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The existentialism of technical writing

by Tom Johnson on Oct 22, 2021 •
categories: technical-writing

Every now and then I catch myself wondering about the docs I wrote at my old job, looking to see if there has been new content added to the site, any radical redesigns or restructurings, any new doc themes or apparent moves. I’m not sure why I occasionally look, other than mild curiosity, but it’s led me to wonder about my future as well. What seems so important and urgent now is on a countdown timer. No matter what content I’m working on, give it a few years, and this content will probably go the same way, becoming neglected, slowly rotting away and becoming less relevant, less accurate, less needed. Some other writer will inherit the content and wonder about its history or even if it’s needed. The upcoming months will slowly wash the content away, until someone eventually deletes the page.

Our content lives for a minute upon the technology stage, seems so important at the moment it’s new. It’s exhilarating to publish new content, to share the link to newly written docs, and everyone is excited. And you move on to the next content task, and more and more, going into work each day for years building up all the content in a doc portal so that it’s complete, harmonious, and interwoven. But then, at some point on your timeline, the chapter at the company ends, and you sail off into some other harbor.

Sometimes I wonder about my impact after I leave an org. Did I make any real difference? Was my position even backfilled? What happened to all that content I wrote? Was my role needed after I left? I seemed so vital at the time, but was I?

At some future point in time, years into the future, I’ll come into work for the last time, write that last doc, and then go home for the last time. A life full of writing content for tech companies. So many hours devoted to creating documentation for technology products that are blips on the timeline. At some point I’ll sit on my porch and look back on this life, as a technical writer and wonder what happened to everything I wrote, or what the value of it all was. Did it mean anything to me? The half-life of docs is short, and I can’t imagine anything staying relevant for more than a few years. It’s a somewhat existential feeling — to work so hard at creating something that just fades into obsolescence from the moment you publish. My life, too, seems like that. So important now, and seemingly to everyone around me. But it was a similar case for each ancestor up the chain, who is now just a few lines in some historical documents and maybe a photo or two.

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On the flip side of this existential lament, perhaps there’s a larger picture to grasp. Are we not one cog in the larger technology machine? Using the docs I write, engineers build apps or systems for users, which gives rise to new experiences and opportunities to people. Maybe I helped enable someone to build a product that gives users an experience, albeit small, that fills them with a temporary delight or capability. That one doc I wrote explaining how to do a task perhaps ended up enabling a developer to push through to a new level, creating some new society-transforming product. In that moment, the doc fulfilled the measure of its creation, and technology marches forward. I’m one ant in a long line of ants, all carrying little pieces of something toward a larger purpose and goal.

It’s hard to know whether the years of effort as a tech writer have much lasting impact on anything. For years I’ve watched people disconnect from my site outside of work hours. Traffic always drops low on the weekends. Tech writing is an undeniable day job, a way to earn a living. But if we know that we’re pouring so much effort into such little outcome, expending all our writerly energy in this direction, what propels us to move forward?

Add to this, I feel myself aging more and more. The veterans who were my age when I entered tech comm are retired; they’ve faded away. New professionals come onto the scene. The same questions are asked and explored. There are some new innovations with tools, some new approaches. But by and large, the same story is retold in new chapters and with new characters. I guess in some way I wanted to leave more of a mark, to invent something transformative, like planting the figurative tree that grows in place for the next 500 years. But I haven’t, and I’m not sure what it would even be.

This post seems more depressing than I intended. More existential, but I wanted to capture and communicate a feeling that I think others sometimes share when they question the profession. Sometimes I feel my life moving forward, passing me by, like I’m watching it go on outside of myself. Another year, another day, another time doing much the same activity I did the day before. I can feel myself getting slower and more tired. My mental wheels don’t spin as fast as they used to. My life has fewer surprises. If my life were an artist’s blank page, most of the lines are drawn in. I know what I like and don’t like, what I do well and don’t do well.

How do I recapture the enthusiasm and openness of youth? I often think back to my first five years in the field — I had so much passion for it, unbridled enthusiasm to try new things, new tools, new approaches. I remember a conversation with a colleague once who said, “You know, Tom, one of these days, I’m going to figure it all out.” Figure out what? I asked. Tech comm, the whole thing, he said.

