The other week I volunteered at a career fair at my daughter’s school. My oldest daughter is in 8th grade, and there were about 300 students who visited the various career booths in a gymnasium.
I had high hopes in stimulating students’ minds toward a career in technical writing. It became clear after the first 20 minutes, however, that technical writing was far from the interest of most students.
In fact, during the 2 hour career fair, only about 10 students stopped by my booth. Most of them weren’t specifically interested in technical writing but rather interested in technology in general, such as programming or engineering. A couple of students wanted to do creative writing.
Actually, several of the adults accompanying the students showed interest in technical writing. A dance choreographer, for example, explained that she needed to start doing technical writing. A teacher of two special-ed students stopped by my booth and wanted to know how to get into technical writing for herself.
Here’s what my technical writing booth looked like:
At first my pride was hurt when no one stopped by. I was a little deflated. Directly across from me, the “chef” reeled in students by the truckloads. They stopped by his booth and remained there for long stretches while he mesmerized them with his cooking and storytelling.
About the only thing I could hear him saying was how “on game days” he had to work 16 hour days, but that it meant “a lot of overtime pay.”
While the chef talked with students, he stirred together some kind of yogurt parfait that he gave them.
At the end of the career fair, I quickly packed up my materials and headed for the exit, ready to return to work. I was ready to return, honestly, to a career that I find kind of interesting and rewarding.
Why was it, then, that almost no students expressed any interest in a career in technical writing?
My 14-year-old daughter (who, as part of her yearbook/journalism class, wrote a story on the career fair event) explained that many of the students aren’t mature enough to really understand what technical writing is about.
A colleague at work later said students start to get interested in technical writing when they first begin making mortgage payments.
But I felt like there might be some other reasons to process. How is it I could be so engaged in a career that was so totally uninteresting to students?
I could hardly blame the students for their lack of interest. When I was a student, even in college, I didn’t want to become a technical writer. I thought it would be the most boring career in the world.
When I was in eighth grade, I wanted to become a staff writer at a magazine. Later I wanted to write books. Then I wanted to become an astro-physicist. At some point I wanted to be a geologist, and then an English professor.
In college I was a lot more engaged by literature. I loved reading good stories, especially the classics. I remember sitting on the back porch steps outside my dorm room reading Walt Whitman and reflecting on how awesome he was.
I haven’t read Whitman in a long time now.
Little by little, as I progressed in my technical writing career, that dreamy part of me was squeezed out, like wrenching a wet towel to drain it of all its moisture.
After my English BA, I postponed real life for another 3 years by getting an MFA in creative non-fiction. The last year before graduation, I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out what I would do to support my family, since I was already married and we had our first child.
Through some luck, I landed a job teaching writing at the American University in Cairo (because the university had an office in New York, where I was at). At first, teaching seemed ideal and adventurous (given the foreign location). But I soon learned that grading essays was about as fun as picking weeds on a hot day. It’s fun maybe the first hour, and then it just sucks. I mean it really, really is not fun. It’s actually destructive, having to continually justify and explain to others why their writing isn’t worthy of an A grade.
I realized that grading essays wasn’t something I wanted to do. I would rather be the writer than help others write, I reasoned. So after two years, I decided to get out of teaching and into professional writing.
After teaching, I took a job as a marketing copywriter at a health and nutrition company (BodyHealth) in Florida, where my family had moved. As a copywriter, I exhausted my creative energy trying to get people to buy protein pills they didn’t need.
I was earning $33k a year, with my savings dwindling fast. We were sinking financially. I knew something had to change.
I had a colleague back at the American University of Cairo who told me numerous times that I would be a perfect technical writer. He had done technical writing for corporations before, so he had some experience with it. I had always created websites to accompany my classes, so maybe this is what gave him the impression that I was technical.
For mostly monetary reasons, I turned to technical writing. Leveraging the detailed explanations of how protein worked as my writing samples, I landed a job at Raymond James Financial. After a while I found that, despite my preconceptions about how boring and lifeless technical writing would be, it wasn’t so bad after all.
In fact, I kind of liked it. I liked the tools aspect of it, and figuring things out. I liked that I didn’t exhaust so much creative energy throughout the day. I liked working in teams, with engineers and UX designers and project managers.
