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The Power of Words: Confessions of a Wordsmith

 

Words have always fascinated me. I was the kid that was always in motion – until I learned to read. From then on you could find me sitting, reading a book. Lots of books, I go through books like Patton went through France. I did even when I was in grade school.

I loved writing, too, from first grade on. Sure, I was not great at it, but I got better fast. By fourth grade I wrote a Christmas story (as a class assignment) an uncle tried to get published in New York. (No. It did not get published. It had “serious flaws,” according to a reviewer from the publishing house. What can I say? I was nine, trying to run with adults.)

I glommed onto every opportunity to write from age 8 on. I was the public information officer for my Civil Air Patrol cadet squadron (writing press releases). Wrote the newsletters for my high school wargaming club, wrote a fanzine in college, and did the newsletter for the JSC Astronomical Society when I started my career. I also wrote for my company magazine when I worked for McDonnell Douglas.

My dream job would have been to have been a full-time author. While I really good with words, I was also pretty good with mathematics. Good enough at math to run the numbers and realize making a living as a writer was a good way to starve. While I was a really good writer I was not nearly good enough to make it as a professional, full-time writer. For that you need to be in the top three percent. (Only one percent of all authors get published by the big New York publishing houses.)

I pegged myself at the 89th percentile. Have you ever heard Sturgeon’s Law, named after one of the great SF writers, who posited it? It states 90 percent of everything is crap. He meant it to apply to SF, but it is pretty well universally applicable. In most creative endeavors only 10 percent is worth keeping. At the 89th percentile I am not quite there.

Do not get me wrong. I am not bad. I am just not good enough to be great at writing. Even more frustrating I am good enough to know the difference between great and not quite great. As a writer I would be the literary equivalent of the athlete good enough to play Double-A baseball (or Triple-A, if enough players got hurt and I was in the right farm team).

There are a lot of writers like that. You see them hanging on in writing careers, pretending they are better than they are. They are not getting published because they are unlucky. Or because no one appreciates their art. They hang on around some literary giant like a remora on a great white shark. They become big in fandom or the convention circuit, serving as self-important gatekeepers.

That was not for me. Instead I became an engineer. I was not really great as an engineer. As with writing I was very good, but not great. Which was okay. You can make a decent living as a good-but-not-great engineer, the work was interesting and fun, and I like working with smart people. (Engineers tend to be smart, even if they lack social skills. Stupid engineers either weed themselves out of the gene pool or enter management.)

I quickly learned something. Most engineers are smart, but many are poor communicators. I may not have been a great engineer, but I was great with words (as measured against other engineers). Soon I was the go-to guy when something needed to be written. I had a dozen technical papers published my first few years out of college. I wrote the reports, procedures, and manuals. I even worked on new business proposals. I loved it. It meant I was writing.

When my engineering specialty became obsolete after the Shuttle program ended I transitioned to becoming a technical writer. It seemed better than waiting around for the space industry to pick up. Besides, there was a real demand for technical people who could write. I was earning as much as a tech writer as I did as an engineer.

In the meantime I was writing for pleasure – and selling what I was writing. It is easy to pick up a four figure income annually doing freelance writing, and not terribly hard to hit five figures. I discovered I had myself pegged back years ago, when I decided to become an engineer. (In no year has my writing income exceeded what a Double-A minor league baseball player could expect annually.) Regardless, it is fun. And a nice supplement to the day job. How many people have serious hobbies that bring in five figures annually rather than cost them five figures annually?

I value my writing skill. Words have put bread on my table for nearly 50 years. Even when I was not a writer, I was writing. How lucky can you get?

Published in Group Writing
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There are 24 comments.

  1. Contributor

    Seawriter: I value my writing skill. Words have put bread on my table for nearly 50 years. Even when I was not a writer, I was writing. How lucky can you get?

    I feel much the same way. I’m so alive when I write. And your writing inspires many of us, @seawriter. How luck can *we* get?

