Leveraging multiple skills - Interview with Matt Lorenzi, Technical Writer / Illustrator

Technical writers often talk about the need to wear many hats in order to complete their projects. In today’s interview, we chat with Matt Lorenzi, a Technical Writer / Illustrator with a keen sense of how to leverage multiple skill sets and turn them into a career. So grab yourself a fresh cup of coffee and enjoy the discussion.

Now, on with the questions!

Q: Many people in the field focus on either technical writing or illustration. You've chosen to do both. Why?

A: I started out with a solid background in graphic design and production art. I was looking for a new avenue career-wise, as I had exhausted my earning/growing potential in the printing industry. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater I decided to leverage my existing skills with those of technical writing.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about how you managed to develop your writing and illustration skills at the same time? Was this part of your education plan, or did you focus initially on one or the other?

A: Again, it came about as a necessity. I had extensive Adobe Illustrator skills from my work as in the printing/packaging industry. I knew that good technical documentation relies on good technical illustration as well, so I started focusing on that particular niche. The technical writing came much later as I entered a program for Technical Writing at BCIT here in Vancouver, BC.

Q: You mention freelance work on your website. Do you feel that wearing two hats (illustrator and writer) increases your ability to find new contracts?

A: It has helped, but sometimes I think it may also deter potential clients. I'm sure some wonder how I can possibly offer both services, let alone be competent in both. I'm looking for the client that needs a bit of both, or smaller firms who need a one-stop solution to their technical communication needs. I cannot compete with the best illustrators. I also cannot compete against technical writers with 20+ years of writing experience. In practice my freelance contracts have been focused on illustration, with the client providing much of the written copy.

Q: If you bumped your head and forgot how to either draw or write, which would you sacrifice? Why?

A: Tough question but I would have to say I would sacrifice drawing. I don't see myself as an artist who has to draw in order to live. Sometimes I wish I were more driven to just pick up a sketch pad and draw for the sake of it. I see myself as an illustrator rather than an artist.

The written word for me is still more powerful. I find a lot of fulfillment in a well written piece, both as a reader and author. Writing also allows for a sharp tongue, which is harder to pull off strictly visually - unless you’re extremely talented.

Q: What is the one software tool that you couldn't abandon? (Ok, I'll let you choose two, one for illustration and one for writing.)

A: Illustrator. It's my sketch pad, my canvas. Some prefer to start with pen and paper, but I do a lot of my conceptualizing right in Illustrator. I can quickly get to where I need to be in Illustrator and don't see value in doing things twice. There's so much ability to reuse and keep things editable with Illustrator that you can easy "go back" without losing what you've already done.

For writing I am not particular, but -- believe it or not -- I would say MS Word. I realize all too well it is what many clients use, and so you may as well play in their sandbox. If there is one thing I love about Word, it is the Outline mode. And if you use the built in heading structure much of it translates to HTML with some fluidity.

Q: How do you determine the quality of a technical illustration?

A: Like a piece of technical writing it must be functional first, pretty second. If it fails to convey the message or instruction, it's just a piece of art. I have seen technical illustrations fail because the creator lost focus of the message or audience and spent too much on the aesthetics.

Q: Can technical illustrations save lives? Explain.

A: Sure, why not. By now everyone has made a visual memory of the evacuation procedures on an airplane. Just by staring at these visuals while waiting for the plane to taxi down the runway, we've all made a mental image of what needs to be done in case of an emergency. I see warning symbols such as hazardous materials, explosive, or poison as technical illustrations.

Q: If a Ernest Hemingway and Seamus Heaney cornered you in a pub and insisted that technical writing isn't very creative, how would you respond?

A: Funny, I would think Hemingway would make an excellent technical writer. His writing is so devoid of adverbs, adjectives and any other flourishes. It's pretty bare-bones, which is what you want in good technical writing. I think there is a great deal of creativity involved in distilling a complex piece of information and translating it to a broad audience. It requires you to address every part of a sentence and determine if it can be simplified.

Q: What project have you enjoyed the most in your career? Why?

A: I did a little installation guide for a small IT company here in Vancouver. The job came to me from a Craigslist ad I post from time to time. People scoff at Craigslist, but if you weed through the junk sometimes you will find credible clients and also credible service providers. I enjoyed it because the communication from both parties was solid - no surprises. I was given the reference materials I needed and was able to be build a spot-on quote. Everyone was happy and, best of all, the client paid electronically within hours of receiving the invoice.

Q: I draw stick figures. You draw Ducati Monsters. Do I need to sketch more, or what? How does one become a skilled artist? How do you keep your skills sharp?

A: I wish I was an artist, but I would not call myself that. I think I have some natural talent, but I don't spend much time drawing or sketching just for fun - I really should! I have to push myself to extend my boundaries and work on subjects I'm less familiar with. Sometimes the demand for illustration work goes quiet and so you dig up some project you've been working on for years and years. Wait until I finish my Vincent Black Shadow!

Q: I've interviewed others about technical writing career advice. Did they miss anything? What career advice would you give to an aspiring technical illustrator?

A: Decide if you want to focus solely on this skill (technical illustration). If you do, throw everything you have at it and be prepared to learn more than just 2D programs. I don't pretend to hold a candle to some of the more talented illustrators; what they can do in terms of cutaways and 3D modeling gives me shivers. I have no interest in competing with those guys - hence my decision to offer up other services such as instructional writing, layout, web publishing, etc. Like others have said, don't worry about the job title, but offer up all the skills you are confident you can use to deliver a quality product.

Q: Let's imagine you are creating software documentation. Graphics are hard to translate, and the interface keeps changing with each release. The engineers recommend ditching the images and using only written instructions. Good idea or bad?

A: Firstly I would kindly suggest to the engineers to stop messing with the interface and lock it down! Whether the instructions are visual or written, the end user is still going to be frustrated if with every release they have to learn to where to find tools, etc. However, if this is the case I would agree to ditch the images and go with a text-only description of the interface.

Q: Video combines images and words. What are your thoughts on video as a means of technical communication?

A: I think video has a place as a tutorial or introduction piece. It's a harder medium to scan when looking for a specific piece of information. Quick instructions or drawings are still the best tools for how-to guides or assembly instructions. I rely heavily on video if I’m looking to learn a new program or tool and just want to sit back and absorb information.

Q: Anything else you'd like to discuss about technical writing and illustration?

A: I hear the term technical communicator thrown around. I sometimes debate whether to use that handle to describe myself, but then I stop to think about it. There are just too many forms of communication to safely use that term. I don't do corporate communication, I don't do video, I don't do animation; these can all be viewed as forms of communication. For now I call myself a technical writer and illustrator until something better comes along.

Q: On a more personal note, let's say you have the day off to do as you wish. How do you spend it?

A: A nice long bike ride by myself to either explore the city or some back-road I have not been down before. For me cycling is relaxing and rejuvenating. The legs take care of themselves and you are free to let your mind wander...watching out for traffic of course.

You can contact Matt Lorenzi and view his work via his website, http://mattlorenzi.ca/.

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