When I Grow Up, I Wanna Be a Writer!
Everybody wants to be a writer. I wonder why that is? Do they imagine it’s a glamorous job? Do they hear tales of the six-figure advance and simply not realize how many working writers struggle just to pay the bills, usually by taking a second or third job? It might be more accurate to say that everyone wants to have written, or to be published. When it comes right down to brass tacks, most people don’t really want to write.
Some days, even I don’t want to write, and I’ve been a published pro for over thirty years.
I’ll admit, it is better work than breaking rocks in the hot sun. It doesn’t necessarily pay better, but sometimes, it’s even a thrill. Most days, it’s an unglamorous job that requires applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and simply doing the work of yanking a bunch of thoughts from your head like mucus from a stuffy nose, and then expressing what’s left with some clarity so others can understand and maybe enjoy it or learn something from it.
My friend Neeraj asked me if I could differentiate a content writer, a blogger, a technical writer, and a technical blogger. Most people ask whether there’s a difference between a writer and an author. To me, the bottom line is that a writer writes. In other words, a writer isn’t someone who sits around contemplating having written – or daydreaming about what they’ll do when they cash the six-figure advance against royalties for a book they haven’t begun to draft, yet. Many years ago, I met Tom Clancy online (on GEnie, in the Writers’ Ink RT), and he expressed frustration with that mentality. “Just write the damned book.” In other words, don’t talk to me until you have a product to sell. In his opinion, selling a good book wasn’t that hard. Writing one took – well, writing one.
Beyond that, we’re just talking genre.
I got into technical writing because “writing the great American novel” doesn’t pay the bills unless you write it, get it published, and sell it. Turns out, I’m not a novelist at heart – at least not yet. There’s no lucrative market for short stories and poetry, as it turns out. And I’m impatient. I don’t like to submit things for publication – not because I can’t handle rejection, but because I can’t handle waiting months to get it. So my first “day job” had nothing to do with writing – and everything to do with computers. My dad’s laughing quietly over there, as he reads this, no doubt recalling the day he advised me to work with computers and I whined, “But Dad, computers are boring. That’s your thing, not mine! I want to be a writer!” Somehow, for some reason known only to God and weeping angels, someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to turn me into a Systems Engineer.
Keep in mind, I may have looked like a child prodigy, graduating with a B.A. in English at 18, but that did not magically confer expertise in computers or math. Whatever skills I had, at the time, I’d learned on the job – a job in automated report distribution, which was way better than what I’d originally been hired to do – breaking out printouts with a letter opener, bagging them with plastic and a heat sealer, and sending them to recipients in other buildings. In my spare time, I learned such useful things as TSO, ISPF, a little JCL, and just enough about JES3 to bump the priority on a job. Oh – and DCF, which was the great-grand-daddy of GML and SGML, both ancestors of today’s XML. That helped me, years later, to land a job at American Airlines – I had no idea what “BookMaster” was but mentioned it looked a lot like DCF, and fortunately someone with DCF experience overheard me and assured the hiring manager that I knew what BookMaster was, even though I had no idea I knew it.
One thing I was good at, though, was taking notes. I took copious notes as a career survival skill. And somehow, the 15 corporate systems I was nominally responsible for didn’t all crash and cause a major oil company to come to a screeching halt. Someone noticed my note-taking, thought it was pretty good, and asked if I might be interested in a “lateral move” to a job as a technical writer. I didn’t know what that meant, other than it had the word “writer” in it and involved the same salary. I was saved.
Now, I realize that people coming out of college today can earn a degree in Technical Communications. Mine is in Rhetoric & Writing. I usually just say it’s a B.A. in English – saves a lot on explanations. But again, the bottom line is “writing.” If you are technically adept – in my case, fairly curious, easily bored, and fairly fearless about trying new things, and stupid enough to think you can actually do the work of a Systems Engineer when you have absolutely no clue what that means and never wrote a line of code – and you are able to write clearly and succinctly and translate technical jargon into plain language – you have the skills to be a technical writer.
I also had an advantage over the more technical tech writers – the ones who were adept Programmers or Systems Engineers who could, incidentally, write: I don’t assume that the reader intuitively knows when to press the Enter key, and I know how to avoid the confusion between “Enter your name into the field” and “Type your name into the field and press the Enter key.” Because, dammit, I’ve been that reader.
Technical Concepts vs. Task-Oriented Instructions
When I was working as a Systems Engineer, and some job would bomb at 3 AM, and the phone would ring… I didn’t care about “technical concepts.” I certainly did not want to haul out a 700-page manual to learn the history and theory behind the development of FORTRAN, or the conceptual differences between various system architectures, or whatever. I wanted to know only what I had to do to back out of whatever caused the job to fail, to fix it, to restart it, and to see it through completion. All I cared about was the downstream jobs waiting on it and that the necessary reports be on my manager’s desk by 8 AM. At 3 AM, I was bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived, and under-caffeinated. The schedulers who called me were lucky if I didn’t fall asleep on my end of the phone while they looked for the part of the printout that would yield clues as to what went wrong where.
