Re: FWD: Looking for advice -- up to the job?

Subject: Re: FWD: Looking for advice -- up to the job?
From: Doc <dlettvin -at- attbi -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 04 Jul 2002 14:51:29 -0400

On Wed, 3 Jul 2002 07:04:15 -0600 (MDT), Anonymous
<anonfwd -at- raycomm -dot- com> wrote:
>Now I'm devastated. My present firm tells me I don't have
>sufficient depth of understanding of its software (after ten months

An interesting complaint. The challenge that I gave my TWs was that
they had to "unlearn" the software between development cycles. The TW
works for the user NOT the programmer. So the question I'd ask is how
much depth of understanding did your users need.

Any time a programmer come to me and complains that so and so needs to
understand TCP/IP in more depth, my question back is, "Is depth of
TCP/IP knowledge a prerequisite for the user? If so I want to make
sure that is stated in the requirements section." You would be amazed
how quickly the attitude changes.

>I'm still not good enough with master docs (and
>other black magic) in MS Word. (Some programmers cope better than I
>do). I have an up-hill struggle with each new tool and the learning
>curve is not levelling off very much.

Master docs are better now than a few years ago, but they still have
major problems. I doubt that the programmers are as good at using them
as they think.

There are a couple of alternatives. A company in Israel puts out a set
of macros that replace the Master document idiocy and, supposedly, let
you write without being a Word Basic guru. You can find them at

An even easier alternative is to simply develop the content as
separate chapters and use the chapnum-pagenum pagination. Then you can
insert a table of contents at the end of each chapter and copy it to
or refer to it from the main TOC.
>So while they're happy with me as an honest, hard-working,
>committed guy doing his best, we've "agreed to part company"

My guess is that it's their loss

>I could talk myself back into a C++ or technical writing job and fail again.

Quit the defeatist attitude is the first order of business.

>Can anyone suggest what I should do?
>* Training?

Training would be good, if you enjoy it.

>* Telephone support?

Only if you are a masochist. Tech Support people NEVER get nice calls.
<Generalization for emphasis only>

>* Teaching?

If you don't think you can cope then you probably can't.

>* Technical Writing? I'm told that there are large staid companies
>that still need solid plodders like me to write for them. Is this

Listen to me Anon (love your poetry BTW). I can't tell whether or not
you like your job let alone love it. You seem to be in a cloud of
gloom and willing to believe everything negative that your former
employers said or that you imagine.

I have no idea whether they were justified or not in their analysis of
your skills. I do know that you need to recognize that success is the
grace you display in moving from one challenge to the next.

Some people might interpret what you've said as insightful
self-analysis. I hear it as, "I probably deserved their scorn."

Yes, you could probably submerge as a "solid plodder" in a large
organization. I have employed people like that. But is that all you
want, to grind away as a cog in the mechanism?

You write well. You are intelligent. You are witty, though in this
post it is self-destructive. I know people who are less equipped for
the profession who succeed at it.

You have to want it.

You say that the level of compensation for your work is no longer
important so I'll leap to the conclusion that:
* You actually like the work.
* You can take a little time to work things out.

Here are some steps to take:

1. Take a break. Read some Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt or Tom Sharpe. As
a matter of fact, your melancholy epistle sounds like you've been
reading Tom Sharpe's "Wilt" books recently.

2. Search this list for answers from problem solvers. Don't look at
the solution, but at clues to the method they used to arrive at the
solution. If you can't figure out how they got the answer, ask. Most
will be overjoyed to give you the gory details.

3. Read some good books on thinking. I recommend:
* Daniel Dennett - Conciousness Explained
* Terrence Deacon - The Symbolic Species
* Henry Petrosky - To Engineer is Human
* Temple Grandin - Thinking in Pictures

4. Read about usability.

5. Think about how people use what you write.

6. Take your obvious delight with training and turn that mindset
toward the paper.

7. Start thinking of yourself as a problem solver, as a proxy for the
user, an advocate for clarity, an enemy of complexity, and a technical

8. Log on to the internet and go looking for some interesting
shareware programs or log into Look at their
documentation. Find some that is appallingly bad or needs volunteer
work (that shouldn't be difficult), and offer to rewrite it for them.
Let what you've been reading and thinking affect your writing.

. . . and as an illustrious forbear on this list used to say,


David W Lettvin
South Hamilton, MA
"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." - G.K. Chesterton

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