Why I'm So Visible
The other week I was in Atlanta preparing for a keynote address at Currents when my host, Chris Snider, asked me what question I'm most afraid people will ask. Although I didn't say it at the time, the question I fear most is this: "Exactly how long have you been a technical writer?"
About five and a half years, that's all. I graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in English in 1999, earned an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University School of the Arts in 2002, taught writing courses at The American University in Cairo until May 2004, worked as a copywriter for six months, and then started as a technical writer at the beginning of 2005.
Despite my short duration in the field of technical writing, I have already given nearly 40 presentations at various conferences, chapter meetings, and webinars. It amazes me that I am so frequently asked to present.
I attribute my notoriety almost entirely to my blog and podcast, which has given me more visibility than I ever wanted. Being so visible, I'm sure that when people sit down in committees to brainstorm speakers, my name floats to the top. It all comes back to the blog.
As I've written previously, I don't blog to market and promote myself. I blog because I like to write (remember I have an MFA in literary nonfiction). I've simply chosen the blog as my creative outlet.
Since I studied literary nonfiction, you might wonder why I don't choose more creative topics? Personal essays are my favorite genre, and a good blog post is usually not too different from an engaging personal essay. But why focus on tech comm?
I had an experience in grad school that grounded my ideas about focus. I took a class from Lawrence Weschler, a well-known creative journalist. Weschler always grew frustrated when students would write memoirs that consisted entirely of personal experiences.
Why so many students focused on memoir was no mystery. We had to generate a lot of material in grad school. Just about every week we had to present dozens of pages of material for review. Exactly where would this material come from?
Without a professional research topic, a lot of us defaulted to writing about our past experiences. Having spent two years in Venezuela as a Mormon missionary, I wrote an essay about my missionary experience. Immediately all my peers told me that this was "my topic" and encouraged me to write more about it. I eventually expanded that initial essay into a series of missionary essays. I worked on other literary essays too, but the missionary essays became my main focus.
When I looked for a publisher, I realized that I shouldn't have chosen this topic at all. When you write about religion, specifically the LDS religion, you're bound to either the bore non-LDS readers or offend LDS readers. And there was no substance other than personal experience in my writing. So I never could publish it.
I thought back to my class with Weschler. He was right -- I shouldn't have focused on memoir at all. I should have focused on a topic outside of myself. This is partly why I don't mind expending energy to write about topics in technical communication. Tech comm may not be something I lie awake at night thinking about, but it at least focuses the topic away from memoir.
Of course I still inject as much personal experience as possible, but usually my personal experience is only a springboard into a larger topic or idea that I'm exploring. That experience in grad school is what motivates me to focus this blog on a topic such as technical communication.
I've found that giving this focus to my blog has opened more professional doors than I could ever imagine. Having this focus is what motivates readers to subscribe. It also gives me a lot more ideas than would come from an open-topic blog.
Overall, I just have the right combination for visibility: (1) I have a perpetual desire to write at a time when immediate publishing is possible, (2) I have a desire to focus my writing on something outside myself in a professional angle, (3) I have a desire to write a format that fits the blog perfectly.
When you add this together, it creates a tremendous visibility within a particular professional niche. That visibility gives rise to invitations to present, which increases the visibility further. It's an upward spiral.
Exactly where will it end? I still haven't written the post that ends up being a career mistake. I'm not entirely sure where it will end. What exactly is my career trajectory? More notoriety? More invitations to present? Books authored? Honestly, I am happy to merely write and produce posts that please me. Whatever comes because of that, great.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.