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Three questions people ask me each week

Jul 1, 2015 • beginners, creativity

About once a week I get the following three questions. It would be nice to see some more variety.

Question 1

The first question goes something like this:

Hi Tom, I found your blog and really like the content. I'm currently a ________ with a degree in _______. I've been working for the past few years doing ________. However, I really dislike my job. I realized that it involves _______ and _________ all day long.

I'm thinking of transitioning into a technical writing career. I like to write, and I scored high grades in all my writing classes. Can you give me any advice? How can I get a job in technical writing? Is there a particular city where there are lots of technical writing jobs? Thanks so much.

I think a lot of people start thinking about technical writing careers when several things happen:

  • They realize their career in chemistry is boring as watching golf.
  • The career in astrophysics involves insanely difficult math.
  • They know they won’t make enough money to survive by writing creatively.

I never quite know what to say to people who ask this question. I usually say, yeah, tech writing is a great career. If you like to write and solve problems, you’ll be a good fit. Just create a compelling portfolio of writing samples and move to a tech hub. Blah blah blah.

But I can’t predict the future or really know if tech writing is a suitable career for them. To change things up, I might start sending people who ask this question to Keith Hood’s guest post, The Raw, Unvarnished Truth About Technical Writing or to Neil Kaplan’s The Death of Technical Writing, Part 1.

I will beg and plead with them not to become trapped in a meaningless and demoralizing career in technical writing like me. Stay away, take another path. This road be a hot dry desert of nothingness. Then I’ll say, Just kidding! Tech writing is a lot of fun. I just say this for job security reasons.

Question 2

The second most common question I receive is this one:

Hi Tom. I have this assignment where I’m supposed to contact a professional technical writer and ask them some questions. So since I googled technical writer and your name came up, I’m going to ask you to spend about 30 minutes replying to me with answers to some questions I thought up in about two seconds.

Here are the questions:

  • What is a typical day like as a technical writer?
  • What background and skills do you need?
  • How can I best prepare for a career in technical writing?
  • What are your biggest challenges as a technical writer?
  • What fields in technical writing are the most popular?

Thanks, please respond with answers before 5pm tomorrow as my assignment is due then. thanks.

About five years ago, I used to actually respond to these questions (see the Beginners category). Then I started pushing them out to my colleagues and invited them to respond. A lot of times my colleagues wrote really detailed responses, writing more than 1,5000 to 3,000 words sometimes.

Then I stopped responding and just recommended to students that they post a tweet to #techcomm with their questions, or join the techwhir-l listserv and ask someone there.

I would like to take a moment to let all academic professors of tech comm know how much I hate getting these assignment emails. At some point, I’ll probably point students to boilerplate questions and responses that they can simply copy and paste without contacting me in the first place.

I’ve longed to find a way to get back at academics for this, but I’m never quite sure how. The problem is that I don’t have a following of minions to direct at them with annoying questions.

The next student who approaches me with these questions, maybe I’ll ask for their teacher’s email and create a meme of like-minded questions directed at the teacher:

  • What is a typical day like as a professor in technical writing?
  • What background and skills do you need to succeed in the ivory tower?
  • How can I best prepare for a long, hard career in academia?
  • What are your biggest and most [petty] challenges as a teacher technical writing?
  • What courses in tech comm are the most “popular”?

I hope you can detect my subtle sarcasm in the questions — subtle but not enough to outright reveal my real attitude.

Question 3

The third question is the most annoying of them all. I usually only hear this question at conferences when I interact with people in person. The question goes like this:

I don’t know how you find so much time to write. How do you manage to do it all? You even do podcasts as well!

This question is one that I think should be enshrined as a writer’s “conundrum.” How is it that someone who works as a professional writer finds time to write creatively? That’s the nice way of putting it. But the conundrum is why this is even a question in the first place.

Perhaps the question is really a masked euphemism. The real question is probably this one:

I don’t know why you waste so much time blogging. Seems like you might have something better to do with your life. Damn that’s a lot of time. Seems like I’m seeing 2, maybe 3 posts a week from you. It’s like, here we go again. Someone is bored.

At least that question I could understand. It kind of makes sense, and I’ve asked it myself a few times.

But let’s return to the first, more positive version. Why would a writer want to write? Hmmm. Great question. It’s like if someone worked in a fishing store, and you discovered that the person also liked to fish in their spare time. That would blow my mind.

If you know my background, you know I majored in English and earned an MFA in nonfiction creative writing. I wanted to be a writer, more or less. I think many tech writers share similar Humanities backgrounds.

Well, I’m going to share the dirty little secret. Your brain has various modes. At work, when you’re documenting something complicated, you’re in exposition mode. In this mode, writing is painstaking and slow. You have to eek out every sentence after making various tests, trying different inputs, asking questions to engineers, reading complicated specs, and so on.

But blogging runs on the creative side of your brain. I’m having fun writing this post. It’s a chance to unwind and process my thoughts, write about my experiences, and even play a bit.

It’s kind of like switching between running and biking. You use different muscles. You couldn’t run all day, nor could you bike all day. But switching periodically between the two works great because you use different muscles.

Well, even if that’s not a strong argument, you’re a writer, for goodness sake. You enjoy writing or you would have never gotten into tech comm. Don’t you have a creative outlet for your writing muse? Or has your muse left the building long ago?

The great irony of my career is that a writer stands out in a crowd of writers by writing on a blog. Who would have thought…

A Plea for More Interesting Questions

If you contact me, please send me more interesting questions. Beyond these three questions, the other questions I receive are either recruiters pitching a job, or the emails are spam from comments. I would really like some thought-provoking, original, deeply contemplative, and even paradoxical questions.

Here are a few examples:

  • Dear Tom, there’s an engineer at my work who I swear is either mentally slow or insanely brilliant. I can’t tell which. Please help me devise a test to figure it out.
  • Dear Tom, is there a secret underlying all successful documentation? You know, something like, if you follow this one principle, everything else aligns into place? Is there a universal theory that explains all good doc?
  • Dear Tom, while reading one of your posts, I had a daydream where your head was attached to a tiger’s body, and you were tearing through a forest while riding on the back of a unicorn. I have no idea what this means. Can you help interpret it for me?
  • Dear Tom, I’m deeply disturbed by people who insist on omitting the Oxford comma. I do not understand how their brain can even function. At the same time, I’m looking for ways to merge Marketing with Tech Comm, so this has become a real stumbling block, since Marketing dictates no Oxford commas as per their style guide. Help??? Also, how is this dilemma tied to Oxford in the first place?
  • Dear Tom, it seems that you switch authoring tools every other week. One month you’re using Flare, and then Mediawiki, and then DITA, and now Jekyll. I’ve been using Framemaker to create PDFs for the past 18 years at the same job. I’m thinking of upgrading versions of Framemaker, but I’m not sure. Can you suggest whether the upgrade is a good idea?
  • Dear Tom, I’m from another country so English is not my first language, but having received high marks on my grade school writing assignments, I feel the career of Technical Communicator is about to embark upon me. I want to locate a high-paying Technical Writing job in United States, but do I need to secure a Visa to work there? Might I impose upon you to sponsor me as a live-in assistant for all your technical writing needs?
  • Dear Tom, I have developed a fitbit wristband for writers that measures the number of words typed based on movements of the wrist. It is highly accurate to within 100 words of the total character count. Do you think this product would have wide appeal in the creative market, even for technical writers to measure metrics? Can I send you a test product?

Well, hopefully you get the idea by now. Feel free to stray outside the box with your questions.


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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.