    • #1
    • May 16, 2018 at 7:20 am
    • 4 likes
  2. Coolidge

    Like you, I’ve been a reader and a writer for my whole life. And like you, I ended up as a technical writer. But I came at it from the opposite direction.

    I think I have the capacity to be a very good writer, in the sense that I’m pretty good at stringing words together; but I lack the discipline to be a good author. At some point I decided that journalism would provide a middle ground, a more reliable way to earn a living as a writer. But school projects taught me that I hated reporting, and the business of journalism was in the process of self-destructing anyway.

    Fortunately I had a lifelong interest in computers and technology; even though I had no formal training, I’d done some programming and tinkered with hardware, and I loved learning new things. That was sufficient to land me an internship, and eventually a regular job, writing documentation for a large tech company.

    In my experience, most technical writers fall into either of two groups. First, there are the engineers who have made a career switch; these are people who know the technology, but often are not the best writers. (Although there are exceptions, obviously, as you demonstrate!) The second group is professionally trained technical writers, who are generally good writers but often not very technical. I pride myself on being right in the middle: I am a good writer, but I also understand the technology well enough that I can at least meet the subject-matter experts halfway, speaking their language and asking questions that show them I’ve done my homework.

    Because I’m surrounded by technology all day, and I spend as much time on build scripts and coding examples, it is easy for me to sometime forget this simple, remarkable truth: I make a living, a good living, as a writer. I’ll never be Stephen King, and no one who reads my work will ever know my name, but I know that I have the job I have only because I am good at learning complex subjects and explaining them in an understandable way. It is humbling.

    • #2
    • May 16, 2018 at 7:36 am
    • 7 likes
  3. Coolidge

    With the advent of self-publishing, a lot of people outside that top 3% are getting books out. And it turns out that the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses have been missing some hidden gems. Sure, there’s a LOT of absolutely rotten stuff published now that belongs back in the slush pile, but I’ve seen a few good stories that I wouldn’t have before self-publishing became easy. What the industry needs now are good editors.

    • #3
    • May 16, 2018 at 7:46 am
    • 7 likes
  4. Member

    Seawriter: I quickly learned something. Most engineers are smart, but many are poor communicators. I may not have been a great engineer, but I was great with words (as measured against other engineers).

    See a niche and fill it.


    This conversation is part of our ongoing Group Writing Series under May’s theme of The Power of Words, and the power to bring in extra income is a very fine one. If you have ways in which words have affected your life that you would like to share, we still have four openings this month. Why not increase your word power with a bit of word output?

    • #4
    • May 16, 2018 at 7:50 am
    • 2 likes
  5. Member

    Nick H (View Comment):
    What the industry needs now are good editors.

    That has long been the case.

    • #5
    • May 16, 2018 at 7:51 am
    • 5 likes
  6. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    Nick H (View Comment):
    With the advent of self-publishing, a lot of people outside that top 3% are getting books out. And it turns out that the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses have been missing some hidden gems.

    The problem has never been getting published. I have never had a book published by a NYC company and have 26 books in print. The problem is getting enough money from what you publish, including self-publishing. I believe a good sell for a novel is 5000 copies. Even if you are getting a $2 royalty per book that means your take for one novel is $10,000. Most novels do not reach 5000 copies.

    Most authors rely on their advance, and the NYC publishers typically give generous ones. If your book does not sell through the advance you still keep it. Most non-NYC houses give only a token or no advance. You get no advance self-publishing. Let’s say you get a 60% royalty on a self-published e-book that is selling (at Amazon, for example) for $5.00. That means you get $3.00/book. If you sell 5000 copies you get $15,000. Churn out four 80,000-word novels in a year, you have a reasonable income. If each novel sells 5000 copies, and not 1000 copies.

    Everyone focuses on the Larry Correias and Andy Weirs (who started as self-published authors) when selling starting authors on self-publishing, but those guys are to profession authors what someone who shows up as a walk-up at an NFL or NBA camp and winning a slot as a starter. It happens, but it is almost as rare as winning the powerball jackpot.

