because no one else knew about either at the time, I became the ‘one who knows’ - it always pays to be an expert in something. I’ve been a Confluence admin for about 15 years now, and as someone with no degree or technical background, my knowledge and skills using Confluence have really helped boost my profile.
How Did You Get Your First Writing Job?
I had to do some work experience, which was writing feature articles for our local newspaper. They paid me right from the start, so I just kept going back to them and begging for more work. They were happy to keep paying me, so it all worked out.
That work gave me a great insight into how to make freelancing pay, so I used those skills to get work with other papers and magazines. It was great fun but involved a lot of running around and working long hours, which is why I eventually took an office job with the training organization.
What Skills Do You Need to Be a Good Writer?
I’ll list four in no particular order:
People/stakeholder skills - they can be the source of much of your work, the knowledge behind what you write. You need them more than they need you, so make friends with everyone no matter what their role or what department they work in.
Writing/editing skills - my advice is to learn several different ways of writing. I have the following: journalism - news stories and feature articles; training for both hard and digital copy; technical/instructional writing - BAU work for most tech writers; blogs, PR, general marketing - these have a different audience and needs to tech writing, and are often more fun to work on because they’re a bit more creative than writing instructions. And you have to be able to edit your own work. You can’t always spot mistakes, especially in digital media, but you should be able to get at least 95% of them.
Research - where does your content come from? Here are some examples: scheduled and regular features in internal and external publications, the media, business experts, official announcements, stakeholders, the marketing dept, member organizations, event calendars, statistics, LinkedIn updates and groups, Twitter, policy, and legal changes, and training materials.
Tools - learn as much about the tools you use as possible, even the things you don’t often need. Also, research what’s going on outside of your toolset. This is how I discovered Atlassian’s Confluence, which I then introduced to one of my former employers. Successfully introducing and setting up a new software system is a feather in anyone’s cap/CV. New tools will make your job more interesting and bring other benefits to your employer - it’s a win-win situation.
What Influences Your Writing the Most?
My main motivation is to know that I am contributing to something that helps other people in the clearest and concise way. We’ve all seen far too many examples of poorly written instructions. I want everything I do to be so well put together that people don’t even notice it, all they’ve done is learnt what they needed to know, have increased their productivity or skills, and then gotten on with their day.
Another thing that inspires and motivates me is learning new skills. Which means new tools, better ways of producing content, revising current processes, working with new colleagues, and keeping an eye on where technical documentation, and related writing forms, are heading.
What Tools and Software Do You Use for Work?
This varies from job to job, but mainly: Confluence (content management/creation and publishing), Jira (development and project planning and tracking), several different online graphics apps (for creating and editing graphics), Drupal (content management/creation, and publishing), Adobe products such as Acrobat for PDFs and Photoshop. Various comms tools such as Slack, GoToMeeting, Zoom.
On top of that, there’s always a variety of in-house/bespoke systems for blogging and file management systems that you have to learn. They often look different but do the same things, and are pretty straightforward to learn.
What Are Your Writing Habits?
I always write a daily To Do list which gives a broad outline of what needs to be done. This then becomes a launch point for the rest of the day. I write them as I think of them, then number them by order of priority. I find if you don’t have a list, you don't have priorities and can instead end up working on things that are not that important (at that moment).
My No 1 tip is to be prepared to drop whatever you're doing to switch to something that is now more important. Then be ready to switch back again - and don’t take any of it personally. Priorities can change rapidly if there’s a fire that needs to be put out. Flexibility and adaptability are key to survival.
My music listening habits range from nothing but silence to hardcore techno via jazz and classical music. I’m a guitarist so listen to a lot of classical guitar - but I can’t listen to anything that has words I can understand as lyrics can sometimes find their way into what I’m writing. I also don’t listen to anything that is going to make me want to pick up my guitar - it might be fun but it’s not productive!
What’s the Best Investment You Made in Your Career?
Going to college at the age of 30 to study journalism. From that moment onwards I had a career with benefits that I didn’t know existed when I was working in warehouses and factories.
The benefits have been great: I usually work in good conditions with great colleagues. The work is rewarding and interesting in itself. Learning motivates me, so I’m happy finding out how a new tool or system works - I’m the sort of person who shuns tour guides and always wants to know what’s around the next corner. The salary and related benefits are good. I’ve been able to work abroad (Spain, Gibraltar) and from abroad (I worked remotely for a British company but lived in the Netherlands – did that for six years). You get a load of transferable skills. It’s pretty easy to work from home as you only need an internet connection, access to your employer’s servers, and several ways of communicating with your colleagues.
What Are the Most Influential Books in Your Life?
The most influential ones are nothing to do with work, so:
- Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps - it’s a set of Zen stories that literally broaden your thinking and can be used as a good basis for life. One of my favourites is The Giver Should Be Thankful.
- The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy - sustained writing of this power and beauty coupled with a fantastic story don’t ride up everyday. This is a book that can truly be described as awesome.
- Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges - the master of language and storytelling, every one is a gem. Borges was immortalised as the librarian in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
What Are Your Favorite Writing Quotes?
Kill your babies - tech writing is not prose or literature, it’s functional. It should be clear, concise, and complete. It’ll probably take a few iterations, not to mention complete re-writes to bash it into shape. Be prepared to wield the ax!
If Someone Wants to Be Where You Are Now, How Can They Get There?
When you look back through your career, it looks like there’s a clear path but in my case, there isn’t. It's been shaped by luck and circumstance for the most part. That said, I ended up working in Gibraltar because I wanted to live in Spain. I worked for Oracle because I came to live in Australia. Nowadays, as I’m now 62, I’m thinking about where and how I’ll finish my career when I retire. So I’m looking for opportunities that mean I’ll have more power and influence over a company’s documentation as a whole, and not just be someone who writes and organizes content. So my next moves are about the skills I need to learn and improve on that will allow me to have something of a managerial role. My advice is to think about where you want to be in the future, then see what tools and skills you’ll need to learn to get you there.
And where we all are going to be as writers in another five years or so is anyone’s guess. AI and ML are already affecting the role reporters and editors play in delivering news. Jobs are being lost because, in some cases, it’s possible for AI to do the work. But just because AI can’t do the tech writer’s work now, it doesn’t mean we’re immune to its charms. So this is one area that tech writers could look into to see how it’ll fit into their work.
Otherwise, be adaptable, flexible, and be willing to learn constantly. Do the work others don’t want to do and never forget that unless you’re working on seriously technical content such as APIs or how to maintain an Airbus A380, most of the things you’ll write about are pretty straightforward.