Archive for the ‘Teaching writing’ Category
Guest Post from Kayla Schwartz
[A few of us have been discussing what fulfillment looks like for a professional writer. The entire discussion was in a response to a question from Kayla Schwartz, a professional writing student at Northwestern College. Check out these six essays filed under Shop Talk: The Collision of Craft, Faith and Service for more on that. Kayla’s back with this guest post that contains a few of her thoughts and conclusions.]
“Technical writing? That’s so…interesting.”
This is the response I usually get when I tell people what I’m studying. As a professional writing major, I’ve done journalism and PR writing, but I’ve been most drawn to technical writing.
Why? I had not given it much thought. Most people think of technical writing as boring or tedious. So why pursue it? What really drives technical writers?
As I’ve thought about these questions and talked to technical and other professional writers who’ve been at it much longer than I, I’ve gleaned a few potential answers.
- It’s useful. Some people find a lot of satisfaction in their ability to help others understand things. They feel they are making a difference.
- It’s necessary. Technical manuals may not always be read by customers, but they are a necessary step in the process of distributing the product. There is satisfaction in contributing to a company’s success.
- It’s interesting. For people who are naturally curious, technical writing offers an ideal situation: learn about new ideas and products, and get paid for writing about them.
- It’s lucrative. Yes, some people are just looking for something that pays the bills.
All of these are valid reasons to do technical writing. However, none of them really expresses my motivation (although the last one is starting to look pretty good when I think about my student loans).
I’m pursuing technical writing because I genuinely enjoy it. I like creating an organized, easy-to-follow document. I like figuring out how to use words effectively and concisely. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and don’t mind spending time on “minor” details. I suppose I enjoy learning about new things or knowing that I’m helping others, but ultimately, it’s a way to do what I love.
Maybe this makes me the exception among technical writers, but I hope not. Technical writing isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who enjoy it, it can be just as satisfying as any other career.
Teaching is an epistemological playground
Yesterday I posted under the title “The unbearable sadness of adjunct.” I hope you read on to see it was a larger discussion about the price anyone pays to live a thoughtful life. I tried to show the realities of teaching as an adjunct (often agreeing with Burnt-Out Adjunct), especially noting the counterintuitive reality that some advanced degrees still offer jobs that force you to choose between buying groceries or paying the mortgage.
But there are also good reasons to teach. If you can afford it (counting the work you do to earn a living and/or opportunity costs of time spent on teaching), it is work that is full of meaning. Here are a few reasons I continue to seek opportunities to teach as an adjunct:
- There is a thrilling something about developing a coherent idea and presenting it to a class of students. Even more thrilling, when you see that they see the utility of the idea.
- Class times often become incredible conversations. Not always, but often poignant things get said that help move my thinking (and humanity) to a new level
- To teach is to learn. And learning is great fun. There’s nothing like trying to explain something to someone else to show how little you really know. As I explain, synapses fire and brand new stuff happens in my brainpan. Teaching is a kind of epistemological playground.
- Students are amazing. At the college I teach, I remain deeply impressed by the devotion and care and passion many (not all) bring to the work. I often encounter excellent writers and I want more than anything to help those people move forward.
- Faith and work belong together. Every year I teach I see this more clearly and I labor over (and yes, I pray about) how to explain the connection. My own work as a copywriter highlights and dovetails into this connection. I am very pleased to bring with me ancient texts that explicate the meaning of work and life.
Naturally, there is more to say about this. What would you add?
The Price of the Life of the Mind
I’m having a lively conversation with PissPoorProf about the value of a Liberal Arts degree. He maintains that liberal arts should be corollary studies in college while I think they should be central. Others are chiming in. It’s a discussion I welcome because the topic goes well beyond the choice of undergrad studies. As Burnt-Out Adjunct so ably points out (in his many posts) the life of the mind does not come with an income. In fact, it requires an income to satisfy those lower elements in Maslow’s hierarchy, just to get to the point where one can, well, buy time to think/read/write/converse.
Also agreed: the treadmill that is adjunct work, with day and night responsibilities (Honest: preparing lecture/discussions, delivering those educational events, responding to questions and grading take way more time than I would have ever believed when I was a cubicle dweller with a steady paycheck) is relentless and seemingly possible only when you have another income. So when PissPoorProf describes adjunct teaching as “about as soul-sucking as a wage-slave job can get,” I tend to agree.