I don’t think I have these questions anymore. It might be the pandemic wearing on me, but I long to unearth something to get really excited about. Mostly, tech comm is a lot of hard work. There aren’t any easy shortcuts. The crowdsourcing, wikis, collaborative authoring — all that never materialized into any magic bullet. Good content requires someone who can grind away for hours, reading and consuming docs, interviewing engineers and tracking down info, pulling people into the review process, writing and editing and rewriting and reviewing, studying and learning iteratively to ramp up on some technology. Then later, post-publication, monitoring, listening, and iterating on the content. Writing is work.

I have to think that there is an escape to this existential dread, to the hamster wheel of creating new content. Trying new things, reading about new ideas, hands-on exploration and experimentation — all of this can ignite a small flame of wonder. And perhaps that is the fun part of technical writing: tinkering around with a product, pushing the buttons on the keyboard until it works its magic, until it shows you what it can do. My youngest child is 11, and I can often see this same mentality — watching her work with her hands to build some craft, some interactive, physical, kinetic experience that she can see/hold/smell/feel, even if it’s just some new slime recipe. My most rewarding times as a technical writer have been these — getting my hands on a product and making it work.

I spent about two weeks at my current job getting something to work. Building Android with various packages and then simulating tests that would normally only be possible when the software is embedded in a vehicle is no small feat. But it’s fun, and visual. When something works, it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush. This is where tech writing transitions from reading to doing, from the abstract to the concrete. Once you have a working environment, you unlock doors for nearly every other feature to test. My notes on how to get a current product to work are nearly 20 pages long, with many steps that I only have a vague understanding about.

Outside of tech comm, I’ve also thought of adapting a try-it-out mentality as my mantra. The world is much different if you experiment with ideas rather than merely write about them. Even so, sometimes it takes forever trying to get something to work, and when it doesn’t, and you have to simply give up and “get back to work,” it’s more depressing than ever.

One afternoon, I wondered what happened to a former colleague and so perused his blog. I see that he went on a one-year sabbatical, leaving his job to spend time in Brazil, reading a lot of books. He says,

Sometimes I question why I read so much. Wouldn’t my time be better spent doing something else? Over the last few years I’ve come to appreciate that I read so much because encountering new ideas fills me with joie de vivre, joy of living. It’s only a brief flash, but it’s palpable. It’s the same feeling as when I’m in the presence of a huge, 1000-year-old tree, or when I’m staring at a starry sky. (Learning new ideas from different domains is one of my great joys in life)

He’s into reading “A Short History of …” books across a wide variety of domains. I would also agree that learning sparks joie de vivre, though I grow impatient when the learning seems unrelated to my profession or daily life.

One technique I learned in college was how to think creatively about nearly any topic. You begin with a question you’re curious about, and ask yourself 20 questions about it. Then try to answer the questions. You’ll find that at least one answer merits another 20 questions in itself, and you keep going down that rabbit hole until you arrive at some idea and perspective that you’d never thought of before. Some questions might prompt you to read up on the topic, and that reading/learning is much more relevant because it has a purpose and goal. I call this activity “creative synthesis,” and it’s one reason why a blank page has never terrified me. Questions are the key to unlock infinite creativity.

And yet, while this creative thinking would seem to lead to endless learning and joie de vivre, it requires a certain motivation to ask questions in the first place. It requires a real sustained interest in some direction. Doing these creative syntheses always seems to be low priority to some other pressing task or errand. And yet, I like myself most when I’m actively asking questions. It fills me with a certain curiosity and intrigue about life. My brain’s pathways aren’t so set in their ways. They feel more plastic, responsive, and quick.

I think every tech writer tries to find the joie de vivre in the profession, or even in life. Outside of tech comm, I have become resigned to be a soccer dad (and supportive of my other kids (who don’t play soccer). I like driving them around to places, seeing their eyes lit up on the first day of school, and more. But even the most intense soccer game is over in about an hour, and then the next day I’m back at work, wondering what to do differently this time, trying to make the work and myself come to life.

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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.

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