Writing My Last Chapter

Writing My Last ChapterI was talking with my wife’s uncle last week about writing strategies for fiction, and whether it’s better to outline everything ahead of time, or figure it out as you go. The former is apparently called a “plotter” method and the latter a “pantser” method (called pantser because you fly by the seat of your pants).

He said there’s no right way, but if you’re planning to figure it out as you go, it’s still a good idea to write your last chapter ahead of time. This way you know generally where you want to end up. If you don’t know how your novel is going to end, he said, you often wander around and eventually end your novel in fanciful/unbelievable way. Further, pantsers often lose motivation because they don’t know the point or meaning of their story.

Last week I set out to write the last chapter of my novel. It was tough and I only half-way completed it. Later, I realized there’s another last chapter I should write ahead of time: the last chapter of my professional career. Knowing the last chapter of my professional career might help me understand where I’m going, provide more meaning for the journey, and help align all of my activities toward that end.

I thought about what my last professional chapter might be. Here are some possible last chapters to my technical writing career (not projected until the year 2041 or so):

  • Scenario 1: I create the perfect help system, one in which users understand and use the help material without even realizing they’re using help. Both young and old, tech savvy and tech novice learn the system without any trouble at all. Everything just seems so easy. When users have a question, they start typing and immediately see their answer in instant results, every time. It’s almost uncanny how their very question seems anticipated, already answered, before they even finish typing their sentence.
  • Scenario 2: I write blog posts with such captivating stories that they get retweeted hundreds of times with thousands of comments from engaged readers. The posts ignite so much interest in the products that they overwhelm the IT group with new users signing up. Others in the company wonder how I do it, how I find the story when there doesn’t seem to be any, how I add details here and there to bring it out, to heighten the interest with such minimal strokes. The posts pull in readers entirely, overpowering them with an inability to disengage from the story.
  • Scenario 3: As owner of my own company, I work in a little office in Argentina writing virtually for a large multinational company. In the evenings my wife and I explore new areas of the city. We move from one country to the next every year. From Argentina to India, then Italy, France, Mongolia, China — anywhere there’s an Internet connection.
  • Scenario 4: I create a series of video tutorials that have such an engaging voice and dynamic delivery that users watching them are entertained and edified at the same time. It’s like watching a movie in which I’m the star actor, giving an award-winning performance. My performance comes naturally, without a script. Words and sentences align perfectly in my mind, and I have become so articulate that even Stephen Fry sounds dull in comparison.
  • Scenario 5: My wife becomes a lawyer and I decide to stay at home, writing my novel. It becomes fantastically successful and thousands of fans line up for a book signings. I spend 4-5 hours writing, several more hours reading. I cook dinner for my wife who gets home each night, completely engaged in her high profile career.
  • Scenario 6: My career just fades into the background. I’m sitting down at home around the dinner table with my four grown-up girls. They’re all stunning and beautiful in their own way, intelligent, full of life. They’re talking about their husbands and houses, their careers, children, and projects. We have a lovely dinner conversation as we laugh and talk for hours. We never talk about my work.

All of these scenarios are pretty weak. Scenario 1 is boring. Scenario 2 is more appealing but not ultimately fulfilling. Scenario 3 sounds fun but somewhat empty. Scenario 4 isn’t really what I want because it doesn’t involve writing. Scenario 5 is dreamy but somewhat cliche. Scenario 6 would be great, but it’s not very ambitious career-wise.

Maybe there isn’t a exciting climax to a career in technical communication. Perhaps each day is filled with its ups and downs, temporary enjoyment and occasional disappointment. After years of doing the same, you fall into a groove, a sustainable rhythm. Then it just kind of fades away, like a firework shot up into the air, climbing for a while, letting off a few sparks, but then descending, without any big explosion of light and color.

Although I value formats such as video tutorials and quick reference guide layouts, writing is my favorite activity. I guess I hope that, whatever the last chapter, I can focus on writing and take it to a level that I’ve never reached before. I know writing receives some of the least attention and value in our field. Compared to screencasts, illustrations, attractive quick reference guides, and XML, writing seems like something on par with a long e-mail from a least favorite relative.

So why place value in writing? The skill has become a commodity, right? Even if the cliche “anyone can write” isn’t true, that doesn’t mean the perception isn’t.

This is an issue I’ve wrestled with, and the only conclusion I come to is that “writing,” as people define it today, isn’t how I’m defining it. At its essence, writing is thinking. If the thinking has already been done, the act of articulating the thought is merely typing. When people disdain writing as a skill anyone possesses, they’re really talking about typing, or grammar and style. What I like about writing is the ability to explore ideas and to articulate them in fresh ways.

I also like writing’s ability to tell stories — stories that define and shape how we think and act. The most influential works throughout history, from literary texts to religious texts, have been nothing but words, sentences shaped into stories. They haven’t been screencasts or quick reference guides. Even art, the most probable contender, hasn’t shaped society in the same way as writing. It’s the stories and ideas — expressed through words — that matter most.

So despite the low value, despite the fact that fewer and fewer employers are placing value in it, my last chapter will involve writing.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

12 thoughts on “Writing My Last Chapter

  1. Patty Blount

    Great post, Tom! I hope you get to see your dream come true… Scenario 6? Nah… I’d miss you. I hope you find a way to balance tech writing and fiction writing. I love them both and couldn’t possibly choose.