And yet, we agree that the life of the mind—whether taught or caught or pursued or scrimped and saved for—is a thing of value. Maybe part of our equipping for undergrads, as well as for those later in life who want to think, is to help each other understand we need to pay
your own way to join the larger conversation.
There is so much more to say about this.
Claude Lefort on Meeting Maurice Merleau-Ponty
The questions with which Merleau-Ponty was dealing made me feel that they had existed within me before I discovered them. And he himself had a strange way of questioning: he seemed to make up his thoughts as he spoke, rather than merely acquainting us with what he already knew. It was an unusual and disturbing spectacle.
– From “How did you become a philosopher?” by Claude Lefort, translated by Lorna Scott Fox in Philosophy in France Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) 98
Guest Post from Rich Bosshardt
[I invited Rich Bosshardt to respond to the question of what fulfillment looks like for a professional writer. Rich has talked about technical writing in a few of my classes and intrigued us with a note about the psychology of technical writing. He’s writing from the perspective of a working technical writer, and this is his second response.]
People who aren’t familiar with technical communication may be surprised to learn what it really takes to be a good technical writer. Having product knowledge, authoring and illustration skills, some mechanical and/or technical inclination, and a command of (simplified and instructional) language are all necessary. But there is one key ingredient without which one cannot experience ongoing motivation, success, and fulfillment in this field: the personal touch.
There is a psychology to technical writing. Anticipating and appropriately responding to the (rational and irrational) thoughts and behaviors of people is a vital skill in the toolkit of a good technical writer. One might initially think that the technical writer spends hour upon hour in isolation while hunched over a computer monitor in a corporate cubicle farm or a spare bedroom (i. e., the home office). But in reality, a technical writer must keep in mind those who use the product or service (external customers) and regularly interact with those who help create the product (internal customers).
My external customers are the end users who purchase, assemble, operate, maintain, and store the products about which I write. My internal customers are team members, including subject matter experts, who are typically engineers and designers; and reviewers, who represent the engineering, customer service, legal, safety, test, and marketing departments.
As an advocate for my external customer, I try to keep these two primary questions in mind as I go about my work: (1) How will the reader use (or misuse) the product about which I am writing? (2) How will the reader interact with the instructions and illustrations that I create?
But there are more questions that help put me in the position of my readers: What educational background and reading ability do my readers have? Are they mechanical? Do they have the proper tools to perform the procedure? When do they do the work themselves and when do they call a dealer for help?
To answer these questions, we rely in part on user testing and feedback from our end users. In user testing, we have had fellow employees from other departments who are unfamiliar with a product perform procedures by following a set of instructions that I prepared. The results of those tests have led to new insights as to how one might approach and engage the product, which enables me to write a more effective set of instructions. But busy schedules and workloads often prohibit us from conducting more than an occasional user test. Feedback from real end users is valuable, but it is rare as well.
Though the technical writer is an advocate for the end user, the final product serves many more masters than merely the end user. The publication that results is a compromise of multiple interests. The subject matter expert wants to showcase the product features or have the writer insert an instruction to cover for a minor design flaw that is otherwise too costly to change; the market manager wants to sell the reader accessories for the product; the legal and safety representatives want to protect the company from liability by inserting page after page of safety admonitions; and the customer care representative wants a rewritten procedure because his or her department has received more than the usual number of customer complaints.
Being the writer but not the owner of the publication, how do I then chart a course for completing the project through the cacophony of the differing requirements of my external customers? And how do I produce an intelligible and helpful work that ultimately meets the needs of my internal customers?
Satisfaction by Means of Service
Serving my internal and external customers well brings satisfaction, and serving both types of customers simultaneously requires that I keep both my goal and the manner in which I achieve that goal in mind. The goal of my work requires that I continually keep my external customers in mind; it guides me in what I should be doing in my work: to serve valued end users by helping them understand the product and have a safe and positive experience whenever they interact with it. The manner by which I achieve that goal requires that I continually keep my internal customers in mind; it guides me in how I should be doing my work: to serve and show respect to valued team members who create the product (the subject of my writing). It may include serving and showing respect to those who may neither respect me nor my profession.
