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Is Technical Writing Your Calling?
2007, Q1 (January 04, 2012)
By Michael Harvey, Carolina Chapter Past President and STC Associate Fellow

Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey

Over the past several weeks we’ve interviewed candidates to fill an open position in my group. Afterwards, each interviewer completes a form that closes with a hiring recommendation: hire immediately, hire, consider, or do not hire.

After one interview, a member of my staff recommended to “consider” even though everyone else said “hire” or better. I asked her about it. “I have concerns,” she said, “because she said that she doesn’t consider technical writing her calling.”

This made me stop and think. Is technical writing my calling? Is it a calling at all? What is a calling?

Definitions vary. One says that a calling is “the particular occupation for which you are trained.” I was never trained for technical writing, but I did teach the subject for three years at Durham Technical Community College. Another definition says it’s “an objective or task that somebody believes it is his or her duty to carry out or to which he or she attaches special importance and devotes special care.” I devote special care to what I do, but is it a duty? I suppose my employer would say yes. A third definition says “a process whereby the parish discerns whom God is calling to various ministry roles in the life of the church including ordained ministries.”

This is closer to what I think when I hear the word “calling.” Whether or not you believe in God, a “calling” implies a summons from a “higher” authority. It moves out of the realm of choice and into one of obligation or obedience — you must follow a calling. And it is a joyful compulsion — most are glad to find and follow their calling. Most relish the tasks that a calling requires.

Marguerite Moore was a member of my staff, on and off, from the early 1990s until just last year. She built a very successful technical writing career since graduating from the Durham Tech program. She walked away from that career to accept an invitation to attend Princeton Theological Seminary. She was pursuing her calling — the ministry. As I said when I announced her departure:

On the one hand, I am joyful for Marguerite in taking this courageous step to follow her calling. On the other, I am sad because I will miss her and our organization will be the poorer for her absence.

For Marguerite, technical writing was not a calling even though it was something to which she attached special importance and devoted special care. That care was reflected in the high quality of her work. It was important to her to get her deliverables as clear, correct, concise, and conversational as she could. But I am pretty sure she would tell you that God called her elsewhere.

Personally, I don’t think that writing installation manuals, product guides, or help panels is a calling. It’s a job — an enjoyable career if you’re good at it. The underlying activity — clearly communicating complex concepts or procedures to help someone get work done — feels close to a calling. Clear communication makes a connection between human beings or between ideas, creates understanding, and promotes efficiency and order. Those are inherently good, if imprecise, goals to pursue.

Personally, I don’t think that writing installation manuals, product guides, or help panels is a calling. It’s a job — an enjoyable career if you’re good at it.
I believe I’ve pursued good goals in my job. When I think back to the tasks I have enjoyed most during my career (which is a good interview question, by the way, because the answer gives you insight into a candidate’s strengths), I invariably recall those when I made that kind of connection. I connected two disparate ideas to create a new one. I connected sentences and paragraphs into a flowing chapter or article. I connected old paragraphs with ones I had just written and forged a seamless whole. I brought opponents into a room and, by pointing out how their positions connected, fashioned consensus. I won someone over to my point of view without trampling on theirs — we emerged from the conversation seeing things the same way. I remember reaching something like a state of flow during these times. There were good outcomes in each case. Making a connection is a truly human activity, which my job as a writer and a manager for a technology company gives me the opportunity to perform.

So my career is writing and managing, but my calling is…what? Communication? Ideation? Diplomacy? No, those are my strengths.

The interviewer who recommended “consider” originally envisioned a career in the non-profit field. She gets joy from helping others. While she was in school, she performed charity work with United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs, local development centers, and the like. After she finished school, she couldn’t afford a move to Virginia for a job as Marketing Manager for a United Way office. She had always enjoyed writing, so she snagged a job close to home as a technical writer, using her undergraduate degree in communications as credentials. She took graduate level courses in Technical Communications, her company footing the bill. That led to attending the first TriDoc, which led to a technical writing career in RTP. For her, the challenge of rendering chaotic material into something useful is a way of helping other people. She turns her job into her calling: helping. She makes a connection with others who follow that calling.

We extended an offer to that candidate, by the way. For various reasons, our funding limited us to a part-time position. The candidate expressed a willingness to take it so that she could spend time pursuing other interests, and perhaps through that pursuit find her calling. I thought she’d be a valuable addition to our team, as the quality of her work and the wealth of her experience would be assets to our productivity. We’re waiting to hear whether she accepts our offer.

All this leaves me still wondering whether technical writing is my calling. I don’t know. In the meantime, I’ll continue to seek the moments of flow, the opportunities for connection, and the good outcomes. So should you.

Michael can be reached at mtharvey at yahoo dot com. End of article.

Note: See the follow-up to this article, The Mystery Candidate Is Closer to Her Calling, published in the 4Q 2011 edition.

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