Is It Better to Be Part of a Cause or an Industry?

Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked as an advocate for human spaceflight, a professional for organizations building the hardware, and a little bit of both now and then. Both roles have their parts to play, with each having its own advantages and disadvantages for the practicing or aspiring technical writer.

Writing as an Advocate

I’m a big fan of technical writers acting as advocates in science and technology-related causes. Indeed, that was the essence of my master’s thesis. My chosen cause, of course is space exploration, though there are others out there: environmental protection, energy, wildlife conservation, transportation, and yes, even information technology. If you’re interested in a cause, odds are, they’re in need of a writer or at least an editor.

I’ve defined technical advocacy as a rich and hearty mixture of technical communication, politics, and marketing. The technical communication part is easy to understand–that’s the content.

However, politics and marketing require slightly different parts of the brain. If you’re advocating for a cause, odds are, you want to change laws in your country at some point. That means identifying the key players involved in writing those laws–legislative subcommittee members, and so forth–as well as the interests guiding their decisions. Are their campaigns heavily funded by people or organizations opposed to the changes you want to make? How can you get those opponents to see the good side of the laws or regulations you want passed? Or, what arguments could you use to defeat your opponents? All that is politics, and your writing must take into account the sensibilities of lawmakers, even if it appalls you to do so.

Marketing is the warm-and-fuzzy aspect of things: writing prose that tugs at the emotions, gets people outraged at a wrong, or inspires them to take action. It often involves compelling visuals, too: pictures as well as tables and graphs so that your readers–politicians and the general public–understand the case you’re trying to make.

Advantages of being an advocate

The fun part of being an advocate, aside from being in the company of like-minded people, is that you can throw your best, most emotional prose into the effort. Inspire! Win hearts and minds! Inspire! It’s also easier to see things from either a big-picture perspective or a single-minded, good-vs.-evil perspective, should you be so inclined. As a private citizen in a society allowing free speech, you’re allowed “to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (U.S. Constitution, First Amendment).

Many advocates are self-taught, reading broadly or deeply about topics that interest them, depending on their motivations. This has advantages, as you can draw upon some of the best, existing arguments for your cause.

Disadvantages

The downside of being an advocate can be a lack of formal education, which is why it’s good to tap sympathetic subject matter experts for technical advice and correction before you go sending out any scientific or technological facts. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one providing prognostications about a given science or technology. Again, you sometimes need experts to fill in the blanks.

Another downside of being an advocate is that you might have some mistaken views about out “the process” works on Capitol Hill or other sausage-making factories where laws are written. I recall visiting a bunch of congressional offices in 2004 in support of additional funding for the nascent Constellation Program. Everyone was very polite and appreciative of our input; then, on the 35th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, they cut the damned budget! Another disadvantage you can have as a citizen lobbyist is being unknowledgeable about any behind-the-scenes technological, regulatory, or political constraints that prevent organizations or governments from taking the action you want–again, that requires research: the more, the better.

Writing as an Industry Professional

Some of us get so into our personal favorite causes that we get a job in the field so we can actually participate in work that is making the future happen that you want. That means, in many cases, you’re working as a writer for organizations, programs, or projects developing technologies that advance a particular outcome.

Advantages

You’re learning, on a day-to-day basis, how one particular program solves problems and makes things happen. You get up close with the subject matter experts and sometimes the hardware itself. You have, if not first-hand, at least second-hand knowledge of something that is making the world a better place as you see it. You have facts and figures at your command. You might not be advocating for them in your day job, but you are contributing to a particular organization’s concrete effort vs. a general “something should be done by someone” point of view. This, to me, was more magical than dealing with the sometimes-wishful thinking that can arise in advocacy communities. The best part of working in the business is that it gives something approaching an air of authority.

Disadvantages

I won’t lie: I started out as an advocate (local crank) who wrote letters to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel suggesting that NASA privatize the whole human spaceflight program because they appeared to have learned nothing after the Challenger disaster. It was a bit of a surprise to me (and my family) that I got a job at NASA. I was surprised they were willing to hire me and my family was surprised I was willing to work for them. As a friend observed recently, where you collect your paycheck can greatly affect your viewpoint. Let’s just say that my perspective changed a bit once I started collecting a NASA (contractor) paycheck.

When you start getting paid to write for a particular field, you can face a couple of constraints: some of what you know is covered by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), proprietary concerns, or sometimes even government classification. What’s interesting, too, is the attitude you can face from fellow advocates. You can be mistrusted or accused of “drinking the Kool-Aid” or accepting too much of your own organization’s beliefs. What you call informed argument, someone else can call “propaganda.” I’ve faced that sort of thing, but I also gained a certain sympathy for NASA in my pro-private sector mind because I realize how many different constraints they are under that privately owned companies are not.

Bottom Line

Both advocates and industry professionals have valid and useful points of view when it comes to discussing the great scientific and technical issues of the day. Both groups can benefit from the communications savvy of a motivated technical writer. So by all means, jump in! The water is just fine.

About Bart Leahy

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