My first job at Raymond James paid only $40k/year (this was back in 2005). To make ends meet, I had to take a second job teaching English composition at ITT-Tech twice a week.
My salary at Raymond James jumped to $50k the following year, but when you’re the main breadwinner in a family (we had two children now), this still wasn’t quite enough.
I remember one day driving to my ITT-Tech class on a Friday evening and just banging on the steering wheel over and over about how stupid I was for majoring in English instead of something more financially sustainable. Why couldn’t I have been an engineer! How could I have been so naive! What was I doing sitting around reading Whitman in college! I should have been a *&%^%$#! accountant!
I climbed up the salary ladder pretty quickly in my technical writing career. Due to too much drug-related activity in the Florida neighborhood we were living in, we decided to move to Utah. I jumped up in salary to $80k through a contract job at a government facility in Dugway, Utah. I also learned to supplement my income by creating WordPress websites on the side.
We were making it okay (now with three kids). But somewhere in the transition from dreamy-eyed student to technical writer/family income provider, I lost something. I lost a certain sense of curiosity and magic about the world. Instead of reading Walt Whitman on the back porch steps of my dorm/house, I focused my spare time in doing more technical activities, such as learning WordPress or MadCap Flare or CSS.
In fact, today I almost never read fiction or write creatively anymore, apart from blogging.
At the time, I didn’t quite realize how I had changed. It was all so subtle, a slow process of realizing what has value in this world. No one cares if you can name all the stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Employers want to know if you have “technical depth.”
After my experience at the career fair, I tried to figure out if I had changed, or if the technical writing profession changed me.
Then I stumbled across this video about Alan Watts reflecting on the necessity of death, and it seemed to all make sense.
I’ve watched this video several times now. I’m convinced it explains what happened.
As a child/student, I was full of a sense of wonder. As I’ve grown up to be an adult / family provider, I’ve learned to see life through the lens of “survival and profit.” Instead of writing stories about ants marching along a windowsill in the middle of the night, wondering where they’re going, what they’re thinking, and somehow seeing myself in those marching ants, I use my spare time to further my career skills. I’m learning to become more technical because technical depth is the great resume safeguard.
I learn tools, techniques, and see resources online as a way to move forward in my career — fueling the needs of survival and profit to advance my career, earning enough income to survive and provide. I ensure financial and professional progress.
I have four children. They are beautiful daughters. Granted, they are sometimes annoying and hard to motivate. And yet, they have something that I have lost — the sense of wonder about the ordinary, the curiosity to ask new questions, the patience to explore the mundane.
For example, just the other day my four-year-old was playing with a potato bug in her hand all morning. My 10-year-old was cutting a hole in a new cardboard box and pretending to be a robot with it, and then a turtle. My 14-year-old is writing stories in the first-person about being an assassin. And I am learning cURL and Java.
My transformation into someone focused on survival and profit isn’t so much a consequence of a career in technical writing as much as simply becoming an adult in life.
I fear the older I become, the less wonder I will see in everything. I am trending toward the grumpy old man who has “been there, done that,” “seen everything,” “lived everywhere,” and has an opinion about everything. You can’t change his mind. His views have been calcified by years of “experience” and “learning.” Sometimes I would like to unlearn everything.
I’m not sure how to re-direct my life so that I’m not always focused on survival and profit. I admit that while some motivation for increasing my technical depth is tied up in my career, I’m also fascinated by code and technology.
At the very least, I hope this blog can provide a means of asking questions, exploring thoughts and experiences (like this one at the career fair), narrating stories, and recapturing a sense of the dreamy-eyed naivete that I once had.
As long as my posts don’t always take on a “how-to” or explanatory format, but instead shape themselves as Montaignesque essays (trials or attempts), then I think I have a chance.
When I am old, I hope to hold a potato bug in my hand and let it walk from edge to edge as I wonder in amazement at its finely fitting armor, its seemingly simplistic survival mechanism of curling into a ball yet how well that simple mechanism has allowed it to live. I want to sit on my back porch and read Walt Whitman and not feel like I’m wasting my time.
It’s okay that you didn’t come to my technical writing booth, students. You may not come to this booth until many years down the road, when you grow up and realize the financial realities of life leave you with little time for “frivolous play.” But when you do become that adult, with survival and profit ingrained in your mind, try not to lose the dreamy-eyed perspective you have now.
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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.