Learning to Write Again

Often I write a sentence and it’s so bad I wonder, “Am I actually any good at this?” I keep working, and the sentence gets a little better. Then I get up, get a snack, and sit down to work on it more. I continue like this until what was once a disjointed sentence is a sentence that is closer to saying what I meant it to say the first time.

The rabbit I drew and wrote about.

I’ve been writing most of my life. I’ve always enjoyed it and always took it seriously. As a first grader I drew little animals in my marbled notebook and wrote a few sentences describing the animals. It felt like an act of revolution. To accompany the guitar lessons I took as a 12-year-old, I tried my hand at writing poems slash song lyrics. If these still exist, they deserve to stay wherever they are (read: hidden in a box somewhere far, far from the Internet).

High school was a rewarding time for me as a writer. In English class I wrote essays about Shakespeare and Orwell and, I promise, at least a few writers who were not white British dudes. My history class essays are memorable thanks to the many hours of required research. I studied the related roots of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism for one term paper. I learned about Mahatma Gandhi’s life and the Partition of India for another. Reading history was interesting, interpreting it and expressing my opinion, exhilarating.

The summer between freshman and sophomore years of high school was pivotal in my life as a writer. Siddhartha was the summer reading assignment, and as I read it in a hammock in my family’s backyard, I had an epiphany. A person – granted, another white dude – had written this book, I realized. Books did not just appear, they did not just happen to exist. Someone set out to write them, to make a point, to tell a story. I realized I wanted to write books like that one. I realized that I could write books like it.

College humbled me as both writer and student. No longer was I a big fish in a little pond, and my grades reflected that. When it came to my writing assignments, the sophistication of my arguments, the thoroughness of my research, and the rigor of my intellect were not always what they should have been. I thought I was better than I was. Quickly I realized that the talent that had floated me through school up to that point was no longer sufficient. It was clear that I also needed some discipline. I got through it, though, and I graduated with an English literature degree, a highly marketable degree, ahem, to be sure. It was 2009, so naturally I moved back in with my parents.

In high school I’d worked for a local newspaper as a glorified paper boy, a job that I liked and still look back on fondly, and this connection helped me land a freelance writing gig with the Lake Norman Citizen. I interviewed local figures in my hometown and wrote human interest stories on Lutheran preachers, directors of soup kitchens, and religious missionaries building wells in Africa. When the Charlotte Observer put out a call for freelance writers, I responded with a short piece about how difficult it was to turn left while driving in my suburb, and wound up with another gig, covering similar local human interest territory for that paper.

While I was excited to write for these newspapers, I also found it quite difficult and terrifying. Nobody had trained me to be a journalist. I thought writing was a job done alone, in solitude, conjuring up narratives out of thin air. Getting out into the world to conduct interviews, take notes, and report fairly were not things I readily knew how to do. As frightening and strange as it was to reach out to sources, however, the drug of seeing my name in print every week was highly addictive, and I grew to enjoy the interviews. I discovered people liked being asked questions about themselves. They enjoyed seeing their names in print, too.

After working for two years as a technical writer for a large bank in Charlotte, I moved to New York at the age of 25. I held a few different jobs for a few different software companies over the course of five years, picking up client relationship and technical skills along the way. Though none of them felt quite right, I was repeatedly drawn to any opportunity to write product documentation. Usually my efforts were well-received if not outright lauded, but I failed to see the pattern.

These writing opportunities felt like distractions on the way to a serious, important job within tech. I searched for the “right fit” somewhere out there on the horizon, not realizing writing was not a distraction but rather me coming back to center. This became all too clear last summer when half of my then-company’s New York product team was laid off. I shifted into a sales engineer role, where writing was no longer part of my job. While past jobs had felt slightly off, this one felt altogether wrong. Not until it was missing did I realize how important writing is to me on a professional level.

So it became clear: all I wanted to do was write. It was that simple, and it had always been that simple. The answer had been right in front of me all along, but I had overlooked it.

Epiphanies are great. But if you want real change in your life, you have to act. Thus I began scouring the internet for writing jobs. I knew I wanted to wake up and go somewhere to write, and I figured my skill set and experience made me a fine candidate for technical writing jobs. I wanted company with a “serious” product offering – say a financial tech company – which would draw upon whatever I had retained from my bank days. I also wanted to continue to work closely with product and engineering, where I could use my technical skills. After a little searching and a lot of conversations, I found the right opportunity and started a new job in March.

Most people don’t know exactly what technical writers do. That’s completely fair and, presuming that’s you, dear reader, I’ll try to explain. In short, I write documents that help clients understand and use software. Put another way, I translate between techspeak and business lingo in order to articulate to clients how to be successful with our product.

Pick a day of the week, and my schedule will likely be a mishmash of writings tasks, meetings, and research. I meet with product managers and designers to name new features and decide on copy appearing in the application. When new features are released, I write release notes to let our clients know what’s new and articles to help them use those new features. Focusing on the technical side of things, I write guides to help clients set up our pre-built integrations as well as maintain our API docs, empowering them to build new ones.

Make no mistake, it feels great to be writing full-time. However, I’ve been humbled more than once in the past six months. Just as I’ve learned a vital lesson at each stage in my life as a writer, in the past few months I’ve again been reminded that I’m often not as good as I think I am. That I need to write deliberately, with intent and fervor. That I need to more deeply understand my audience and material. I work with the highest-caliber writers, designers, product managers, engineers, marketers, et al. They ask compelling questions, venture suggestions, and demand excellence. They push me to think more rigorously about style, structure, and voice. 

I’m learning to write all over again. But this is not altogether new: I’ve learned how to write many times over. First I learned to make the characters of the alphabet, then how to string them into sentences, then how to knit those sentences into paragraphs. Later, I learned how to write in different forms: essays, newspaper stories, technical documents, blog posts. Now I’m learning how to focus on my craft. Each and every day, I exercise the writing muscle, building upon what I’ve written before to strengthen what I’ll write in the future. When all is going well, this type of learning never ends.

The pleasure of anything is found in the doing of it. It was in college that I learned I needed discipline, but it’s been as a working adult that I’ve learned the discipline itself. I write everyday, no matter what. I get paid for some of what I write. Some of it is just for me. A lot of what I write, regardless of the audience, is really bad. Luckily I am experienced enough to know when it’s bad. And that’s when I go back and re-write it, working on it steadily, regardless of whim or the weather. When I write a bad sentence and wonder, “Am I actually any good at this?” the true answer is that I’m okay, but not as good as I can be. The sentence is okay, too, but not as good as it will be.

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