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10 ways technical writing is just like the World Cup

by Tom Johnson on Jun 19, 2018
categories: general

I don't usually watch soccer, but I do get drawn into the World Cup. And this year, I'm finding that there are a surprising number of similarities between the World Cup and technical writing. Yes!!! So let's get started with the top 10 ways that technical writing is just like the soccer at the World Cup.
World cup photo from espn.com with Japan scoring on Columbia

1. You have to go out of your way to win the referee / project manager over.

It seems that every few minutes, a soccer player who is barely tapped or nudged falls perilously to the ground and writhes in pain for a few minutes. Then miraculously, even though it seemed just minutes ago he had his ankle snapped or shoulder shattered, the player is back running with full strength.

In tech comm, you have to speak up in somewhat forceful ways in order to get calls your way. Try being silent or mild-mannered in a meeting and people will just walk all over you. While you don’t need to perform heavy theatrics like soccer players, you do need to perform a bit more than usual. We introverts need to come out of our shells and do a little angry dance to get the project’s team’s attention. Sometimes to get a help button in an app, I have to feign utter shock and shake my head like the world is ending before the PM pauses a minute and blows the whistle on some misguided direction they were going.

2. You have to specialize if you want to stay in/on the field.

Soccer players don’t run all over the entire field. They specialize in various zones. If all soccer players chased the ball everywhere, running from one goal to the other, they’d eventually tire out.

In tech comm, if you find yourself covering too much ground, you’ll also burn out. Tech writer Steven Gregory explains,

Good technical writers have to do what good athletes or good scientists or musicians do: specialize. Just as a three-sport star in high school athletics decides that they’re going to put all their eggs into the baseball or football or soccer basket, so too must the technical writer. And just as musician who loves all genres decides that they’re going to pursue classical or jazz or rock music as their career, the technical writer must also choose the tool to get intimate with. (The Non-Anal Technical Writer’s Survival Guide: Keep Your Job, Your Sanity)

3. Scoring requires multiple teammates working closely together.

In soccer, scoring is a small miracle. Most scoring is the result of multiple players working together either through passes or cross shots from the side. A player kicks it to another, who shoots and gets it deflected, and the ball ricochets off someone else, and another player kicks or head-butts the ball into the goal. Rarely do you see a single player take the ball 50 yards down field, faking out every defender in his path, and score on his or her own.

In tech writing, you publish successful docs through teamwork as well. You get assists from others that put the right information at your feet and then …. GOAL! It’s not work that you can do all by yourself.

4. It is a game of patience, and sometimes failure and emptiness

Players can run around on the field for 90 minutes without scoring. Many games have scores of 1-0. This means soccer players must have incredible patience to persist over the long game. In soccer, if you manage to get the ball within scoring position 20 feet from the goal but then lose the ball by some small mistake, the feeling is deflating. Many opportunities get so close but fail to yield fruit.

In a PRI article profiling a soccer team consisting of all writers, the author interviews one of the players who reflects on failure and emptiness. The author explains,

Team members can be heard shouting instructions to their teammates and cursing when the other team scores a goal. “I think that soccer is a game that is essentially about failure and emptiness,” said Eilenberger cheerfully. Soccer players try to control a ball with their feet, he explained, but most of the time they end up losing control. “The very fact that life is failure, and your everyday experience is failure, is somehow symbolized by the soccer experience.” (Germany has a soccer team made up entirely of writers)

Tech writers, too, must exert incredible patience and persist against failure and emptiness. As releases get pushed out, or deadlines are months in advance, you have to be patient and methodically try to move the ball down field. 90 days might pass before you can finally hit Publish on a single doc. Then right when you’re ready to hit Publish, the project gets canceled, and you have to shelve all your work for good. The parallels are uncanny here.

5. Even something usually considered boring can suddenly become interesting.

In the U.S., most sports attention gets devoted to (American) football, basketball, and baseball. For some reason, soccer isn’t as popular in the U.S. Yet when World Cup comes around, suddenly lots of U.S. sports fans are suddenly watching and enjoying soccer (like me). The World Cup was streaming during lunch at my work yesterday and for several hours at a summer bash. Even something that many consider boring can suddenly flip over to being interesting.

And so is the story with tech comm. A boring career? By most perspectives, tech writer is drudgery to be avoided at all costs. It is the Plan Z option for humanities majors, the option to follow only if all else fails. And yet, when people start working as tech writers, they’re often surprised at just how interesting the career turns out to be.

6. Your country/corporate culture determines the degree of support.

In countries where soccer is popular and supported, the teams are top notch. For example, most South American countries have top-tier teams, as do Europe and Eastern Europe and Africa, and even Iceland… okay, most everywhere except the U.S., which didn’t even qualify. Why isn’t U.S. men’s soccer team better? Our country’s culture has its heart elsewhere.

Same with tech writing. If your senior leaders at the highest level don’t encourage a culture where docs matter, forget about having top-notch documentation at your company. You won’t get the funding, the early loop-ins with projects, the visibility and support you need to be outstanding. Docs will be mediocre.

7. It is a globalized activity, and localization matters.

The World Cup brings teams from 32 countries together interacting in the same tournament. You can view the list of teams here: World Cup 2018: Your Guide to All 32 Teams.

Similar, with tech docs, you also have people coming together from all over the world to partake in the documentation goodness. Localization matters, culture matters. It’s a stage upon which members of all countries seem to walk across.

8. Only the stars are blamed for the team’s failure.

If the soccer team fails, it’s usually because the star player (e.g., Lionel Messi) missed a key kick. The rest of the team gets a free pass while the stars take the fall.

Same with tech docs. If the product fails to take off, who takes the blame? Certainly not the tech writer, who just kind of blends into the background. The engineers and product managers — the stars in tech — get all fingers pointed at them.

9. Everything is better when you blow a vuvuzela.

I’m pretty sure that without the vuvuzela, fans at soccer matches would devolve into a lot more explicit and profane name calling and fighting. But with the vuvuzela, you get to make really loud noises that don’t actually hurt anyone (except their eardrums).

Same with tech comm. Sometimes it’s helpful to go inside a conference room and just blow a vuvuzela. I mean, it’s a really productive way to deal with stress from a product manager who sanitizes your docs or from an engineer who ignores your emails asking for a doc review. Just blow the vuvuzela with all your lung’s might, and the world becomes a happier place.

Okay, I don’t currently have a vuvuzela (though I did have one during a previous World Cup season just for fun and found the instrument fascinatingly loud). But I do often take off at around 3pm for a good 20 minutes to go down to our campus gym and shoot hoops. It lets me blow off some steam a bit, or just gives me a change of pace that refreshes me.

10. It feels good to be part of something larger than yourself.

On a soccer field, you’re one of 11 players, competing against another team of 11 players, with a handful of referees raising and lowering cards. And outside of that group, you’re surrounded by thousands of (rabidly) cheering fans, shouting and urging you on. I have to wonder what it must be like to feel all that excitement and emotion and be right there in the middle of it.

With tech writing, you’re like the 1 player on a scrum team of 11, or on multiple teams, and you’re interacting with other teams inside a company. And with thousands of users, some passionate, some hateful, they pour a lot of emotion and energy at the company, which you’re a part of. It feels good to be part of something larger than yourself, to be caught up in an endeavor that feels significant and worthwhile – to play a part, however small and seemingly insignificant, in some massive group trajectory.

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