Path to Fellow: Sheila Jones, 2004

by Kevin Cuddihy on 4 March 2011

We return again with Path to Fellow, a recurring feature here on STC’s Notebook to highlight the rich contributions of our honored members. If you’re a Fellow or Associate Fellow and haven’t been contacted to participate in this feature, please email Kevin Cuddihy.

Sheila Jones

Building a Business in Techcomm

My partner, Kathy Sayers, and I started Wordsmiths as a writing business in 1980. When the recession hit in 1982, the only firms left standing were high-tech. A good friend and mentor encouraged us to start writing manuals: “You can do it!” she said. So we bought an IBM computer, found a client, and got to work. We were clicking along at top speed when words started disappearing and ends of sentences dropped off the printed page.

We raced back for a diagnosis: the hardware folks said it was the software; the software folks said it was the hardware—we returned the miscreant during our three-month warranty period and finished off the project with a rental and a typewriter. Our client wasn’t happy but we were in business.

We had moved separately with our families to Canada from the U.S. but soon became acutely aware of what it’s like to be outsiders. While we didn’t find great differences, we were constantly reminded of the small and important ones that existed.

Vancouver’s economy is built on a resource base: forestry, mining, fisheries, tourism. The city is a service center for the Province—banks, insurance, computer services, and such—but it is head office to virtually nothing. That means decisions are made in the east—Toronto and Ottawa—and Vancouver reacts, or complains, or suffers in silence. Major changes, which are decreed in a parliamentary system, happen overnight, and those of us who provide services have to be prepared and react quickly.

As we discovered, the market is extremely broad and painfully thin—forget specialization. We had strong skills and academic credentials but we were definitely training on each job. We became experts at risk-taking. Whenever we got a call for work, we’d say: “That’s what Wordsmiths does best!” and then scramble to figure out what was involved. Our strengths lay in absorbing information like a sponge. My partner would hit the library and I would call everyone I knew to get direction.

Our skills as generalists and info-sponges worked. Projects were technical and short term. We’d delve into one field, get to know it, produce whatever writing the project called for—and rarely, if ever, expect to hear from that client again.

What those projects taught me was the overriding importance of plain language. Even quite complicated projects cried out for the use of plain language—and I became a dedicated advocate. A series of manuals for the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office on small claims, family court, and administrative court services, and the in-depth training materials we completed for Fisheries and Oceans proved the point. But we found that projects dried up overnight as government mandates changed and budget priorities shifted.

Early on, we decided there were two important elements our profession needed—one was credibility: a reputable organization with standards, and two: a university that offered training for new writers. Until that time we were working double time, training our own people.

When we attended Society for Technical Communication meetings in San Jose in the late 1980s and realized this was an organization that could provide the legitimacy we needed, things clicked into place.

Then, my partner made the rounds of all of the Vancouver area colleges, community colleges and universities, asking them to give courses to train writers in technical communication. We only got one positive response—from Simon Fraser University, with this caveat: “You do it.” Our team spent two years developing a curriculum for a potential program, which was approved, then convinced writers to teach the courses. After two more years the program was accredited and students received a certificate. And SFU gave us the opportunity to hold International Roundtables to explore new trends in the industry.

Benefits from being a member and a fellow

By participating actively at the international level, our ideas and energy were rewarded. We made great friends offering and presenting papers, sometimes inviting panel members or co-authors we knew only by name or reputation.

When I was asked, by chance, to serve on the Honorary Fellows Nominating Committee, I found myself immersed in a most rewarding and fascinating endeavor. Even though I fell on my face at my first public performance—a case of massive stage fright—I continued as chair and had the good fortune to work with an outstanding committee, people who were always cooperative, hard-working, and full of insights, ideas, and brilliant strategies for recruiting the stars.

Then, being in on the start of the Rough Drafts, the STC’s music debut as a Rockabilly band, and singing with them through their six years at STC conferences, was a real trip.

What made this possible? Always being ready to take risks. What has it led to?

  • Starting the first university-level program in our area
  • Opening up the local chapter to new directions based on members’ ideas
  • Holding International Roundtables to bring STC expertise to SFU
  • Bringing an international perspective to our local chapter, and encouraging successive officers to host regional conferences

We’ve given a slight boost to the legitimacy of the profession and the STC, but it is one that can easily be expanded and improved upon. Personally, taking this path allowed my partner and I the freedom to have exciting and satisfying careers in business, while raising children.

It’s a life! Great friends, good times, and gratifying accomplishments.

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