My Writing Life: 4

Eventually I gave up my day job, knowing it would mean a decline in income, but an increase in opportunity to write and sell what I wrote. During my first three months of self-employment, I had grave concerns about my decision — mainly because I had said yes to a gigantic editing job for a company that sold refrigerators and refrigeration systems. It was my job to thoroughly edit the refrigeration manuals, so that both the customers and the sales force knew what was being said. 

This meant that I had to verify each fact (this was before the internet!) on how many BTUs were involved, how many coils, what temperatures, and so on. I worked on this manual on location, at the headquarters of the company hired to do the editing. I worked in a dark cubicle in a dark room. On refrigeration facts.


Wake me when it’s 5 p.m., please.

One of the things this experience solidified in my mind was that people who wrote technical manuals did not write good English, in that they Did. Not. Say. What. They. Meant. I think they were trying to say what they meant, but they couldn’t distinguish between what they said (what their words said) and what they meant to say. This is a common problem with many beginning writers, or with people who write but don’t understand how to write well. I’m not singling out technical writers.

Anyway, as I started to say, this experience made me doubt my decision to “quit my day job.” But after I finished editing the thousands of pages of technical writing and was paid for my work, I simply decided: No more technical manuals. 

For several years a portion of my freelance writing consisted of writing users’ guides to filmstrips, audiotapes, educational kits and packages, and the like. The users’ manuals were meant for either teachers or parents or students themselves.

Again, here was an example of having to write clearly and concisely. It wasn’t super-exciting, but I enjoyed writing a good users’ manual. I was paid $250 for a 400-800 word explanation of how to use the written “product.” But then publishers began cutting the payment for this work, and I stopped doing it. Since then, I swear, users’ manuals are written by computers!

The most concise, succinct, pithy, terse stories I was ever assigned to write were 50 word stories. You got it: 50 words. Preferably 48 or 49 words, but top limit of 50. These were for preschoolers who were looking at a single page of plastic-y paper into which was inscribed some kind of digitized (I think) design. When the preschooler held a small device over the inscribed part of the page, a voice read the 50-word story — which related to what was illustrated on the single page. I’m not able to describe this very accurately because I was never given a sample product, the way I usually am.

This was exacting work. Look at an illustration. Create a story to go with it. Write the story in 50 words or fewer. And I want to point out that a STORY has characters and conflict and resolution. 

Thank goodness this company did not pay by the word: they paid a set amount for each story. I don’t remember what that amount was, but I think it may have been $150. If you compare that to what I was paid to write a 400-800 word users’ manual, you can see that story writing paid better, and I think that was because the company was paying for not just the words, but the creativity involved and the difficulty of the assignment.


Editing refrigeration manuals helped Barbara Gregorich earn income while researching the story of female baseball players and publishing Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball.