Summary: There is a romance to technical communication, because there is a romance to all useful things. But don’t expect the romance of technical communication to be apparent to everyone.
Technical communication is a romantic profession. No, really. There is a romance to any profession if you love it. But why would anyone love a utilitarian profession like technical communication? Because there is a romance to useful things.
This thought is prompted by Tom Johnson’s recent post on trying (and failing) to interest students at his daughters school in a career in technical communication. Tom made the best possible case for tech comm as a compelling career (my book was on the table), and yet none of the students stopped by. Why?
I think the reason is that the students are too young to grasp the romance of technical communication. Romance is key to career choices, especially the speculative ones we make while still in school. Life’s course may force us into unromantic occupations (unromantic to us, at least) but ask a child about their career choices and their answer will always be romantic.
My granddaughter told me the other day that she is going to be a teacher. She has an aunt that she loves who is a teacher, and hopefully teachers of her own that she likes. It is a romantic choice. But as a student, she is also in a position to see the usefulness of teaching. I’m completely sure she would be unable to see the usefulness of what I do for a living. But she can see the usefulness of teaching. It is romantic to her, and romantic because it is useful.
Tom paints a very utilitarian picture of his career progression into technical writing, choosing it because it was more lucrative than his earlier writing and teaching jobs. And yet it is very clear to anyone who reads his blog that Tom Johnson is in love with technical writing — and not in love in the sense of he enjoys doing it, but in love in the much broader sense that he cares about it as a profession and as a useful contribution to society — that he devotes much time and thought to it outside of the hours he is paid to practice it.
We have been taught that romantic things are non-utilitarian. I suspect deBeers is at the root of it, with their masterful promotion of the idea of the diamond engagement ring. The diamond ring becomes a way for a young man to express his devotion to a young woman by blowing two months salary on a chunk of crystallized carbon.
Actually, it is probably more pervasive than that, an underlying countercurrent to the materialism of the present age that associates all utility with commerce and all commerce with degradation. In this there is the idea that a romantic profession must involve direct service to people, a low salary, and, ideally, uncomfortable working conditions.
But such service is really only romantic because it is useful. If the service offered is not actually useful to those who receive it, there is no romance in the act. (The world has little patience for disaster tourists — those well-meaning but clueless people who flock to disaster zones with no relevant skills or equipment, only a vague idea of doing good, and who simply get in the way of people who could actually be useful.)
But if such service is romantic because it is useful, why should other useful things be less romantic? They may be less virtuous, but that is another question. Being useful to the poor and to those in distress may be a more morally worthy use of our time than being useful to the comfortable and well off. And such service may be romantic because it is virtuous as well as because it is useful. (It can only really be virtuous if it is useful. Doing good isn’t doing good unless it is doing good.)
But the question here is not whether technical communication is virtuous, but whether it is romantic, and whether, more generally, there is a romance to useful things.
If you doubt the romance of useful things, try hanging out with engineers. Engineering is all about useful things. But the logic of mere utility should be that they are only interested in useful things that are immediately useful to themselves. But engineers are interested in all kinds of useful things, in tools, techniques, and machines that are not useful to them in their life or work, but which are clearly of use to someone. Rube Goldberg machines and pointless mechanical trinkets may evoke brief interest, but for the most part, “not useful” is the ultimate engineering put down. Engineers are in love with usefulness.
And, in fact, we are all in love with usefulness to one extent or another. Usefulness is what makes any job bearable and a good job wonderful. The loss of usefulness is what often makes retirement unbearable.
Technical communication is a romantic profession because it is a useful profession. But don’t expect a school child to see the romance in it. They are too young to see the utility. For so many of us, tech comm is a second career. In part that may be because we had never heard of it before our careers started. But I think the real reason is that until one has done real work, it is hard to appreciate the utility of good technical communication, and therefore impossible to capture its romance.
So perhaps we should worry less about attracting students to the profession, and accept technical communication for what it is, the romantic choice of a mature working mind.