    • #6
    • May 16, 2018 at 8:01 am
    • 8 likes
  7. Thatcher

    Seawriter: I quickly learned something. Most engineers are smart, but many are poor communicators.

    One reason we gravitate to Engineering is that writing itself (for me, spelling and grammar) was my toughest subject in school. Since I was never taught proper grammar (what’s a gerund?), it also made learning other languages (like French) difficult.

    As an engineer, my major communication talent was to explain difficult concepts to non-technical people, such as the differences between convolutional and block coding. And before software patents were popular, I help the patent attorneys translate software into hardware diagrams and advised them on potential patentable ideas.

    • #7
    • May 16, 2018 at 8:10 am
    • 7 likes
  8. Coolidge

    Seawriter: Most engineers are smart, but many essentially all are poor communicators.

    FIFY. Among the worst are those who have gotten an MBA and like to play with PowerPoint.

    Seawriter: Besides, there was a real demand for technical people who could write. I was earning as much as a tech writer as I did as an engineer.

    One thing that flabbergasts me is the persistence of unintelligible pidgin English manuals for imported products. It was one thing to have such issues with Japanese goods in the 1960s. But now I have to assume there are web sites where one can shop out the cleanup of something written in Chinglish. What would you charge to rewrite a 500-word instruction sheet?

    My guess is that translators are lying about their abilities. The documents are originally written in Chinese. Then they are poorly translated. Nobody tells the employers how poor a job the translators are doing.

    • #8
    • May 16, 2018 at 9:08 am
    • 5 likes
  9. Coolidge

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    One reason we gravitate to Engineering is that writing itself (for me, spelling and grammar) was my toughest subject in school. Since I was never taught proper grammar (what’s a gerund?), it also made learning other languages (like French) difficult.

    I was pretty good at grammar and a stud at spelling, but hated to write. Back in engineering school, the idea of writing even 5 pages was intimidating. A big problem back in the paper and typewriter days was a need to basically write in two drafts. the need to do a decent first draft gave rise to writer’s block.

    Now, one can just type random isolated sentence fragments into a PC and then edit, edit, edit. 

    • #9
    • May 16, 2018 at 9:17 am
    • 5 likes
  10. Member

    Excellent OP, @seawriter – a very enjoyable read.

    I have to be honest with myself: I am not a “natural” writer. Rather, my other interests such as reading and discussing what has been read, eventually has drawn me into the realm of writing. The written word is where the lasting conversations really happen. (Ricochet, anyone?)

    As a child, I never developed the passion for writing as a pastime. I fear now that it is too much like trying to learn French as an adult – the mind is no longer flexible enough to master the subtleties to become fluid. It’s more like learning to carve wood or complete fine finish carpentry. I may never produce a master work, but the effort of learning how to pick out a good piece of wood, shape and sand it, then finish it to really show off the beauty of the original material makes it possible for me to better appreciate another’s excellence and craftsmanship.

    • #10
    • May 16, 2018 at 9:17 am
    • 3 likes
  11. Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    what’s a gerund?

    Isn’t that one of those regional names for a woodchuck? You know, like a “marmot,” or a “whistle pig?”

    • #11
    • May 16, 2018 at 9:19 am
    • 6 likes
  12. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    ctlaw (View Comment):
    What would you charge to rewrite a 500-word instruction sheet?

    PM me, if you are serious. I’d need to look at it before I could answer, and you can attach it on a PM.

    • #12
    • May 16, 2018 at 9:22 am
    • 1 like
  13. Coolidge

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    ctlaw (View Comment):
    What would you charge to rewrite a 500-word instruction sheet?

    PM me, if you are serious. I’d need to look at it before I could answer, and you can attach it on a PM.

    Rhetorical question.

