How Writers Get in the Way of Their Own Success

If you write in a professional capacity, your job exists because your company needs you. Most people can write, but not everyone can write well, so having above-average communication skills can go a long way towards building a successful career.

But at the same time, writers have their own unique pitfalls, and some might not even be aware of them, stepping into these traps and wreaking havoc on their professional lives. The following is short list of these flaws, along with ways that writers can sidestep them.

Focusing too much on the little details

I know this feeling all too well. A manual I’m working on still has many sections to go, but to get those done requires some dedicated time for research and asking the right people the right questions. And sometimes, I’d much rather just edit what I’ve already done. There’s always something I could phrase differently, another spell check I could run, and a slightly better way to format my content.

But this type of thinking doesn’t advance your work. If you’re a writer, you already know to check for grammar mistakes, and the design you’re working with is probably fine, at least for now. Grammar and design are all crucial aspects that deserve their own attention, but these phases come after you generate the content, so suck it up and get that part done. Make yourself do those less exciting tasks; extra detailing is just a distraction.

Using writing as a weapon

Writing a Professional Life (a series of narratives compiled by Gerald J. Savage and Dale L. Sullivan) was required reading for a course I took in college. Filled with true stories from technical writers of the past, the book details just how powerful the writer’s job actually is. It’s pretty apparent that writers can either be the best part of their workplace or the worst, and while sometimes it’s not the writer’s fault when things go sour, they have some responsibility to give their colleagues breathing room and make them happy you’re on the team.

The main job of a technical writer is to help people achieve tasks. But I’m surprised how often writers violate that principle and completely miss the point of their job. Above all, just be gracious. If you’re reviewing someone else’s writing, make sure you’re sandwiching critiques with positive feedback. Don’t use jargon to replace other jargon, or use your writing skill as a means to buy favors. Just make people’s jobs easier and stop being a self-righteous writer. If professional writers focused more on their job function and less on building their own domain, there would be far fewer negative stereotypes about writers in the workplace.

Not organizing their projects

One of the perks of professional writing is getting to work on lots of different projects at once. This can keep the day interesting; if one project is getting dull or is at a standstill, I can usually pick something else to work on at a moment’s notice. However, with this freedom comes lots of opportunity for my schedule to unravel, and I could use the whole day to switch among projects rather than actually complete any of them.

I have a whole other post all about writing productivity, but you can go a step further to get organized. Keep track of your progress with productivity tools, and there are a ton of them out there (while at a previous position, my team used Asana), so pick one and use it well. Document what you are getting done, even if it’s just using Sticky Notes on your Windows desktop. Have the end goals in sight, and you’ll go a long way to getting stuff done without those important details falling through the cracks.

Refusing to learn new things

One of my favorite quotations about technical writing came from Ric, a manager of mine from several years ago: “Most of technical writing is really just detective work; the actual writing is the easy part.” It’s a statement that becomes more and more true as my career progresses; writers have to be lifelong learners to truly flourish in their jobs. This means if they don’t know what to write, they have to get all the details they need to get started. As obvious as it sounds, you can’t start writing without knowing the topic well, so do your homework. Simply put, writing skills alone aren’t enough.

Not only do the subjects of professional writers vary, but so do the tools and skills. Writers often like to settle into a certain groove, but the most powerful and versatile writers are flexible and know a lot about a lot of things. If it would improve your writing to learn some programming, look into that. If you have a favorite software tool for your workflow, familiarize yourself with other applications like it. Expanding beyond what you know can be as simple as taking a free online course, installing a demo, or reading a For Dummies book, so shake things up a bit for yourself.

If I’m being honest, some of these are a punch to my gut. If any of these describe you, I’d challenge you to take some steps and revitalize your success. Your job is too important not to.

Agree or disagree with any of the above? Any other pitfalls you’ve encountered? Comment away below.

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One comment on “How Writers Get in the Way of Their Own Success

  1. Focusing too much on the details: yes! We have to be on guard against this one. Perhaps this is a carryover from the days when you’d publish something — usually on paper — and it had to be perfect because there was no opportunity to republish. Or maybe it’s just a tendency to fall back on doing the things we’re most comfortable doing.

    I recently wrote about a similar malady: the impulse to do it now.

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