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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Technical Writing: No Room for Egos

When you are a technical writer or you want to be one, the first rule is this: It's not about you! But if you balk at this, you'll be sorely disappointed. And honestly, technical writing isn't for you.

Not All Writers Are Equal

Technical writing is a writing role where you are there to serve others. You are not writing something that emanates from your muse or your inner author. If you want to do this, then move on to creative writing. No slight at authors. I have great respect for some authors. I enjoy their works and learn from them. They can craft masterpieces, which is something I don't think I can do. My hat goes off to them. But these authors, as far as I know, are not technical writers. They do their thing. I do mine. We are just different. There's no comparison. As writers, we just have our own place in this world.

Writing For Others

As a technical writer, you are documenting something for another person.  It's about using your writing abilities to help them. You put your desires and agendas aside for your audience.

One of the first steps to writing a document is understanding who is your audience. Knowing your audience is the foundation in technical writing. If you don't serve your audience well or don't care at all, then the document will reflect that. Technical writing wouldn't exist if we had no audience to serve.

As a technical writer, you get no credit from the audience or even from the organization you are writing for. Almost always, there's no byline. You are basically a ghostwriter for the organization who wants to reach out to their audience. You do the work and they get the credit. That's how it is. Is it unfair? Yes. But remember: It's not about you!

I'll get into this more later on.

This Reluctant Calling Changed My Thinking

But first, I have a confession: I hated the idea of being a technical writer. Many years ago, I tried my hand as a journalist. I was told numerous times by editors journalism wasn't for me. They said I would be better suited as a technical writer because I wrote in a dry and matter-of-fact prose.  When I heard this, I was insulted. But this "insult" made me take a look into the mirror as to why I was writing in the first place. Unfortunately, I was writing for the wrong motives. I wanted my name out there and wanted to glorify myself. But God had other plans. After my fruitless pursuit in journalism, I reluctantly went into technical writing and the rest is history.

It used to bother me that I didn't see my name on a user manual or a brochure. It wasn't until I realized technical writing wasn't about me. It's about others. When I realized I wanted to help others through my writing, I was able to fully embrace this, quite frankly, weird form of writing.

Wear This Freakish Badge with Honor

Authors, such as Kurt Vonnegut, had keen insight about technical writers. Vonnegut aptly describes this strange form of writing:

"... technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to the reader."

Though you don't reveal anything about yourself when you write, you use your writing to impact countless lives. You help those you may never meet by showing them or how to do something or informing about them some vital (maybe life saving) information. You may never know who you helped but you've helped them nonetheless. So wear this freakish badge with honor. And, stay humble as you write along.

Abandon Greatness and Seek a Servant's Heart

This may be contrarian when I say this: But to be a good technical writer, you must abandon any hopes of greatness. Rather, seek a servant's heart. Greatness and technical writing don't go together. When I mean by greatness, I don't mean great work. You should definitely strive to write a document well. What I mean by greatness is the potential prestige and fame like of a best-selling author or some well-known journalist. Sorry, it just doesn't happen with technical writing.

Technical writing is neither prestigious nor great. It's hard work where you get no substantial recognition for it. Others, like the big-wigs, get the credit or the fame while we remain in the shadows, faceless with our heads down typing away. And that's okay, let them bask in the glory. (Besides, if something goes wrong, they will get the brunt of the dissatisfaction.)

We are simply here to serve others. But don't forget: If you do this well, your writing has lasting, helpful effects on others more than the fleeting praises of fame and momentary pats on the back.

So which is better? Knowing you made a difference somewhere to help someone (maybe even saved someone's life) or hoping to get recognition and fame from others.

Knowing human nature, why would anyone want to fall prey to the Sirens called Fame, Recognition, and Prestige. One moment, the people sing you praise, heartily pat you on the back, and place you on a pedestal. The next moment, when you're enchanted with their song, they wedge a sharp, ugly blade deep into your back, twist it, and break it off at the hilt, and howl for your downfall. Then, proceed to slap you off your pedestal, where you fall to the ground and shatter into pieces. Then for the big finish, they jump on the shattered bits till you're nothing but powder.

I'd rather seek a servant's heart. For myself, I know God sees this and others get help they need, even though I rarely get a thank you for it. It gives me satisfaction I helped somebody, even if they don't know who I am. And if they saw me, they may say who's this schlub but that's okay. It's not about me. So, let me leave you with a snippet from the Gospel of Luke about how this world has it upside down.

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  But he [Jesus] said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves."  — Luke 22:24-27 NRSV

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