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Avoiding Burnout as a Technical Writer [Collaborative Post]

by Tom Johnson on May 6, 2011 •
categories: technical-writing

heart of fireAfter I linked to my interview with Kristi Leach about collaborative posts, a reader submitted the following question:

One of the problems I've had to combat over the years has been boredom/burnout — that feeling you get either when you've been on the same project for too long or a you're on new project that just feels like exactly what you've been working on for years. How do you breath life into work that you've done many, many times before?

In my experience, burnout can happen for a number of reasons: the work I'm doing isn't challenging, the work I'm doing has little meaning, I'm not learning anything new, I'm doing something I'm not passionate about, or the workload I'm shouldering is overwhelming.

In Unhappiness is Good for You, Penelope Trunk says, "According to Leslie Martin, author of the new book, The Longevity Project, stress and anxiety that arise from working hard at something that is engaging and exciting to you is actually a more healthy way to live than in a regular state of cheerfulness."

Unhappiness and burnout aren't the same problem, but "working hard at something that is engaging and exciting" probably provides the cure for both. The trick is figuring out how to convert your mundane and boring tasks into work that is engaging and exciting. How do you do that? You do that by continually evolving as a technical writer, by trying new techniques, tools, and methods.

For example, I recently implemented the Semantic Mediawiki extension on my wiki help content. I'm going through all my topics to add metadata using the extension's syntax, and then I'll try to make sense of it with various queries. It's interesting and complex. Sometimes I barely understand what I'm doing. But the possibilities intrigue me.

I'm also writing user awareness articles for a newspaper (if they ever get published). These articles discuss what my organization is doing with technology. I thought the articles would be easy to write, but so far they're maxing out all my creative skills and proving to be exhausting. Despite the work, it's precisely this challenge that engages me and keeps my attention.

I'm also trying to figure out how to involve community volunteers in editing and writing content for a technology blog. Community dynamics are tough. Sometimes volunteers get involved in ways that astound me; other times I feel alone. But trying to be a community leader to move forward a mountain of work is challenging, engaging, and as a result, just plain interesting.

To avoid burnout, then, I suggest trying something new, even if it's really hard. What's hard also tends to be engaging.

Do you have a response for this reader about avoiding burnout? If so, add it in the comments below.


photo from Flickr

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle 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.