That was how I approached technical writing, from the start: What do I need to know to get the job done?
Of course there’s a need for the conceptual background information; that’s where you develop a deeper understanding of whatever it was you did at 3 AM. But you do not have to understand how an engine works, in order to drive a car. Different technical manuals for each audience, right? You probably don’t need to know how to drive, in order to be a good car mechanic. It would be helpful to understand engineering and driving, if you’re designing a new car.
Content Writer vs. Blogger
There isn’t, necessarily, a difference. That said, a blogger or a business could outsource all content creation to writers who are not bloggers. I can imagine a blogger who never writes a word. For that matter, I can imagine a content writer who doesn’t actually write a word, either. But the proper term for that is “plagiarist.” Or “splogger.” Or “scraper.” Or “spinner.” Don’t get me started on PLR and the differences between “ghost writer” and “ghost blogger.”
Article vs. Blog Post
Generally speaking, an article connotes something meatier than a blog post, although the two could be used interchangeably, and often are. An article posted on a blog is a blog post, but not all blog posts are articles. This is reminding me of my Dad teaching me that “All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.” I could post an embedded video from YouTube or a short review on the restaurant where I had lunch the other day, or a cute story about something one of my kids did. I don’t think of those as “articles.” I think of articles as something timeless – even if they are based on current events, they contain some analysis that might make them worth rereading a year later.
Related Posts from a Bygone Era
Sometimes a question triggers some vague memory of a conversation years ago, prompting me to answer in URLs, rather than in full sentences. My friend Abhi has teased me about this – I’ve held whole conversations in past blog post shorthand. But here are a few related to this topic that you might find interesting:
There’s also a comment I left on FamousBloggers – Hesham had written a post, “Bloggers Are Not Writers, they are Terrible Writers“, and it prompted this from me:
If you want to be read, and you want your writing (your blog) to be enjoyed, and read more than once by the same people, then you need to constantly work at improving your writing skills, if only to smooth out the little mechanical bumps that stand between your pen and your readers’ quick, enjoyable understanding of whatever it is you’ve posted.
Write like you talk, by all means. I see nothing wrong with – in fact, a lot that’s RIGHT with – all writers being storytellers, including writers of non-fiction. People enjoy stories, and it’s one of the ways they learn. Why else would we be subjected to endless “story problems” in Math class, instead of us number-challenged people simply being mercifully culled from the herd the minute our eyes glazed over?
So long as a BLOG is about “content” (what a soulless way to describe written information!) and not about all the crap glugging up your sidebar and begging to be clicked and paid for – so long as “content” is what brings readers to your site and gives you any hope that they may click and pay for things – then it’s important for bloggers to be writers. Or videographers. Or radio talk show personalities, if they’re podcasting. Maybe it helps to develop a versatile skill set involving all three. But so long as the meat and potatoes is the written word, your abilities as a writer are what will differentiate your blog from the other 30 million out there. Even “playing to the crowd” involves writing skill, when you’re online, now doesn’t it?
I do think that storytelling facilitates learning, and more natural writing – writing like you talk, but without the “ums” and “uhs” of normal speech – can be effective in technical writing, too. If you’re old enough, you may remember when technical manuals referred to the reader in third person: “the user,” or “one must…” and it all sounded very stilted and far removed. It was unnatural and hard to relate to. Now, it is considered a best practice to address the reader directly as “you” – using the second person to make it more personally relevant and also to avoid the awkward use of gender-specific pronouns or the grammatically universal but politically incorrect “he” for readers of indeterminate gender. I’d be very careful with this, though, as a blogger – I see a lot of posts, technical and non-technical, wherein the blogger pontificates on the best way to do a thing, full of “you must” or “you must never” and alienating the reader by putting him on the defensive. It gets my hackles up every time. And it doesn’t work in purely technical writing, either – there’s a nice happy medium between giving instructions with unnecessary pleasantries like, “Next, please press the Enter button” (when, in fact, if you don’t press the darned Enter button, you cannot accomplish whatever it is I’m trying to help you accomplish, and I am not going to ask you nicely to comply when you are the one in need of assistance) and demanding or ordering the reader to change his ways (“You should never, ever eat food near the keyboard, idiot!”) Even if you’re right – it’s going to be a bitter pill for the reader to swallow, and an obstacle to learning and developing better behaviors.
I hope this answered your question, Neeraj – if not a few more that were unasked!