Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My job is not me

I am a technical writer.
I am a technical writer.
I am a technical writer.
That's been my mantra for many years. In the last few days I've had an experience that felt like waking up, but on a grander scale.

I'm not a technical writer.
I'm a woman with diverse interests, dreams, anxieties, strengths, weaknesses - and, oh yeah, I know how to make a living writing about high-tech gadgets. Surely I could draw a line through a different set of interests and strengths, and discover how to make a living doing something else I enjoy. But this is scary, crazy thinking. My brain freezes as soon as I realize that the logical next step is to contemplate a career change. So I stop in my tracks and meekly go back to thinking "I am a technical writer."

I'll have to change my thinking in baby steps. The first baby step is, as any good writer knows, to get rid of the passive voice. Find "I am a technical writer." Replace with "I do technical writing for a living." Ah - that creates breathing room, and the other aspects of me start reminding me that they're still here: Empty-nest mom, former Girl Scout leader, herb gardener, handweaver, swimmer, baker of uncommonly good pies. Music lover. Amateur carpenter. I don't do any of those for a living, but they are as important to me as technical writing. Getting things into focus, presenting a more balanced view - it's just a matter of thinking of myself in the active voice. My active voice.

Don't ask me how this ends. I just woke up.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does it have a hyphen?

Years ago, I discovered that the surest way to throw a roomful of technical writers into an uproar is to ask, as innocently as possible, "Does the term 'anal-retentive' require a hyphen?"
Don't take my word for it. Try it yourself - but only if you've already concluded the business at hand, and still have an hour or two to spare.

Spirited discussions of grammatical questions are like crack for writers. They give us such a buzz every time. We feel so great, so smart, so right. It's what we live for. We can't stop. We can't get enough. We don't want to hear that they interfere with our lives and damage our productivity, and we really don't want to hear that they're an inappropriate use of a designated meeting time or discussion forum.

The only difference between writers and crackheads is that we're not likely to get arrested for possessing grammar books. Today I witnessed this truth play out in a dramatic, time-consuming, and very public way.

As in music or dance, it's impractical to strive for perfection in writing. We have to settle for attaining a level of skill that allows us to make a living at it. And our goal must be to communicate effectively, rather than to be excruciatingly correct. A technical writer's mission is to help people understand things. If we have to make a choice between clarity and correctness, we have a professional obligation to choose clarity; though in almost every case a bit of rewriting will allow us to serve both those masters.

Most of us are acquainted with the anecdote usually attributed to Winston Churchill: Upon seeing one of his sentences rewritten in a cumbersome fashion to keep it from ending with a preposition, Mr. Churchill allegedly said "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put."

Regardless of the true origin of the quote, the point is valid: Clear communication is the objective. Get the grammar right enough that it doesn't interfere with your message - that is, right enough that it doesn't strike your audience as wrong - and move on. It's one more matter that comes down to knowing your audience, and recognizing that sometimes tech writers are not the audience.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I might get into tech writing

"Hey, how are you doing? What have you been up to, the last few months?"
"Oh, I'm doing all right. Looking for a job, though."
"Yes, I got laid off recently, too."
"You know, I was just thinking about getting into technical writing..."

This conversation bothers me every time I find it playing out - which it does so often I wonder if I'm in a time loop, like "Groundhog Day". The last time around, a few days ago, it was time to dig into the question of why it bothers me.

I know this is meant as an expression of interest in my trendy and lucrative profession. I know it is not meant a subtle variant on "Anybody can write."

Still, I can't picture myself saying to my friend, "You know, I've been thinking about getting into engineering," or "I've been thinking about getting into project management." I would sound presumptuous, at least to my own ears. I've been a technician and and engineering assistant, but I don't have the training to be an engineer. I took the coursework from the Project Management Institute, but did not sit for the PMP exam. If I were to consider becoming an engineer or a project manager, I would need to start by becoming qualified to do the work.

Within the Society for Technical Communication, the idea of certification for technical communicators resurfaces from time to time; to date I've opposed it because the Society hasn't ever worked out what that would entail. But now an effort is under way to develop a body of knowledge (BoK), which has been the missing piece. Once the Body of Knowledge is declared ready for use, I will have a helpful answer to my friends who speak of becoming technical writers. I'll be able to point at it and tell them, "Here is a good place for you to start."

The STC Body of Knowledge is in progress at - take a look, or contribute.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Reclaiming the boxes

A good friend just called me out - and properly so - for neglecting my audience (well, he said my blog) for so long.
I'm sorry.
Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned. I did not meet your expectation that I'd say something from time to time. I committed the writing sin of letting the material get stale. I demonstrated poor work habits by failing to treat this blog as work. Mea culpa. This is one time when it would have served me better to do a very 20th century thing: compartmentalize all the messy bits of my life.

Remember compartmentalization? It was the notion that you could chop up your life into chunks and put aside the bits you didn't want to think about at any given time. Remember what a bad reputation it had? Such an unhealthy thing to do - denying parts of your experience, your personal narrative. We're so much more emotionally healthy if we throw away all those little boxes that we use to compartmentalize our lives. And a lot of people did that.

You can identify the people who threw away the boxes, and don't approve of compartmentalization. The extreme cases are the ones at the next table over in your favorite restaurant, Having Issues (maybe even breaking up) in public; the ones in the office who are always on the phone, talking to friends about other friends, doing that thing we call "homing from work".

My office is in my house now. I was once skilled at compartmentalizing the parts of my life that don't need to come to work with me, but changing the way I work is changing the way I handle the rest of my life, too. I think I've still got the mental boxes for compartmentalizing my life; they've just gotten a bit muddled up. I work at home; does this go in the work box or the home box? It's easy to get sloppy.

Some things happened recently in my personal life, and rather than risk having them spill into the professional side of my life, I stopped blogging for a while, on the theory that it's just my blog and I can take a break if I want to. That wasn't a good way to deal with things. Old-school compartmentalizing would have served me better.

You'd think that after living through a couple decades of radical changes in people's assumptions about how we work and why we work and what we do for a living, I'd be better at adapting - but this isn't a matter of learning anything new; it's a matter of going back to what was considered good business etiquette a generation ago. Clothing styles from the '70s are back; maybe it's time to give retro work habits another look, too.