Do You Have to Believe in What You’re Writing?

While some managers won’t want to hear or read this, it is entirely possible to do a job effectively without necessarily believing in the messages you’re required to write. However, there are side effects to operating this way, which is why I usually advise someone seeking a tech writing job to pursue work with companies or industries they admire or respect. Why make yourself or your coworkers miserable?

The Impacts of Attitude on the Job

I first noticed the “belief” problem during my time answering complaint letters for the Walt Disney World Resort. There were times when I disagreed with a policy or with the company guidelines for service recovery in a particular guest situation. Another time, I lacked sufficient imagination to know what the “Disney response” should be to a particular question. When asked what my problem was, I responded, in a less-than-diplomatic fashion, “I’m paid to write this stuff, not believe it.”

Mind you, I didn’t start out grouchy and cynical at Disney; I sort of grew into it over the years. I was quite capable of doing a creditable job and collecting a paycheck even if my enthusiasm for the work began to wane. However, I could tell that my attitude was taking a toll on my productivity and my enjoyment of the job. When I decided to move on from Disney, it was definitely time to go. I’m certain at least one of my managers was relieved to see me leave. I wasn’t directly nasty or rude, just cynical, and the attitude came across in my comments in meetings. At one point, in a different department, I even started having nightmares about my job. If I devolved into nastiness or rudeness over my disenchantment with my job, I probably could have ended up being disciplined in some way or even fired.

So, yes: belief in what you do matters, especially in something like writing, if the same brain that is generating content for an organization also starts developing a negative attitude toward that content. Aside from random comments at work, your attitude can start to have a detrimental effect on your ability to write good prose. It might be adequate, but lack the usual smoothness or panache to which your peers or leaders are accustomed. Poor performance can get you fired, too.

Fixing the Problem

Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. Maybe you’re able to detach yourself emotionally from whatever misgivings you have about what you’re doing. If you’re like me, though, you’ll start seeking greener pastures. If, on the other hand, you want to remain employed at the organization, you’ll need to take some action, starting with asking yourself some hard questions:

  • What is bothering you, specifically, about the content?
    • Is it that you believe the company to be lying?
    • Do you have ethical issues about what the company is saying about its products or services?
    • Do you find the content itself distasteful somehow?
    • Is it a disconnect between the ideals the company articulates and how they actually conduct business?
    • Are you having problems with the people in your workplace rather than the actual content?

Some of those issues can be resolved, some can’t. You might start by having an honest conversation with your immediate supervisor about what is bothering you and asking what, if anything, might be changed.

If the things that are bothering your are specific to your department, you might seek a transfer to another area. If the issues that bother you are related to specific personnel, that might be a discussion you need to have with Human Resources. If the issues are endemic to the company and no one is interested in fixing them, you might need to become more of a heroic technical writer and take some sort of whistle-blowing action. Or, if you don’t think it’s worth the struggle to fight the system, you might just have to leave before the organization shows you the door.

I’m certain my attitudes on this topic annoy some people, particularly managers. However, in the real world, not everyone enjoys the luxury of loving their job. For some, it’s a means to an end: a way to keep themselves or their family fed. Even so, given the intensely mental nature of our jobs as technical communicators, I would ask you to give serious consideration to whom you’re willing to work for up front. That way, you won’t find yourself turning cynical or losing your job over your bad attitude. Belief–even a little bit–can make your career journey a whole lot easier.

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About Bart Leahy

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