On Being an Individual Contributor
For someone who has the job of "technical writer," I spend very little time writing. It amazes me how quickly the day fills up with non-writing tasks. Meetings, reports, issues -- they seem to surface again and again at work, requiring my attention. I sometimes try timing myself and find that if I can get in three hours of writing during the day, that's good. This seems utterly ridiculous to me.
I get a lot of satisfaction from writing. These days I spend the majority of my time writing articles for our organization's technology blog. I'm not writing nearly as much content as I would like, but I plan to spend more time doing it. It's very easy to expend a lot of effort managing assignments with other writers (mostly volunteers), attending endless strategy and planning meetings, dealing with approvals, and doing other non-writing activities.
But if I'm doing those activities all day, and not writing, I feel a bit empty inside. There's something about writing, the immersion in it for extended periods of time, that I find fulfilling. I can't entirely explain it, but I'm guessing that other writers who follow my blog might feel the same.
Although most career trajectories lead one to move from an individual contributor to a manager role, I am not sure managing suits me, even managing volunteers. Managing means figuring out projects and workloads, making assignments, following up, resolving concerns, connecting workers with information they need, making plans, generating metrics, defining goals, and establishing "vision." Sometimes I'd like to just close the door on all that and write in seclusion.
I like identifying stories, gathering information, writing articles and submitting them for review. I submit the content through the approval process, and then publish the articles, and respond to comments, and syndicate the titles across social media channels. I gather the metrics, compile the articles into a newsletter, and share them with others. It's quite engaging.
If possible, I'd like to minimize my meetings and do more writing, living the day as an individual contributor. Not only might I be more effective this way, I'd also enjoy it more. When the day reaches its end, I'll have created something. I'll have made something that might have impact. (Again, I'm talking mostly about web articles for a technology blog, not documentation, though the two sometimes overlap.)
Writing on a corporate blog is not as dull as I once thought. Each post or article is its own, unique work. First I feel the rush of a scoop, and then the excitement of the encounter with a subject matter expert who shares new information. I list all known facts and brainstorm ideas. At some point, I organize the information and write out a first draft. The draft gets edited by a handful of others around me, including the product owners. I publish the article, wait for the reaction, respond to comments, and move on to the next story. It's a constant rush of ups and downs. A roller coaster of writing and publishing and responding.
Documentation, in contrast, usually consists of a steady body of dry, procedural material that one writes week after week, building toward a release months away. You don't have the constant ups and downs of frequent publishing, the rush of feedback and the possibility of controversy, or of breaking something big. (Well, maybe agile development aligns more with this, but documentation rarely receives the same feedback as web articles.)
Some years ago, when I was a new technical writer, I had a manager named Adrienne who had a PhD in biology. She was one of my favorite managers, because she was such a good listener. I trusted her judgment entirely. One time while we chatted during a one-on-one meeting, she mentioned nostalgically how she missed the days when she was an individual contributor. She said she liked to put on the headphones and type away at the keyboard, completely immersed in the writing and oblivious to anything going on around her.
As a manager, though, she no longer had opportunities for extended immersion in writing tasks. Managers have meeting after meeting. Their daily schedule, shifting from one meeting context to another, precludes them from entering their writing zone and creative cores. They never get the needed amount of isolation from interruption so they can enter an immersive writing experience.
It's unfortunate that management takes the best individual contributors and converts them into managers. It's our system of reward and recognition that ironically re-allocates resources in unproductive ways.
It may be an unwise career-move, I know; but for now, I prefer to be an individual contributor.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer 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.