What I Hate (and Miss) About Technical Writer Team Meetings
Think the hour you have to spend each week assembled with your team is just a boring, predictable game of pin the blame on the donkey, and so dull that even a cup of your grandma's strong black coffee couldn't
keep you awake? Think your "work life" should be more dynamic, more exciting? Well, if you're a good writer, then maybe you should consider a career change. Become a technical writer and join a team full of them! Here's why: When you spend an hour in a room full of technical writers, instead of attempting to stay awake, your immediate concern will be staying alive!
A technical writer team meeting easily takes a whole hour, and then continues into another hour, without losing steam. The next person who reserved the room might poke his head in, but when he sees everyone with their fangs out, quickly closes it. You might relent on your death stare just long enough to catch a glimpse of the poor man’s feet hurrying away through the lower portion of the frosted glass door.
ALL technical writers KNOW that there is NOTHING like corralling a bunch of us into a room and attempting to hold a meeting. One mention of something as seemingly mundane as to how to format the name of a menu item in a desktop procedure can derail whatever semblance of order the facilitator THOUGHT she had (even though she knows it’s only false hope), with the facilitator often losing her composure and jumping into the fray! And God forbid one of the more tech-savvy writers suggest the team enhance plain old Microsoft Word with a sophisticated tool, only for another less-tech-savvy-and-perhaps-slightly-threatened writer to say that “real” technical writers don’t need “fancy” tools, just real SKILL. (Fight! Fight!)
One of our most charming and useful qualities is that we consider ourselves the fierce guardians of our
employer's documents. We want the companies we work for to represent themselves well to regulators, auditors, customers, and fellow employees. We do our best to ensure our work contributes to our employer's good reputation. But we also have our own reputations to protect. Therefore, when we are amongst ourselves, some of us kind of take things personally, and defend our points passionately.
Sometimes, loosening up the tight grip we want to have on all of the above is difficult, because technical writing is one of those nebulous areas where it almost seems too academic to be subject to the demands of a corporation, but it is a skill that corporations need desperately! Speaking only for myself, it's tough to balance my love of the craft with the demands of the organization. And I am notorious for pushing the boundaries of time in an attempt to achieve the "perfect" document!
Currently, I am without a team, and I haven't attended a technical writer team meeting since 2016. I am employed as the lone technical writer in one of the IT departments of a medium-sized company. In lieu of team meetings, I meet with my non-writer boss once a week to discuss assignments at a superficial level. Our meetings are very quick, very efficient, and totally non-emotional. I kind of dig it, because I am not a fan of long meetings, and as stated previously, dramatic ones either.
So, gone are the days of:
Debating about the use of things such as bulleted paragraphs week after week after week;
Reigning in the rogue writer who takes up the whole meeting defending her decision to pounce on colleagues' unlocked, unattended desktops to import her styles into other writers' Microsoft Word.
Trying to be the voice of reason in a near-mutiny that resulted from an overzealous, non-writer, fresh-out-of-a-big-name-consulting-firm manager telling us in a team meeting that process maps have to capture steps down to the subatomic level to depict how a system functions for end users (and that we need to finish said maps in three weeks or less to produce the bazillion flow charts she thinks she needs); or
Comforting a weeping colleague who just exited the conference room in tears because everyone chastised her for taking the liberty to restructure the team's SharePoint site, on which she also changed the color scheme from calming blue to shocking red.
The seas are calm. Life is good, but is it really? As contradictory as it might seem, there are times when I miss the camaraderie and constructive aspects of those good old technical writer meetings. I love devising a strategy and then banding together to complete a challenging project! Now, I just face challenging writing projects on my own.
What I miss most is sharing my ideas, celebrating my successes, and venting my frustrations to a group of people who understand the esoteric, documentation-centric things I want and sometimes need to talk about. When meetings have a strong facilitator, the result can be
great collaborative energy that comes from providing and receiving feedback and helping each other through challenging situations.
In my current situation, when I attempt to discuss my work, I mostly receive blank stares or patronizing platitudes. In what forum may I now express myself when a subject matter expert (SME) tells me something like the following:
SME: You should be able to finish that whole procedure by using the document I sent.
Thought to Self: Finish? Why is he saying finish? It’s a total friggin’ rewrite! It’s nowhere near finished!
SME: I copied and pasted the text from a PDF. I couldn’t find the original Word document, sorry.
Thought to Self: Ah yes, the one with all the text in wonky tables, that you sent five minutes ago, at three o’clock in the afternoon, that spans 30-plus pages, with page and section breaks spread throughout, that you either found in your Google search results or smuggled from a previous employer.
SME: Just drop it in the template and upload it for approval. You can finish that in about an hour and send it to me, right? We need it for the exam next week.
Thought to Self: Sure, it’ll only be as easy as finding
buckshot in the woods on a moonless night. I'll get right on that.
Don’t get me wrong, my manager is GREAT and AWESOME but he inherited me from another department, and freely admits he never managed a technical writer before. So maybe the onus is on me to do a better job of educating him about my role,
why certain things matter to me, and why I need and do certain things.
Outside of team meetings, technical writers are usually very civil, very cool people. A common thread that runs through many of us is that we have a wide array of creative and eclectic interests. In my experience, I’ve had the pleasure of working with singers, actors, adjunct professors, Buddhists, teachers, novelists, jugglers, magicians, kilt-wearers, quilters, gardeners, artists, horse trainers, traditional dancers, and skilled craftspeople.
However, come meeting time, we strap our steel-plated style guides to our chest, pack our knowledge, experience and opinions, and drink a stiff shot of self-confidence, then go all in to fight the battle to the finish that is the technical writer team meeting.
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