I serve my external customers best by making their needs the goal of my work; I serve my internal customers best by addressing their needs in the manner in which I work to achieve my goal. How I perform my work, no matter what it is, makes all the difference. It is when I serve in the spirit of Christ, the Servant of Servants, that I find satisfaction in my work, whatever and wherever that may be.
Life’s not about poetry. Or is it?
I’ve been posting in response to a query from an English student who wondered about finding fulfillment as a professional writer. How can we compare writing poems and short stories and novels to writing for companies or ad agencies or other firms or organizations seeking help to communicate? She asks a good question which we all struggle to answer all our lives. See a few responses here: Shop Talk: The Collision of Craft, Faith and Service
When I teach professional writing classes at Northwestern College, I like to invite Rich Bosshardt, who writes for a well-known local manufacturer, to talk with the class. Like many of us, Rich’s route to writing was circuitous: from mover of boxes to telemarketer to carpenter to chemical compounder to university research lab technician—plus about ten other jobs. Along the way he earned a Master’s in New Testament, so his thoughts about work and writing have a theological bent, which I appreciate. In response to my request, Rich rattled off ten things about writing for a living and offered to explicate one more:
- We could learn a lesson on career fulfillment from Joseph, the son of Jacob and the great administrator in Genesis.
- How do you work through when the honeymoon of being hired is over and passion for the work is long gone, but the bills keep coming?
- My career has been an unintentional path; I didn’t enjoy writing and knew nothing about technical writing until I was over 30 years old.
- Why shouldn’t we be passionate about what we do for a living? Whom would you rather hire—the passionate worker or the dispassionate one? You can raise the competence of a mediocre worker who is passionate about the work and therefore wants to improve, but the dispassionate worker? Let him or her go; you’re doing both of you a favor.
- Luther had great insights about one’s vocation, raising the legitimacy and importance of “common” work and sparking the Protestant work ethic.
- There is joy in doing work of the best quality that you can and in a manner that marks you as a person who has character, thereby earning the respect and admiration (stated or unstated) by others. Good (both competent and ethical) workers do eventually get noticed by those who work with them, and these good workers will find themselves happily employed.
- I thank God for the “little things” at work, e. g., that I’m working inside in a temperature-controlled environment on a frigid winter day or a hot, humid summer day.
- Relationships can make all the difference; being part of a caring and talented team can turn drudgery into joy because you enjoy the relationship regardless of the circumstances.
- There is a psychology to technical writing; good writers should think about at least two things: (1) how people will use the product that they are writing about; and (2) how people will interact with the instructions and illustrations that you create.
- “And God saw that it was very good.” There is a satisfaction (and fulfillment) in a job well done, no matter what job it is, great or small.
I like Rich’s list and think it gets at the tensions of creating versus making a living versus making meaning every day. Rich’s vocational path also reminds me of Parker Palmer’s wonderful “Let Your Life Speak,” which is all about taking the time to notice what you enjoy. Palmer’s book is one to own and read annually.
I’d like to hear more from Rich on Number 9: the psychology of technical writing.
What would you like to hear more about? What would you add or subtract?
Image credit: 2headedsnake
Words Create Something In the World
May I steer you toward a blogger I’ve recently discovered? This generous writer visited a number of obscure blogs (including Conversation is an Engine) and commented. Many of us followed back to her blog (lesson learned on growing an audience).
Bottledworder wrote Writing in spite of the daily on January 20. It’s a post that points out the concentration and isolation needed for creative writing. She also writes of how much a privilege writing is—with which I agree. Down in the meat of her essay she disparages making a living through “useful” writing:
“useful” varieties of writing where writing is the medium to achieve something else, not the end-goal.
I use “disparage” lightly and with affection, because it is clear writers of all sorts are heroes in Bottledworder’s world—and I could not agree more. Still, her comment hits at this notion I’ve been thinking and writing about: does writing/creative fulfillment come only from digging down in the isolated depths of one’s own psyche?
And for proof I continue to point to the exercises in creativity my writing has contributed to with companies and agencies, in places where we’ve joined as a team. Maybe those team/financed experiences don’t exactly duplicate the joy of writing something pulled from the depths of my soul (and that is a primary joy of writing, no question), but a true phrase that helps a company move forward is also a beautiful thing. Plus, it helps create something real in the world.
