The Spirit of the Student

Knowing is a barrier to learning.
–Frank Herbert

As an English major among scientists and engineers, the odds are good that when it comes to my work content, I’ll be the least-informed person in the room. This is not a problem, but an opportunity. Not knowing something offers the opportunity to learn. Therefore, approaching the field of technical writing as a student is an advantage. Or, if you don’t like the term “student,” think of yourself as a “lifelong learner.” Here are your advantages…

  • Learners are not expected to know everything, so there is no shame in admitting it. Therefore…
  • Learners are expected to ask questions. A “stupid question” that makes you smarter for knowing the answer isn’t stupid.
  • Peers are more tolerant of a humble learner than an arrogant expert.
  • Asking questions of an expert will yield more useful information about your specific environment than just looking it up. However…
  • Learners are expected to do a little homework. The way I operate with most things is to do some cursory reading first (use Wikipedia as a starting point for more authoritative sources). Then, if I still need to understand how a general topic applies to my specific situation, I can ask a slightly less stupid question. By the way, I had to learn this one the hard way. It took a manager asking me, “Bart, did you try looking it up first?” before I got the hint.

Expertise has its place, and when it comes to communication issues (i.e., how to say things), you are well within your rights to correct someone or offer suggestions–politely, of course. However, when it comes to the content, it’s not a sin to play the “English major card,” and embrace your inner learner.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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