#1 motivation for tech writers

A sense of purpose! – Having a sense of purpose has motivated me as a tech writer most reliably over the years, regardless of the project at hand. It helps me overcome adverse conditions and huge workloads. But what is that sense of purpose? And how does it work as a motivating force?

A sense of purpose in tech writing

I usually find a sense of purpose outside the document I produce: It can be a recently hired colleague who tells me my manual helped her get up to speed quickly. It can be a customer services colleague who tells me my online help provided the answers a caller needed. It can be colleague from the training crew who recommends my tutorial before or after a training course. Or it can be a customer who felt confident about upgrading because the Release Notes told him what he was getting himself into.

So to me, finding a sense of purpose goes beyond me and my document (though that should still be well laid out, spelled correctly and all that). It is about the relationships which my documentation facilitates between the product and its users. It is knowing that the product and the company are better for the documentation. And it is frequently knowing that my documentation serves the customer.

How a sense of purpose works

A good explanation of the motivational forces of purposeful work is a psychological model called the “Self-Determination Theory” which I found summarized on the Study Hacks blog:

To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Specifically, excerpted again from the Study Hacks post:

Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time.
Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things.
Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others.

That pretty much describes my ideal workplace as a tech writer. Of course, reality takes its toll occasionally, with deadlines, less than useful tools or an out-of-sync irritation when I find that various documents available to customers are at odds.

Ensuring a sense of purpose

If you are managing tech writers, there a few things you can do to make sure your writers can be motivated by a sense of purpose:

  • Allow for sufficiently autonomous time management: I’m all in favor of deadlines, but tech writers and managers should sit down to agree on the desired quality and scope of documentation to come up with reasonable deadlines. Or if you have a set deadline first and foremost, agree on what scope and quality can reasonably be achieved within that time frame.
  • Encourage writers to reach out to other departments to share contents, documents and purpose: Frequently, training and customer services hold related stakes in having high-quality and useful documentation.
  • Ensure that regular documentation user surveys align the supplied documentation with its usage and expectations.

Dan Pink has more advice for managers in his article on “Gainful employment“.

What’s the best motivation for your writing? What provides you with a sense of purpose?

5 Responses

  1. My primary motivator is knowing that my documentation can help even one single person finish a task. Perhaps they are staying late after work because they are struggling with a software issue. Helping them solve that issue means they can get home to their family faster.

    Our documents help real people get through tedious tasks so that they’ll have time to enjoy their lives.

    Great post, Kai!

    • Thanks, Craig, I’d never pictured my users in such an individual way as you describe it – I think this makes a tech writer’s purpose especially tangible. Great idea!

  2. The blog “Lessons of Failure” has a post that outlines very similar motivators for software developers – though it does omit the “relatedness” bit… 🙂

    So if you buy into the motivators for yourself, think of them next time you have a hard time getting a straight answer out of a developer. (It won’t necessarily help you get an answer, but it can remind you that you’re interested in similar things… 😉 ).

  3. Kai, good thoughts, particularly that documents should facilitate a good relationship between the consumer and product. I would add facilitating a good relationship between the consumer and the organization, resulting in loyalty.

    I’m motivated by working for a non-profit organization I believe in and knowing that what I do can help volunteers in the organization to use the software we build to help them meet their volunteer responsibilities. I certainly want them to have a good opinion about the organization they’ve volunteered in (or, if they happen to also be employees, the org they work for). 🙂

    • Thanks, Ben. Yes, good documentation definitely can improve the reputation of the company as well. I can’t think of better proof how securing such relationships is its own reward than your enthusiasm for a non-profit org!

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