    FYI, I can’t write a novel until I know the ending. I must have a vision of the story’s ending in mind or I write myself into corners where escape is only possible by throwing out every word and starting over. I also outline my novels… I believe that’s a tech writing thing. I’m used to writing to a plan so it works for me.

    I loved the point you made that when people say ‘everyone can write,’ they mean the nuts and bolts stuff. That’s been a thorn in my side for most of my career… that disdain that what I do ain’t so special. I feel I must continually justify my existence when the truth is, very few people can deliver a high quality piece of technical information. Maybe I’m biased, but when I see the content non-writers produce, I want to cry. My favorite argument? It’s vs. its. “But Microsoft Word squiggled it!” *sighs*

    Technological advances only compound the situation – not only does everyone think they can write, everyone now has the tools to do so.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Patty, I’m glad to read your comments, knowing that you’re into both fiction and technical writing.

      You wrote, “I hope you find a way to balance tech writing and fiction writing.” This past week I was trying to figure out this balance. Then I realized that my dilemma was somewhat ridiculous. If we look at the Renaissance artists, they balanced about half a dozen different talents — painting, sculpture, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and more. Fiction and technical writing are just two different types of writing — the medium is still the same.

      My goal is to write — choosing whatever format I’m in the mood for. When the novel gets boring, I switch to the blog. When the blog gets boring, I switch to the novel. Maybe this is an easy way to procrastinate hurdles and other roadblocks, but I think it’s completely feasible to do both technical writing and fiction writing.

      By the way, have you published any of your books?

  2. Larry Kunz

    I love the way your mind works, Tom: going from writing the last chapter of a novel to writing the last chapter of your professional career. After you laid out the six scenarios, however, I sensed that you felt something was missing. That “something” might be the feeling of satisfaction that we all want to have when we look back on our careers.

    It’s not enough to say that you designed the perfect help system and went out on that high note. The no-more-worlds-to-conquer thing can actually leave us feeling empty. Besides, in real life how many of us get to be Robert Redford in The Natural, hitting the winning home run and trotting off the field as the screen fades to black?

    Like you, I think that my last chapter will involve writing. Besides that, though, I don’t think the exact circumstances will matter too much. My dream is that I’ll look back with the satisfaction of knowing that I played a part in moving the tech comm profession forward, that I had a positive and lasting effect on my colleagues, and that what I created brought value to customers and clients.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks for commenting, Larry. “My dream is that I’ll look back with the satisfaction of knowing that I played a part in moving the tech comm profession forward.” I’ve been reflecting on your comment. That’s a worthy goal. I think the conversation you start and foster in the tech comm blogosphere, as well as your involvement in the STC, is definitely achieving this goal. Moving forward with undeniable progress — without knowing the end goal — is probably more realistic than guessing the end, as I try to do in this post.

  3. Chris Ninkovich

    Tom,

    I’ve read almost every article you’ve posted on this blog, and I have to say, this one is my favourite.

    Wow! Very nicely done.

  4. Richard Schnur

    Great article. One of you best.

    I think the idea of writing as thinking is liberating.

    I realized when I read your defining it that way that I am the same way. I write to explore, to clarify, to understand. Sharing is almost always a secondary consideration.

    It is only since I’ve started blogging that writing feels more of a chore than before because by sharing what i write publicly I need to be more precise about starting, ending, structure, grammar and stuff. For personal consumption all that is fine if left unwritten and in my head.

    It is the thinking and then the sharing that is importnat.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Richard, thanks for commenting. Re blogging being a chore because the writing is public, as long as you keep the momentum in the exploratory angle, you’ll find it profitable. Sure, it’s sometimes a chore to proofread your post half a dozen times before publishing, but that’s a part of writing. It’s not my favorite part, but generating content from nothing also requires a lot of energy.

  5. Mark N.

    For what it’s worth, I watched the “special features” section of my “Casablanca” DVD last night, and the ending to that movie was a “pantser”. The writers (brothers, if I’m not mistaken) one day looked at each other and simultaneously came up with Bogart’s “beautiful friendship” line, and after that, they knew where to take the story. (This would appear to conflict with information found in the trivia section at imdb.com.)

  6. Aneesha

    I love scenario 5 – in my case I would replace “wife” with “hubby.”

    I am from the same school of thought that a writer is meant to write and write, and write … like the energizer bunny; just going on, and on, and on. Accolades, satisfaction, money, prestige, all fall in to place.

    I have always wanted to foray in the world of creative writing full-time. I even have “a nearly there” novel manuscript, and at least three ideas lined up for fiction-based work , but I don’t have the time, with a full time technical writing/management job, a two-year old, and a hubby who loves home-cooked food.

    So, now you know why I find Scenario 5 so alluring. But on a more practical note, I wish that all writers find their ultimate heaven in writing! Good luck for all your writing endeavors.

    PS – I used the plotter method for my fiction manuscript. It definitely helps to know what you want to write, so that you can pick up the strings from wherever and whenever you have to leave in-between.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Aneesha, thanks for your comment on this post about writing. I seem to fluctuate a lot with my fiction interests. I wrote about 20 chapters for a YA novel during the time I wrote that post, but now I’ve come back to writing about tech comm on this blog. I’ve found that, ultimately, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction isn’t that important. It’s more important to just write, and the benefit is entirely for myself rather than for anyone else. But I’m sure everyone’s situation is unique.

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