I was a technical writer for nearly 30 years. In that time I wrote manuals for everything from F16 planes to optic lens technology. I always geared my manuals toward new employees and/or newbies to the field. I would start with something as basic as “Step 1: turn on your computer.”
I cataloged every step just in case the person reading it was a new employee, or someone who had to pick up a job for someone who left. This way, if the reader already knew the basics, they could skip right to the nitty-gritty.
This approach didn’t always fly with upper management. They felt that I was being “too simplistic” and should just cut to the chase and write about the “real meat” of the subject. In one of my jobs I faced a panel consisting of the president of the company, the office manager and the head of sales.
One by one they trashed my manual as being “first grader-ish.” The president glared at me and said, “I have a Ph.D and you should really write this manual to my level.”
The office manager said, “I graduated summa cum laude in Engineering at <hoity-toity ivory tower school>, and this manual is just too basic. You really should write it geared to those with higher education.”
The head of sales said, “This manual should be much more sales-oriented. That’s who brings the money in!”
I smiled at them all and replied, “well, those are certainly great ideas. Tell you what, this is what I’ll do: I will write a manual for Ph.D level readers, a manual for engineers, and a manual specifically for Sales.”
They all looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. The president said flatly, ‘well that’s just stupid! Why would you do that when you could just write one manual for everyone at every level?”
I replied, “actually, that is exactly what I did in this manual.” <insert sound of several crickets here> Let’s just say that they grudgingly approved the manual and suddenly had something really important to do.
But as we all know, most people never read manuals, even myself. When I get a new something-or-other that comes with a manual, I never read it. Sad but true. I got to thinking that my 30-something years of being a technical writer was not only unsuccessful, but unremarkable as well.
Then someone I respect made me feel a lot better about my career. She said, ‘you took an educational approach rather than a business approach—which is exactly how you learn and teach others.’ How about that? I never thought of it that way, and am grateful for a new perspective. Perhaps my manuals did help after all.
I think that many of us are too hard on ourselves, and, looking back on previous jobs, wish that we had done better. We may start a downward spiral in our heads that doesn’t do any of us any good. We have to believe that we did the best that we could at the time and let the rest go.
Maybe my career wasn’t that bad after all.