I 've been a writer of trade level technical materials for over 13 years now, writing books, articles, blogs, and even tweets for a variety of outlets, almost exclusively about Microsoft SQL Server. While I won't claim to be the best writer in the world, I feel like I have the process of writing down fairly well, yet, for the life of me, there is still the question of "why do I do this?" stuck in the back of my mind that I have yet to appease.
Note that my quest specifically deals with non-verbal communication, because it seems to me that presentations are a completely different sort of "why" altogether.
So I have decided to survey as many of my technical writing colleagues and find out their answer to the "why" question. The only criteria for being included in this set is that you write about a subject like programming, gadgets, computer administration, etc.; and that you don't make your most of your living from writing (in other words, if you stopped writing today, tomorrow you would not be in fear of sleeping in the gutter.)
To get the process started, I have asked Thomas LaRock to be my first survey participant. Tom is a SQL Server MVP, has written a very popular book called DBA Survivor for Apress, frequently tweets as @sqlrockstar, and blogs at www.thomaslarock.com where he maintains a popular ranked list of SQL bloggers (of which I am listed in the tempdb category). He is a member of the executive committee of SQL PASS, and is very active in the SQL community as a speaker. He currently works for Confio as a Technical Evangelist. Tom is also quite well known in our SQL communitiy as a lover of the delightful cured porcine meat known as bacon.
If you want to see Tom in person, he will be doing a pre-conference seminar with Grant Fritchey and Dandy Weyn this year at Tech-Ed North America in early June in New Orleans entitled How to Be a Successful DBA in the Changing World of Cloud and On-Premise Data.
1. Every good superhero (or in your case, SQL Rockstar) has an origin story. What got you involved in writing?
Tom: The birth of my daughter. I wanted to record as many details as possible and since I had 10MB of available space for a website as part of my cable package (yeah...10 MEGABYTES BABY!) it was easy enough to get a website up quickly and easily. The writing came easily, too, since I was writing about something so close to my heart, something I remain passionate about to this day.
2. We all have influencers that have advanced our careers as writers. It may be a teacher who told you that you had great potential? Another writer who impressed you that you wanted to be like? Or perhaps on the other end of the spectrum it was a teacher who told you that you were too stupid to write well enough to spell your own name, much less have people one day impressed with your writing? Who were your influences that stand out as essential parts of your journey to the level of writer you have become?
Tom: I never try to be exactly like someone else. If I did then I would always be second best. Instead I've learned to take bits and pieces of different people and shape them into who I am today. The writer I admire most these days is Bill Simmons followed by Gregg Easterbrook. Both are known more for their sports writing but their style of writing is one that I try my best to emulate: it's human. I do not enjoy the dryness of technical writing, I prefer to write from my heart about things that I enjoy. That makes it less of a chore.
3. My writing process is pretty drawn out, often starting on my phone in OneNote, sometimes finishing in 10 minutes, but often taking a year (or years) to finish an idea. Can you describe the process you go through to write, from inception of an idea until it gets put out for consumption?
Tom: I used to start a draft inside of WordPress but lately I have been using EverNote to track my ideas and take notes. From there I just decide to go and get it done. I do my best to follow a very loose format: describe a problem, explain why it's an issue, help readers understand any and all tradeoff (cost, benefits, risks), and a few action items for them to use as a take away. Once I have that framework in my head it doesn't take long to get to a finished product. I think I may spend more time on finding a decent image to use with my post than the actual writing itself.
4. Assume a time machine has been created, and you are allowed to go back in time to speak to a group of potential writers, in which you and I are in attendance. What would you tell "past us", and do you think that your advice would change where you and I are in our careers now?
Tom: Write for yourself first. Feed your own soul. Don't worry about what your readers want. You can't write for others, they will never be happy with what you have done. The only person that needs to be happy with your words is you. When you write and share yourself then your readership will grow with people who are naturally drawn to you, and it makes it easier for you to keep sharing your words with people that want to hear them. And no, this advice wouldn't change. Ever.
5. Finally, beyond the "how" questions, now the big one. There are only 24 hours in a day, and there are no doubt tremendous pulls on your time from family, friends, and pork products, yet, even considering just your blog output, you obviously sit down at a keyboard very often to write. Why?
Tom: Most of the time I just feel that I have words that need to be written. Doing so helps to feed my soul. I'm at a keyboard a lot because my job requires it, and I am able to spend a lot of my day just writing as a way to communicate with others. Sometimes it's an email, sometimes it's a support ticket, other times it's a blog post.
I want to thank Tom for being my first participant in my experiment. I find his answer to the “why” question very similar to mine, in that he doesn’t so much offer a tangible reason, but more that he feels compelled to do so. I have to say that the question of how he got started is really quite unexpected, and very interesting, and is going to affect my future questions I ask because more than just the origin story, it will be interesting to see whether people started writing technically first, or for some other reason. I know that before I wrote my first book, I had never written 2 pages of material that wasn’t graded rather harshly by someone with PhD behind their name (or at least one of their low paid minions.)
Unfortunately (or fortunately if you enjoyed this first entry) Tom certainly did not resolve any of my questions to any level of satisfaction so I am going to have to continue to ask more of my technical writer colleagues for their opinion as well.
To that end, my next interviewee will be Mark Vaillancourt, whose website is http://markvsql.com/ and whom has a degree in English and Theatre (so he will know if it should have been whom or who earlier in this probably run on sentence), so that could make for quite an interesting interview. Perhaps he may resolve my curiosity about how one can go from the seemingly non-technical to spending his time working on SQL Server Business Intelligence. I don’t know but I look forward to finding out.