    • #13
    • May 16, 2018 at 10:07 am
    • 1 like
  14. Coolidge

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    But now I have to assume there are web sites where one can shop out the cleanup of something written in Chinglish. What would you charge to rewrite a 500-word instruction sheet?

    Sadly, if anything the trend is going in the other direction. Many technical writers have lost their jobs to overseas outsourcing of jobs. It’s a questionable practice for many disciplines, but for technical writing especially, it seems insane to me to farm the work out to non-native English speakers. (Same for call centers.)

    My guess is that translators are lying about their abilities. The documents are originally written in Chinese. Then they are poorly translated. Nobody tells the employers how poor a job the translators are doing.

    In many cases I suspect that the only translator involved is Google. Machine translation is a modern marvel — the fact that it works at all is remarkable — but its output should never be trusted completely with any but the most rudimentary bits of text.

    • #14
    • May 16, 2018 at 10:24 am
    • 6 likes
  15. Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Nick H (View Comment):
    With the advent of self-publishing, a lot of people outside that top 3% are getting books out. And it turns out that the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses have been missing some hidden gems.

    The problem has never been getting published. I have never had a book published by a NYC company and have 26 books in print. The problem is getting enough money from what you publish, including self-publishing. I believe a good sell for a novel is 5000 copies. Even if you are getting a $2 royalty per book that means your take for one novel is $10,000. Most novels do not reach 5000 copies.

    Most authors rely on their advance, and the NYC publishers typically give generous ones. If your book does not sell through the advance you still keep it. Most non-NYC houses give only a token or no advance. You get no advance self-publishing. Let’s say you get a 60% royalty on a self-published e-book that is selling (at Amazon, for example) for $5.00. That means you get $3.00/book. If you sell 5000 copies you get $15,000. Churn out four 80,000-word novels in a year, you have a reasonable income. If each novel sells 5000 copies, and not 1000 copies.

    Everyone focuses on the Larry Correias and Andy Weirs (who started as self-published authors) when selling starting authors on self-publishing, but those guys are to profession authors what someone who shows up as a walk-up at an NFL or NBA camp and winning a slot as a starter. It happens, but it is almost as rare as winning the powerball jackpot.

    Yeah, back in the early 90s Larry Niven remarked in an interview (it was one of those “what would you tell an aspiring writer” questions) that maybe a dozen people in the U.S. were making a real living writing SF. Keep your day job. Times have changed since then but I doubt the validity of his advice has.

     

    • #15
    • May 16, 2018 at 11:02 am
    • 3 likes
  16. Thatcher

    Seawriter: Do not get me wrong. I am not bad. I am just not good enough to be great at writing. Even more frustrating I am good enough to know the difference between great and not quite great.

    To me, there’s only one universally recognized great author, and one universally recognized great work. The great author is Shakespeare, and the great work is the Bible (don’t bring up liberal hate for Christianity here).

    However, we can bestow greatness on other authors and works, depending on genre, and what organizations, fellow authors, and literary critics define as “great”.

    The bottom line is, each one of us readers of written works defines what authors and works are great to us, and isn’t that what matters the most? I know I’m not a great author compared to others, but I absolutely love the things I’ve written, be they my novels, my letters to the local paper, and yes, my posts on Ricochet.

    If you think what you write is great, then it is great.

    • #16
    • May 16, 2018 at 12:36 pm
    • 1 like
  17. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    Stad (View Comment):
    If you think what you write is great, then it is great.

    As a book reviewer, I get dozens of books each year written by authors who think what they write is great. They really believe it, too. It is my sad duty to inform you they are wrong more often than not.

    • #17
    • May 16, 2018 at 12:49 pm
    • 4 likes
  18. Member

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    One thing that flabbergasts me is the persistence of unintelligible pidgin English manuals for imported products. It was one thing to have such issues with Japanese goods in the 1960s. But now I have to assume there are web sites where one can shop out the cleanup of something written in Chinglish. What would you charge to rewrite a 500-word instruction sheet?

