For twenty years, I worked as a contract technical writer in New York City. Most contracts began with a 3- or 6-month term but were extended.
I worked at about two dozen different companies and organizations. And I collected some “strange but true” experiences.
These stories are true. I hope you enjoy them.
MY CRAZY START
I began in 1999, a year before my first resume entry as a technical writer (read on for why it’s not listed on my resume).
Day one involved a 3-hour drive in rush-hour traffic. I pulled up in front of the new house of my primary contact. He was, the staffing firm told me, their “ALL-STAR” developer.
He was not happy. Colored tape and sticky notes clung on the seams of his walls and ceilings. His brand-new house showed cracks. He explained it was one of the last built in the development, and they were racing to finish, so they did a poor job.
He was going to get them for it.
We walked down to his office basement while he explained the job to me. Then he handed me a CD called “RoboHelp.”
“You’ll need to use this Monday,’ he said.
It was the Friday before.
I asked him a question, and he raised his hand. “Just figure it out. I can’t handhold you,” he said.
I spent a few hours that weekend learning RoboHelp. And I began Monday inserting his document into the tool.
But I could do nothing right. After a few weeks, I left before he fired me. I jumped on another opportunity that became my first large contract.
Moral: When the ship is on fire, you need to get in the water, quick.
YOUR PAYCHECK PAID MY ELECTRIC BILL
A year later, I signed a contract with a new staffing firm. The founder worked as an employee his entire career, but wanted to make it on his own.
He began paying me late. And late became later. Until it was two weeks late. I was supporting a family of four and needed to be paid on time.
His office was in the garment district and my job was a few blocks north of him in Midtown. So, I stopped by his office on the way home from work one evening.
“Tom! I need to be paid,” I said.
“Sorry, Bobby,” he replied, “but your paycheck just went to pay my electric bill.”
I burst out of that office, resolved to end the contract, and go with someone else (staying with the same end client). A few friends said I wouldn’t be able to do it. End clients don’t like drama, they explained. But I found an established staffing company which the end client trusted, so my contract continued.
And he paid me what he owed me.
Moral: Never tolerate being paid late.
THIS WRITING SUCKS!
A few years later, I began an unusual project. Five technical writers were to create about a dozen “missing” manuals over four months. We were working in a regulated business that lacked documentation. And they were facing stiff fines if they didn’t provide documentation by year’s end.
Marching orders: Get the work done. Don’t worry about perfection. Just get them done.
About a month into the four-month project, John from “LaHNG GHIland,” (Long Island) the senior member of our team, asked me to join him for coffee.
We rode the elevator down to the spacious lobby in downtown NYC, and I sat across from him on a padded cube. He leaned over to me, waving a folded sheaf of papers in his hand.
“So, I have to tell you. I reviewed your work. This writing sucks!”
He handed the bundle to me, and I looked at his red marks bloodying the page. I said something like “But we were told to just get them done.” He looked at me and said
“Well, you can do a lot better than that, OK?”
John was the senior writer and reviewed everyone’s work. I thought he was only checking for typos. He checked a lot more than that.
It stunned me at first. But when I reviewed his corrections, I had to admit he was 100% right. I had gotten sloppy by racing to get the work done.
The next document I submitted impressed him with its quality.
Moral: Don’t take short cuts unless they’re unavoidable.
I met Subway Mike at a project that had stalled and provided plenty of time for storytelling.
There were 8 writers packed into a room with poor ventilation and sixteen hundred distinct scents, mostly unpleasant. The start of this project? Suspended. We showed up every day for two weeks. Doing nothing.
I gave him the name “Subway Mike.”
About half the team lived outside the city, in the suburbs in Long Island and Northern New Jersey. One woman commuted from Pennsylvania to the city and back. Every day. And they’d rarely taken the New York City subway before this engagement.
So, each person’s subway ride became a regular story.
Mike had been a lifelong resident of Spanish Harlem and had ridden the subway thousands of times, he assured us. He would listen to someone complain about some obnoxious passenger or seeing a rat in the tracks and chime in:
“You think that’s bad? I once had guy throw up on me in the middle of rush hour.”
Everyone would beg him for more grotesque details.
Sometimes when I was especially bored, I’d look at him and say “Mike, tell us a subway story!” and everyone would turn to Mike as his big sloppy grin filled the room and he leaned over in his chair to divulge another secret.
He told about a dozen or more of these stories. I wish now that I’d written them down. But now you know why I called him “Subway Mike.”
Moral: Humor has its place in every office.