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Fight and Flight: The Strange Comfort of Academic Rigor and the Strange(r) Unknown of Technical Communication

By Aaron Dawson

Resisting the Siren Song

I have paid my dues interning here and there, presenting at conferences, meeting foreign language requirements, jumping at the most benign copyediting opportunities just to get some skin in the game. I wanted the life of a technical writer and I worked hard to get it. So when settling into a NASDAQ-traded global payments company as an information developer, I should have been over the moon, right?

As much as I enjoyed being rewarded for my studiousness, something was amiss. I struggled to discern if the voice calling me back to student life was the sweet song of nostalgia or a wakeup call reminding me that change, while uncomfortable, can be good.

As vessels and compilers of new knowledge, technical writers take especially well to tutelage. But how can we meet the call of independent education and self-enrichment after the motivation to do so may no longer be in our best interest?

Fortunately, there’s a solution: By indulging the stimulus to learn for learning’s sake, we can take our tech writing skills to the next level while scratching the itch of constant edification and self-betterment that continues to linger after formal education ends. Here are some thoughts on scratching that itch.

The Technical Writer as a Lifelong Learner

The statement that technical writers are lifelong learners may be a sweeping generalization, but one hallmark of the technical writer is the celebration of constant edification. Rather than a penchant for the one-note idea, we find depth in the farthest reaches of our wheelhouses. The flavors of knowledge apt to appeal to us are many—for example, the complex worlds of solar panels or digital gaming or petroleum engineering. We share the same neurons that reward the curiosity of intricacy, of inner-work, of under-the-hood beauty.

What better place for a technical writer to feel at home than academia, where the modus operandi is pure intellectual enrichment? As a species which thrives on the curation of knowledge across many disciplines, the fish of the budding technical writer takes to its water.

And it’s here that the siren song of the academy can lull as it insulates us. Due to its premeditated scholastic plan, life is more or less charted. The likelihood of decision-fatigue is low. You are armed with the wits of theory among only flirtations of practice. In the meantime, you’re exercising your brain and acquiring new ways to critically examine your surroundings. What could be better?

As rewarding as intellectual heavy-lifting is, at some point, the tassel is positioned to the left side of the cap. We trade in the safe, structured comfort of the academy for the unknown and volatility of the industry.

This trade, though, can feel like going home with your first used car. When transitioning from student life to professional life, opportunities to learn for the sheer sake of learning seize up. How do we jumpstart the process of defining our professional selves outside of erudition? How can we begin to separate ourselves from an identity so tethered to the practice of synthesizing scholastic information?

The Need for a Sustainable Practice

Being a lifelong learner, or at least an individual who values education, presents a challenge to the workaday routine. The acquisition of new knowledge feels as necessary as a morning cup of coffee. I suspect for many of us, leisure reading has historically filled this role.

Many of us love curling up with a great book, but it’s unlikely that the power of fiction or nonfiction will scratch the itch that motivates enrichment and learning. We like challenges without finish lines—language acquisition, gardening, and music performance come to mind. What is more limitless than the journey to sustain that moment when, like a melody you’ve heard somewhere before but can’t quite place, you encounter in a book a truth you’ve always tried to privately acknowledge, yet haven’t been able to shape on your own?

We need to replace the impermanence of these moments with a sustainable practice. A practice that rewards building on an established base of knowledge. The marriage of professional knowledge and personal self-enrichment will look different for everyone, but there are commonalities:

  • It’s transferable. It gives new meaning to work-life balance. By performing this knowledge on the job, you actively upend the definition of work due to the residual rush of its self-betterment.
  • It participates in or identifies with a rising industrial trend. “Trend” doesn’t have to be a vulgar word. Our industry is unlike others with regard to pace (fashion and social networks, most notably). Trends, or patterns in the technology that we use to produce user assistance, can develop at a manageable pace while inferior tools are eliminated via a kind of Tech Darwinism.

The cross-pollination of self-betterment and professional development will be especially helpful for those of us whose institutions of learning are not too far in the past. But technical communicators at any level can port this practice into their own approach to acquiring new information.

You’ll find many education and enrichment opportunities that share the above criteria, but the following are a few to get you started.

1. Markup as a means to empathy.

Even if you’re not actively using HTML and CSS to develop your user assistance (UA), having a familiarity with markup is still helpful. Authoring structured content often involves working with tools whose syntax resembles HTML. This is certainly true of DITA, a markup language many technical communicators use to author their content.

