Too many technical writers live in style guides, single sourcing, FrameMaker, processes, and methodologies. They can sometimes escape from the business of software development. This monk like college advanced composition teacher existence can separate the technical writer from the realities of today’s dysfunctional workplace. When facing down ambiguity, technical writers have two choices:
Wallow in the dysfunction and complain how the organization
doesn’t understand technical documentation and that they can’t do anything right. At least they get out of taking meeting minutes because the organization isn’t so formal. They get to spend plenty of time on Instagram. But that last until project gets on the critical. Demands come down for documentation deliverables. Then a mad scramble begins to complete the documents under tight timelines.
Chart their own course for your documentation projects by building strong cases for decisions and take documentation off your management’s worry list leaving the manager to fight real fires. It’s always better to be controlling your documentation efforts.
Ambiguity should be seen as an opportunity to take the reins over technical documentation and help your client or manager cross out one worry from their list. Technical writers can rise and fall from the opportunities that happen in ambiguous environments.
Technical writers need to take ownership of their projects in such environments.
I’ve been out of full-time contracting for almost two years and recently thought back to some of the stranger things I saw during the contract technical writer chapter of my life:
A fellow contractor was posting nude pictures of his wife on Usenet from his client account. He was busted and walked offsite by armed security guards when a Usenet reader emailed the Webmaster of the client’s domain.
A client who demanded the word, Please be used to begin every procedure in a user guide.
Contract agency recruiters who just told so many obvious lies I wondered if their nose grew. There should be a special place in hell for unethical contract agency recruiters.
A contractor who got sick and went AWOL while on a business trip to NYC. The contracting agency had to evict her from her hotel room. After taking over her hotel room, I could understand how she would want to lay in bed all day in that hotel.
A contractor who inflated their resume so much it made me see the problems that swept along technical writers and swept along trainers cause for real professionals.
A contractor who quit via email the Sunday evening before leaving Monday on a trip to Los Angeles. He knew the whole time he was going to stop. While I understand At-Will Employment cuts both ways, there is professionalism and decency.
Once upon a time, contractors could always count on other contractors. I stayed too long at the party. The contracting market I entered was not the same one I left.
What weird things did you see as a contract technical writer?
I was once asked in a job interview: “Why do I stay a technical writer when it must be such a dull and boring profession?” After the meeting when I was peeling rubber out of the parking lot, I took a few moments when I was decelerating to think about some of the more interesting moments (at least to me) from my career:
I was a computer book technical reviewer earlier in my career. It was a freelance gig, but I still consider the work one of the more formative chapters in my professional writing career even though it wasn’t writing work.
Computer book technical reviewers sometimes called technical editors are responsible for ensuring the technical accuracy of information technology book manuscripts. The work taught me to pay attention to technical details, which in turn went on to influence my work as a technical writer and freelance writer.