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Fiction writers who worked as technical writers

by AK Krajewska

I keep a running list of notable fiction writers who worked as technical writers. Technical writing is a pretty unglamorous profession. You almost never get a byline and most people don’t even know that your job exists, never mind that you exist. People who do know that technical writing is a thing (oh you know, manuals, online help, long tables of parts or parameters) generally imagine it to be dreadfully boring and feel sorry for us.

I once went to a literary event put on by the Kenyon Review where one of the academic writer types made some kind of joke about how if you fail to be a literary writer, you might, shudder, God forbid, be forced to be a technical writer. Their snobbishness pissed me off, especially because at that time I had a pretty annoying job and was doing everything I could to turn the fun part of my job (the technical writing) into my full time job. Maybe you can be snobbish if you’re rich and aren’t paying off your student loans yourself. Seriously, fuck those people. I guess I’m still mad at them. (Did you know that when you submit poetry and literary fiction to most of these literary journals they actually charge you for it? It’s a lot like academic journal publishing) On the off-chance you’re a working class kid or young person or somebody looking for a career and you like technology, writing and getting paid rather quite well, may I suggest this profession?

But I digress! Which, if this were something I was getting paid to write instead of my blog, I would totally edit out.

To return to my original theme, I keep this list of fiction writers who are also technical writers, and the other day I found a new one to add, the amazing Roxane Gay. So, I present to you my list of fiction writers who worked as technical writers:

Ben Bova #

Prolific science fiction author and editor

Known for #

Technical writing #

Ben Bova worked as a technical writer in the military and aerospace industry. I have hangups about working on anything related to weapons, but I must admit that getting to write about rockets is no doubt pretty cool.

Ted Chiang #

Science fiction writer who focuses on idea-rich short fiction

Known for #

Technical writing #

In a 2002 interview with SF Site, Ted Chiang mentioned that he worked as a freelance technical writer, producing developer documentation. In another place in that interview, he mentions that he was previously a staff technical writer somewhere near Seattle and put in a lot of overtime. He never names the company but there are several large software companies in Seattle that might have been it, and no doubt some smaller ones, too.

I got to talk to Ted Chiang briefly after a Q&A Green Apple Books (the one in the Inner Sunset) as part of his publicity tour for the short story collection Exhalation. I told him that I had read “The Tower of Babel” as a teen and had never forgotten it, and that he inspired me to become a technical writer. I don’t recall his exact answer (I had a migraine earlier that day and that doesn’t help with memory), except that he was pleasantly surprised by the first thing, and kind of confused by the second. What I might have failed to convey in that brief exchange was that I thought, look, here’s this guy who published his first (Nebulat winning!) short story, then 2 more stories, and then nothing for 7 years until "Story of Your Life" which also won a Nebula. And how does that happen? You don’t stay a good writer by not writing. You definitely don’t get better by not writing. Where was he getting his practice? And I thought: maybe the discipline and work of technical writing is where he was getting his practice, and maybe I could do that, too.

Thomas Pynchon #

American novelist of weirdness and paranoia

Known for #

Technical writing #

Like Ben Bova, Pynchon worked in the aerospace industry, at Boeing. Like most technical writers, he generally didn’t get a byline. However, Pynchon scholars have analyzed technical articles published at Boeing during Pynchon’s time there to try to identify which ones he might have written.

Pynchon’s descriptions of the mechanics of rockets in Gravity’s Rainbow, show the influence of his work at Boeing, I think.

Roxane Gay #

Prolific essayist, fiction writer, and editor

Known for #

Technical writing #

Roxane Gay has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Technical Communication and taught technical communication while she was a professor. I can’t find any references to working as a technical writer in industry, but I think a Ph.D. in the subject and teaching count for the purposes of my list. In an interview with Technical Communication in 2021, she described how the framework of technical communication influences her work as a essayist and fiction writer.

Charles Stross #

Prolific science fiction novelist who mixes in tropes from multiple genres and uses pointed black humor to comment on themes in current events

Known for #

Science fictional horror-comedy novel series, The Laundry Files

Technical writing #

When I talk about technical writing, I try to draw a distinction between journalistic writing about technology (often called “tech writing”) and writing manuals and descriptions of technology for industry (usually called “technical writing”). Stross has done both. Most of the official bios of Stross talk about his journalism about technology, writing about Linux for Computer Shopper.

But I also found an old comment thread on his blog where he replies, in discussion about technical writing as a day job:

“[D]one technical writing, got my chops there. It can be good, but hell hath no circle like unto being a tech writer in a software company whose editor is also your line manager (and who has a journalism degree and no understanding of the tech in question).” (The writer's lifestyle)

I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen him mention having worked as a technical writer some time on Twitter or Mastodon, which is why I added him to my list. But I couldn’t find that reference and like a good technical writer who verifies their facts, I wanted to give at least one example.

Gene Wolfe #

Science fiction novelist with an exceptionally lush prose style and complex plots

Known for #

The dying earth science fiction series, The Book of the New Sun

Technical writing #

Gene Wolfe’s work might be more journalistic writing about technology than strictly technical writing in the sense of manuals and so on. He was “an editor for the technical magazine Plant Engineering” according to an interview with Ultan's Library. In this context, editor also meant that he wrote articles and took photos. In the interview, Wolfe says he was the editor for “power transmission” and “robots” both of which sound sufficiently deep that I’m going to count it for the purpose of my list.