Friday, November 22, 2013

Alumni Spotlight: Sarah (Ross) Weber, Technical Writer

By Sarah (Ross) Weber, Class of 2007, English and Creative Writing major

My current job is with a software company, where I am a Technical Writer. I test software and create training PowerPoint presentations to help our support staff answer clients’ questions and help them become familiar with our software and the correct ways to do things like invoicing, payroll, and inventory management. . . . I feel like I have found something very, very close to ‘the’ job. People who work in tech are my kind of people—they are generally laid-back, hard-working, analytical, highly logical, and enjoy critical discussions on making things more efficient or have greater impact. Ashland's English and Creative Writing program taught me all of those things. . .

In my current capacity, I am not only a Technical Writer, but the only English major in the company. Anything written that leaves the company’s hands to be viewed by anyone else generally goes through me. I edit and proof; I help create and make things better. I may not be changing the world, but I have impact where I am with what I do. That’s a very powerful thing for a 26-year old woman to feel in her workplace. I am seen as an expert, and because of my foundation of skills, I am an expert.

In a recent discussion, Amy [Lesniak Herzel] and I explored the three main paths that English majors generally take: teaching; journalism; the other. I have chosen the other path. The other path is terrifying—students who study education or journalism come out of college with not only a degree, but a job title. They can say, "I am a teacher." They know exactly what jobs or graduate schools to apply for, where to find those job postings, and what to expect in interviews and their first classrooms. They have a large part of their identity (as it relates to their profession and projected societal image) already figured out. Finding one’s way on the other path, in contrast, entails trolling Craigslist, publishing websites,, searching for a job, any job that has the word "writing" in its description. The other can do almost anything, which is fun to think about when you're a college student [but] extremely overwhelming when you're actually engaged in that job search. The other sits in front of the computer screen, baffled. "I just want to write. I’ll write anything, really. Why aren't companies looking for writers and editors?" Because most companies aren’t looking for writers and editors. They are looking for people with a specific set of skills that includes writing and editing. Those skills are a plus. A bonus.

The other has to straighten her shoulders and charm in job interviews and really, really emphasize that she never wants to stop learning . . . and mean it. Then she has to prove herself super capable and efficient and able to keep track of every detail at once. The other has to watch Youtube videos to learn new skills like Photoshop. She has to Google-search every problem she comes to encounter with the new software she’s using, to figure out the pitfalls and novice mistakes she’s made so she doesn’t need to ask for help. The other becomes self-sufficient because she never wants to be seen again as "young" or "inexperienced." The other has to fight for experience in a myriad of fields to back up that "always learning" statement. The funny thing is that the other grows to really enjoy this. The hustle, the unknown. The yawning hole of opportunities right in front of her that just requires a rope and a spelunker’s headlamp to start exploring. One hand on the rope, one hand stretched out before her in the darkness, ready for whatever she encounters.

I got into the tech industry and technical writing, I recently realized, because I like instructions. I like having clear directions in front of me when I am doing something new. Now I get to create those instructions and make sure they are simple, clear, and concise. It’s like having an entire bar and soft drinks menu in front of you, and choosing a tall, cool glass of water because it is refreshing and feels clean, and is exactly what your body wanted, even in its simplicity.

I suppose my point is that while an English/Creative Writing degree can be very specific or staggeringly open-ended . . . having that degree means that whatever you choose to do, you will do it better. Perhaps only a tiny bit better. But those skills we unconsciously learn while tearing apart Shakespeare and Faulkner and Milton and cummings for the fun of it? They matter. We can read between the lines and use context, making us better communicators. Our vocabularies are large, making us precise and confident speakers. We read quickly and closely; we know how to find the important information in large blocks of text. We are creative thinkers from writing fiction and constructing arguments—find a problem we can't solve or untangle. We know how to mimic. We know how to learn and never want to stop learning, and mean it.