    My guess is that translators are lying about their abilities. The documents are originally written in Chinese. Then they are poorly translated. Nobody tells the employers how poor a job the translators are doing.

    Part of it is that, on like low likelihood that anyone that matters would care, those that matter don’t hear about the poor translation. If some Joe in America calls in to complain, the Chinese fellow in charge of manuals is almost certainly not going to hear that complaint, just some call-center or PR wageslave.

    Then there’s the fact that the guy in charge of manuals probably doesn’t know enough English to confidently assess the translator’s work. His assistant in charge of translations probably doesn’t either. Maybe the next guy down does, if there is even a next guy down. But he isn’t hired to do that (if he isn’t the guy making the bad translations in the first place), just to make sure it gets done.

    On top of that, even if someone who matters does care, and does find out about it, is it even worth it to do something about it? 

    And yes, there is a lot of lying, or at least overestimation, about language ability in the translation business, due to the above. More prevalent in Asia than Europe, at least as far as English goes, because there are more people that know English fluently enough. There are still problems even with Japanese, and the Japanese are a lot more conscientious about this than businesses in some other countries.

    • #18
    • May 16, 2018 at 1:48 pm
    • 1 like
  19. Coolidge
    TBA

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Most engineers are smart, but many essentially all are poor communicators.

    FIFY. Among the worst are those who have gotten an MBA and like to play with PowerPoint.

    Seawriter: Besides, there was a real demand for technical people who could write. I was earning as much as a tech writer as I did as an engineer.

    One thing that flabbergasts me is the persistence of unintelligible pidgin English manuals for imported products. It was one thing to have such issues with Japanese goods in the 1960s. But now I have to assume there are web sites where one can shop out the cleanup of something written in Chinglish. What would you charge to rewrite a 500-word instruction sheet?

    My guess is that translators are lying about their abilities. The documents are originally written in Chinese. Then they are poorly translated. Nobody tells the employers how poor a job the translators are doing.

    I think you’re right about the translators’ puffing up of resumes. It may also be that there just aren’t very many Chinese with command of both languages since fluency tends to come from immersion and the immersed tend to forget to come back home.

    [Fixed typo]

    • #19
    • May 16, 2018 at 2:36 pm
    • 1 like
  20. Coolidge
    TBA

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    ctlaw (View Comment):
    What would you charge to rewrite a 500-word instruction sheet?

    PM me, if you are serious. I’d need to look at it before I could answer, and you can attach it on a PM.

    Rhetorical question.

    He charges extra for rhetorical rewrites. 

    • #20
    • May 16, 2018 at 2:39 pm
    • Like
  21. Coolidge
    TBA

    :thinking: (View Comment):

     

    …even if someone who matters does care, and does find out about it, is it even worth it to do something about it?

    True. The product is probably only going to sell for a short time before a new model requires a new manual. 

    • #21
    • May 16, 2018 at 2:44 pm
    • Like
  22. Member

    https://kingharryv.blogspot.com/2018/03/writers-block.html

    My similar reflections on the whole writing vs engineering thing.

    • #22
    • May 16, 2018 at 9:04 pm
    • 2 likes
  23. Thatcher

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):
    If you think what you write is great, then it is great.

    As a book reviewer, I get dozens of books each year written by authors who think what they write is great. They really believe it, too. It is my sad duty to inform you they are wrong more often than not.

    Oh, I fully understand everyone thinks their own stuff is great. That’s why I have friends who review my stuff, and they’re the furthest things from Yes Men (and Women) you can find. In fact, I pay one of my friends a beer for every typo he finds. It’s a wonder he can still walk . . .

    • #23
    • May 17, 2018 at 6:12 am
    • 2 likes
  24. Member

    Seawriter: Lots of books, I go through books like Patton went through France.

    Nice.

    Thanks, Seawriter.

    • #24
    • June 5, 2018 at 6:46 pm
    • 1 like