Aging Gracefully in Tech Comm


Happy middle-aged people, courtesy of Daily Express

This past year, I turned 42, and I’ve had to start admitting that I’m now “middle aged.” Gasp. Forty was harder than I thought it would be, and I’m trying to age gracefully, but I hear poet Dylan Thomas’s ghost whispering to me, “Do no go gentle into that good night!” I get the same feeling every time I read about the evolution of the technical communication field. Practitioners and textbook authors seem positively anxious about what’s happening in the field, and I would argue unnecessarily so. Each field goes through growing pains, and as a former technical writer and a teacher of writing, I’m less concerned about what we call it and more concerned about what we do and how we continue to evolve gracefully within the profession.

When entrenched in any field of study or interest, it’s important to understand its history. The historical timeline that R. Spilka (2010) chronicles in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some obvious changes that have occurred in the last several decades. Changing social norms, technologies, and business practices have had the largest impacts: more women are writers, more work is online, all technical communication work is done using technology, and as a result the skill set that technical communicators need has expanded. This is true of most professions. My mom taught in a two-room schoolhouse. She didn’t use a learning management system (LMS) to display course content or let students and parents review grades online. As a twenty-first century instructor, I use an LMS daily, most of my classes have computers, and we’re offering many more online courses. The profession changes, and so do we as practitioners.

When I graduated in 1999 and shortly after was hired to be a technical writer for an internet-based start-up company, I wished that my undergraduate degree had prepared me more for the technical aspect of the field. I had used Word to write essays, but that was about it. I had to teach myself some HTML, graphics, and the new-at-the-time RoboHelp program. Spilka notes that when the internet bubble burst a few years later, more employers were looking for the technical communicators who had those technical skills (p. 37). Teaching myself those skills was good for me. It made me more motivated and confident, but it would’ve been easier to transition quickly into the field with more computer software and technical skills.

At my first writing job, I was a lone technical writer in a group of computer software engineers. As I moved on to my next writing job, I would start to mimic some of the changes that emerged from Phase 3 to Phase 4, according to Spilka. In the early ‘00s as the Internet became part of our workplaces and households, my work broadened to include website copy, marketing brochures, both print and online, and working within a team of writers for multiple clients. By this time, the Internet and the websites on it had a less rinky-dink and a more professional appearance. Internally, we developed standards guides that we distributed throughout the company and expected everyone to adhere to. Rather than just seen as “translators,” we were included in design and


Early Google landing screen, courtesy of Telegraph

marketing meetings. Quite honestly, I liked it better that way.

Spilka caps off the second chapter of Digital Literacy by writing, “technical communicators’ work is undergoing significant changes at a rapid pace” (p. 75). He later admits that all industries are.

No longer is it enough to just be a writer. Technical communicators (aka symbolic analysts) must be Jacks and Jills of all skills and must keep those skills up-to-date with the changing needs of the market–as must most employees in this information age. The largest take-away from these two first chapters is the need for technical communicators to keep demonstrating their value, and that means their dollar value. With the threat of downsizing and globalization, the author posits that technical communicators must muscle their way to mission alignment and administrative recognition. It seems like this shouldn’t be necessary, but I suppose it is. 

Spilka ends Chapter 2 with “While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication profession, it also promises the kinds of challenges and rewards as such periods always yield” (78). That’s right, Dylan Thomas! We won’t go gently, but go we must.

Dylan Thomas

Seductive Dylan Thomas, courtesy of Literary Hub




P.S. Googling images of middle-aged people is an exercise in humility itself. It results in a lot of Truman Show-esque couples in weirdly smiling embraces.




Posted on October 28, 2018, in Blogs, Digital, Literacy, Society, Teaching, Technology, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I will comment on your points in a few hours as I’m heading into my ENGL 101 class now, but these images and captions and notes are hilarious!

    OK I’m back—I will say this, which I might have mentioned before—but I do think those of us in the 40-range are at an advantage since we know life before and after the Internet. I would think that makes us a bit more thoughtful about choosing which technologies to communicate with, particularly if our employers give us options. I’ve joked recently about a professor here who is promoting the use of virtual reality in courses, and that’s totally innovative for the student, but if we can’t even get all faculty to rely on an Outlook calendar, how on earth with that ever take off?!?

    • Hi Dr. Pignetti,

      Yes, I do appreciate that we’ve straddled both worlds, and I think maybe? it makes it easier for us to step away more frequently? You’re also right about VR and technology in the classrooms. We’re still struggling to get some of our instructors to use an LMS and actually put students’ grades in it. I can’t really fathom that anybody just keeps a paper copy anymore. The other thing I’ve noticed about middle age is that I have an inferior memory, so I need all those dings and whistles on my phone and computer to help me remember meetings and deadlines.

  2. Your blog this week is great and hilarious! Sad but true, middle age is a hard pill to swallow. I turn 39 in 2 weeks and am freaking out because I won’t finish my graduate degree until about month after I turn 40 (not the plan I had when I was 23). Being middle age also makes me constantly look at my daughter and ask her to repeat what she is saying in plain English so I know what she talking about! It makes me think of Marlin in Finding Nemo saying, “Look, you’re really cute, but I can’t understand what you are saying.” I wrote in my blog this week about the evolution of the technical writer position. You had a huge learning challenge getting into your job after graduation! And right at the time that internet was really taking off and changing our work and personal interactions. We received email addresses in 1999 when I was a Freshman in college and I still remember being in awe of that technology alone! However, I bet it prepared you well for all the changes that were still to come.

    Thank you for the laughs!


    • Hi Jennifer

      Happy almost birthday! You’re young yet. My mother-in-law still tells everyone she’s 39 because she said it was her best year.

      I can appreciate the “Finding Nemo” quote! It becomes truer each year. I remember when I was looking for a writing job right out of college, and no one wanted to hire me because I had no experience yet, and being frustrated by how I was supposed to get experience if no one allowed me to try get started.

      Yes, email addresses in 1999 sounds about right! It’s a wonder that we still manage to get the same about of spam as we did back then, though.

  3. Hi Amery!

    Great post and reflection of your journey as a technical writer. It’s interesting for me to hear how technical communication was viewed in the early 2000s. I’m twenty-four and have only been practicing technical communication for the past three years, so you can say I’m relatively new to the field. However, you talked about how much technical writers have evolved, but I find myself doing many of things that you did (graphics, marketing, website copy, etc). I think what has changed, and as you mention, are the tools and technology. We’re expected to know more about certain tools and technical skills in order to get hired. It’s hard to predict how technical communication will change over the coming years, but I agree that technical writers need to lose the fuss of “what we are” and just go!

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