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Early experiences as a technical writer

February 14, 2013

This is another excerpt from my first book, From Sharecropper’s Son to Tracking Missiles.” I have lowered the price of the digital version of my book on Kindle to $2.99. This is about funny things that happened in our office when I first started technical writing.

In 1960, I worked in a publications department made up of ex-military men from the Korean War era. Most of us had been instructors at one time or another and had the opportunity to be full-time technical writers on this particular job. Each of us was a specialist on the equipment we documented and we were a little independent.

Our two editors were administratively lead writers. One of the editors spent more time coming into the writer’s room to see that we were working than he did editing. The writer’s room was a wide-open bull-pen.

One morning, he walked into the room two or three times and finally walked up to one writer and said in a stern voice, “You have been looking at that same page for over an hour.”

For the next several weeks, when that editor walked into the room, the first person to see him would shout, “Turn page, HO,” like a military command. Every writer in the room would turn a page of whatever they were looking at. The editor got the message and left the writers alone.

The turn-page editor did other weird things. In 1962, he was laid off when we had a cutback. Two weeks after the layoff, his wife called to talk to him. The person that answered the phone said that he did not work here anymore. His wife was nearly in shock, she did not know he was laid off. I have often wondered how he explained that to his wife.

The other editor was very nitpicky and wishy-washy. One month he would remove all articles, such as “a or the.” The next month if we wrote without using articles, he would insert them. It did not matter how much we tried to write to his editing style, we could not because he would change his style.

We even had to have memos and letters edited and initialed as approved by the editor. One time, I wrote a short, two-paragraph memo, which he edited and initialed. A couple of days later, I retyped the memo with his edits as a double-spaced draft, and gave it to him to edit. He edited it to be exactly the same as the original version and initialed it.

I took both versions to him and asked which I should use, since each copy was initialed as approved. After looking at both copies, he got quite huffy and said, “You’re getting mighty damned nitpicking about this.”

The nitpicky editor bummed smokes all the time. He smoked either cigarettes or a pipe, which I did also. I seldom saw him with a pack of cigarettes or pipe tobacco. When he could not bum a cigarette, he would fill his pipe with tobacco from my humidor.

For a period of time, I rolled my own cigarettes. One day, he came to my desk and asked for a cigarette. I handed him my sack of Dukes Mixture. He looked at the tobacco sack and said, “You’re sure getting cheap,” and walked out of the room. He brought his pipe over a few minutes later and filled it from my humidor.

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