Most importantly, though, possessing a background in markup enables you to shift perspective when you find that the capacity for empathy would strengthen your ability to collaborate, namely with developers. Positioning yourself to value information like developers do—black and white, task-oriented, syntactically immaculate—affords you the opportunity to acquire an entirely fresh angle regarding UA design, how its content is hierarchized, and how well that UA appeals to the audience.

In other words, learning a markup language, while enjoyable and challenging in its own right, furnishes a richer and deeper understanding to the content that you’re producing. And that’s never a bad thing.

2. Telling stories to ourselves, telling stories to others.

While perusing LinkedIn recently, I noticed a pattern. Many connections listed “Storyteller” as the role they filled for their organization. Storytelling is certainly trending, but how is storytelling being used in the workplace?

I chalked this pattern up to runoff from what has made podcasts so popular in the past decade. Programs like The Moth and Risk! collect stories based on a theme and capture the performance of those stories, which are sometimes loosely improvised, as told to a live audience. With storytelling groups popping up all over cities in the United States, we have access to a new medium that packages the human experience in diverse voices on a massive scale.

At storyteller meetings and events, you play language-oriented improvisation games, present stories based on a theme, and offer feedback if a storyteller invites it. We can certainly check the self-enrichment box here, but how can we benefit from storytelling in a way that extends to our professional lives?

Some of us may believe that extemporaneous performance belongs strictly to the arts (free jazz, ballet, comedy). But thinking on your feet is the calling card of an exemplary problem solver. In addition to improving your agility in the throes of complexity, grounding your headspace through a narrative lens can appeal especially to technical communicators who use user stories to connect with their audience.

We learn early on that in the industry of technical communication, audience is the name of the game. Whether you’re using personas, user stories, or doing user research to connect with your audience, foregrounding the user’s experience as a story—with traditional narrative elements like a beginning, middle, and end—bring a holistic dynamic to connecting us with our audience.

3. Nuance instead of the new thing.

For many of us, there’s a tendency to immediately advance to another challenge on the heels of competency with a new skill (a piece of software, for example). This disposition perhaps has its origin in the bullet-list culture of which the résumé genre reigns supreme. This tendency is natural. The logic and culture of our industry motivates us to stay relevant with the tools our peers use to create UA. Participating in discussions predicated on the fluency with which you can discuss a specific skill can create a sense of community and dialogue among fellow technical communicators, which helps identify what needs our audiences share.

The problem is that within this feedback loop (the loop of achieving competency and then moving on to the next challenge, and repeat), there’s no satiation. Even if the no-finish-line appeal of competency with coding languages, database management, API writing, and other relevant skills tempts us, we will always run the risk of burning out. No matter how inherently gifted we are or how quickly our minds adapt to new information, there’s always another skill gap to fill.

Escape from the loop comes when we embrace the idea that testing out and moving on is a rabbit hole. Digging in and finessing our newfound skill guarantees a thoroughness and understanding which will be more readily transferable and ingrained than simply grasping the basics and moving on.

Nuance is an odd confluence of professional development and self-enrichment because it’s less concrete than learning DITA or developing a practiced yet improvisatory approach to problem solving. But insofar as these other skills are a means to an end, prioritizing nuance is independent of any means. Being an effective technical communicator is less about the skills under your belt (or bullet-listed on a document) and more about your ability to evolve and adapt, to collaborate, and to think dynamically through challenges.

Conclusion

Throughout this article, I’ve bracketed professional development and the drive to consistently enrich our intellectual lives with something other than labor. However gratifying, this drive to learn can be a kind of work itself. Just because this drive seems encoded in our chemical makeup doesn’t mean that fostering it is a walk in the park.

Two of the items above seek to strengthen the capacity for empathy. This is difficult because the recipient of our empathy, like a developer, can operate on another continent. Alternatively, the persona as a recipient of our empathy is a difficult target because non-existence is the reason for their abstraction in the first place. The other item, nuance over just competency, functions as a rude hand gesture to the performance-driven instinct that encourages us to, like a horde of locusts, devour most of a piece of content and, afterward, move on to the next thing.

Fighting this instinct can feel like fighting the essence of our work ethic, our own code of production.

R. AARON DAWSON (aarondawson.work@gmail.com) is a technical writer based in Charlotte, NC. They read a lot of music journalism, drink very dark coffee, and often delete space on their phones to make more space for even more podcasts.

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