Again—there’s so much more to say about this. Here are a few early related posts:
- The Tradeoffs in Selling Your Craft (Shop Talk #1)
- Writing with Sheet Metal (Shop Talk #2)
- Is Your Job Fulfilling? (Shop Talk #3)
Depends: what do you mean by fulfilling?
An art director and I were talking once about the different jobs we had done over the years. Al said he did some work as a freelancer he was not particularly proud of: wasn’t bad work, just didn’t highlight the creative style he had become known for. Why did he do it? “Well, I had a family and a mortgage and…you do what you gotta do.”
This is my story, too. It is everyone’s story.
An English student asked me how someone writing for an agency or corporation can find fulfillment when the writing is essentially voiceless. By that I understood she meant that the writing was not coming out of some personal deep need to communicate. I get what she means and I think this is an important question. But I also think we romanticize the production of art, novels and poems.
I’ve been arguing that work and art sometimes fit hand in glove and sometimes stay at opposite ends of our daily teeter totter. I’ve been arguing you need both to make either work. If you just have paying work, you are not exercising your creative self. If you just are creating, you’re broke and maybe you don’t have a place among real people in real life. Here are a few things that happen when work and art find a way to live together:
- Workmanlike attention: Our work with its deadlines and status updates helps us (sometimes forces us) to be productive. This is useful when it comes to delivering on our art or craft. Just getting to it—every day—is the way we produce anything. None of this waiting for enlightenment stuff.
- Having a place among people: isolation is not good. Those colleagues and bosses and clients who critique our work help shape it (no matter how painful). In the same way as we try to explain our craft or art to others, it gets shaped as well.
- It is your job to develop a voice. It may not be your voice, but it must be a believable voice. And to run that voice through the gauntlet of critics and peevish managers and lawyers and regulators is no small feat. The voice you produce can become a team or corporate asset. That is something to be proud of.
- Now is not forever. If you are not producing the art/poems/novels you intended, find a way to get to it. This usually involves owning up to the myriad excuses we present for not doing it. And if today’s work is less than fulfilling: start looking. It’s the steely beauty of the free market system that you can change. Recognize that this job is for now and not forever (more and more I’m convinced different seasons in life hold different tasks and levels of fulfillment. Plus, we are personally changing all the time, which means fulfillment is a moving target.)
Several of the hard-bitten copywriters I know would say “Who has time for writing outside the office?” To these I would say your own art and copy is a gift to yourself that pays back in meaning and insight.
There’s more to say about this. What would you add or subtract or say to my student?
Make a living while making a life
Teaching in a college English department, I come in contact with lots of people who want to express themselves. They have things to say and they want to say those things through poetry, fiction and all manner of creative writing. The typical line of thinking goes that the best and highest fulfillment comes from putting words around those things that compel us. The process of searching out those compelling things involves regularly plunging deep inside to pull stories and impressions up to the surface to slice and dice for delivery. This is good and useful work and has, or course, resulted in the poems and works of fiction and symphonies and songs celebrated worldwide.
This work of surfacing our deepest thoughts and emotions and capturing them for delivery is important work in which each of us must continue. I want to do this as well and regularly set aside time for it. But is this highly internal work the only route to fulfillment? Answer “Yes!” and you shortchange the rest of life.
I want to argue in a few posts that we make some of our best and most meaningful contributions when three streams collide:
- Faith: what we believe
- Talents: what we are gifted at
- Service: as we focus on needs outside of us, how can we use our faith and talents and imagination to solve those needs?
I want to argue the junction of craft and faith and need is the locus of true fulfillment. When we plumb our depths for words or impressions that solve a need our organization or community has identified, well then we’ve done a good thing and a highly fulfilling thing. I might further argue that much of our greatest art and literature has come from that junction of craft, faith and need.
Writing ad copy or technical specs is not the route to personal fulfillment. But neither is a self-focus that never reaches out.
There’s lots more to say about this.
For writers, write. Write for those you care about. Write to get the inner world out. When you share your work, listen closely to those who don’t know you. Write to create and open space, not to reduce it. As best you can, write without expectations. When we can learn to live without expectations, everything is a gift.