Writing My Last Chapter
I 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.
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.