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The Question No One Asked Me at the Career Advice Panel, Thank Goodness

Apr 1, 2008 • general

Tonight I participated on a career panel for technical writing majors at Utah State University. In preparation, I tried to think of answers to questions they might ask. The one question that I was sure some student would ask is this:

If you were to do it over again, would you choose technical writing as your career?

I started reading through some back posts on my site, particularly this one -- Is Technical Writing Boring? There's some thought-provoking discussion in the comments section of that post, particularly this comment by roGER. If you were starting college all over, a freshman, would you choose technical writing?

Despite my desire to say Yes, of course, a career in technical writing is awesome. To be honest, I'd probably become a lawyer or web designer instead. And here's why. Although I absolutely love technology and writing, which seems like it would make technical writing a perfect fit, I often feel that technical writing is limiting. How far exactly can I go as a technical writer? Will I still be writing help manuals when I'm 65?

I remember asking my Dad, who also majored in English and then worked for the government, if he would pursue the same route if starting over. He quickly said that he would do something else, such as oceanography. The more I think about it, I too would probably enjoy a career in oceanography -- scuba diving at the bottom of deep oceans, gliding past exotic fish, sunken ships, exploring strange ocean floors. (My idea of an oceanographer probably has little to do with reality.)

Despite what we see on the Discovery Channel, or on law or medical TV dramas, all glamorous careers really turn out to be somewhat boring. Even astronauts spend 90% of their day in boring meetings.

As I was leaving the career panel tonight, I asked some students what they thought of the panel. A couple of students said they enjoyed the enthusiasm of all the panelists. Apparently last year the panelists had a more grim perspective about technical writing, and many encouraged the students to pursue other careers.

So what attracts you to technical writing? I asked several students. They like the web, and design, and writing, for the most part. They're also realists about jobs after graduation.

One student wanted to know how he could express his creativity in technical writing. I said most of the exciting things are happening on the web. I would love to have a product blog for what I document. And do video as well. Along with a lively wiki or forum. That would be fun -- and creative.

But back to the question -- Would you do something different if starting all over? I think I would always do something different, no matter what field I originally chose. Because if not, it's like walking the same path twice. I always want to see another route. Try something different. Like ordering food at a restaurant. If you could go there again the next night, would you order the exact same food? Probably not.

But while I mentioned law and oceanography, I doubt I'd actually like those fields. I like writing, and technology. I absolutely love the web, and I'm fond of audio. Powerful writers have a strong influence on me. And writing is my strength, not accounting or nursing or, heaven forbid, something like politics. There's no way I would go into any of that.

If starting again in college, I would probably be drawn to English, but double-major in graphic design or multimedia. And following these paths, I would probably end up .... doing technical writing or instructional design.

Still, I don't plan to always be a technical writer. I guess ultimately I'd like to be a professional blogger or podcaster, or web designer. Something inventive and hybrid. Something that allows me to create something a little more exciting. In some ways, this blog is my lifeline.

Post note: At the panel, I met someone who actually uses DITA for everything, from tech docs to marketing materials, and she loves it. I'll be doing a podcast with her in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

Photo by MikeBaird.

Bonus: Take my 2 question survey about your answer to this post's question.


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.