I probably need a new career, but where to begin?
June 2, 2018 8:11 AM   Subscribe

I am currently in a job that teeters back and forth between "tolerable" and "barely tolerable." I spend a lot of my time there daydreaming out the window that there might be something better out there for me. But is there? And if I leave, will I ever again have a window?

My current job: "Technical writer" is my job title, but actually formatting and editing with no writing at all. I know nothing about the technical subject matter except the bits I've learned on the job -- we mostly deal with the form and not the function. Lots of laser focus on nitty gritty itsy bitsy details where the rules change every assignment and you are often doing many assignments following different rules nearly simultaneously. That's really the only challenge to the job -- all the decisions have been optimized out of it so we're essentially an assembly line, just with documents instead of consumer products.

I am... okay at this. It's a very detail-oriented position, and am a super B type person using anxiety to disguise myself as an A type. I seem to have maxed out on my ability to retain and recall relevant details somewhere around 85% of the way through learning our millions of style rules and processes. I have checklists and workarounds -- I think I just hit my own ceiling of the amount I care and how hard I'm willing to hustle to be perfect at every thing every time.

It's high enough that no one is urgently trying to fix my work performance and I get positive performance reviews, but low enough that there are always a few embarrassing corrections on everything I turn in. I don't see myself ever distinguishing myself or advancing, not that there is currently even a place to advance to in this role. For the sake of improving my apartment situation and having more money for hobbies and small indulgences, I would like to be making at least a little bit more money someday, so staying here forever is not an appealing prospect.

Before this job, I wrote ads for fun leisure-related businesses like restaurants and spas. They don't make for a stunning portfolio -- they were all pretty much the same ad. I liked learning about the businesses and trying to highlight their good points, though, and I remember this now as being relatively fun and better suited to my personality. But I have a diary full of angst suggesting I also spent that job pining for something better but speculating that I'd already landed in the best role I was going to get. Part of the angst was related to the fact that the company was slowly going out of business for 4 of the 5 years I spent there and the atmosphere was unavoidably dysfunctional as a result.

Writing and editing are about all I'm explicitly qualified to do in terms of my education and experience, and the job prospects for those things don't seem very appealing, either in terms of money or the day-to-day life experience of doing those things for money. When I read job ads, they all sound like torture. "Hey, if you can prove to us you're willing and able to do this difficult, demanding, and boring thing requiring skills you don't have... we'll pay you a mystery amount of money!" I'm an adult and I'm willing to tolerate a job that isn't about kittens and spas and rainbows, but I don't know how to drum up enough desire for an unknown boring job to go after it hard enough to find out if it would pay more. And is there actually anything more "interesting" out there that wouldn't come with a tradeoff of unbearable stress?

I'm not a people person (I can make presentations but have a lot of social-anxiety-driven difficulty with unstructured stuff like client phone calls and office schmoozing). I'm not a numbers or facts person, either. I'm only able to be a grammar-and-process details person by fanning the fires of the "fearfully looking for stuff that might be Wrong" aspect of my personality that is kind of toxic to my wellbeing. I'd like a role that makes me feel good about myself when I succeed at it rather than winding up a fear crank.

I am hypothetically willing to go back to school and re-skill in something, but not without a good plan. I feel like I should go to a career counselor maybe, but I don't know if I'm ready to take that step yet. Career tests generally give me results that sound like the kinds of jobs a child would talk about wanting: "You should be an actor or a painter!" And in my experience career counselors expect you to come a bit more prepared with what you want them to help you with than I currently am.

My hobbies and personal interests are (maybe purposefully) about as far from career boosters as they can be -- I tend to dabble in the casual side of highly professionally competitive artsy stuff where I'm at the bottom of a very high skill arc I have no intention of mastering, like learning beginner piano as an adult.

So, my questions.

How do you find the stuff you're good at or interested in workwise if that has never come naturally to you? Are there roles with a little more power/creativity/salary growth where being an okayish editor and former ad writer would be an asset or a helpful stepping stone?

Alternately: Do you personally have a rewarding job that uses skills other than schmoozing, mathing, or catching tiny things that are Wrong in a sea of words? What is it like and how do you get one?
posted by space snail to Work & Money (8 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried volunteering, especially on a political campaign? Even if you’re not starting in communications or writing, you’ll still have the good feeling of helping, and you’ll get to see whether there are career opportunities in those organizations or fields.
posted by Etrigan at 8:49 AM on June 2, 2018

Best answer: If you had a job doing actual technical writing, not copyediting, on topics that required talking to subject matter experts and learning things, would you enjoy that? It sounds from your description of yourself like you would — or at least, like you'd hate it less than what you're currently doing.

At the software company I currently work at, tech writers are expected to know rules and guidelines. But their output also goes through tech review by engineers, and editorial review by editors. The expectation isn't that the writers produce flawlessly clean and correct copy — it's that they do the legwork of producing something that's readable, finished, and maybe 95%-clean-and-correct, so that their tech reviewers and their editor can take care of the last 5%. It's possible that we're unusually sane and levelheaded about this, and that other companies have less realistic expectations. But it also sounds like your current company is unusually fucked-up about this. And certainly most tech writers I know have a day-to-day that's less godawful than yours.

Tl;dr — it sounds like your job sucks worse than most tech writing jobs, and maybe you shouldn't write the whole field off quite yet.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:56 AM on June 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Perhaps "content strategist" or "UX content developer" are roles that you would enjoy more. Those generally involve writing and editing for user interfaces, but also all the content for a web site. As you are someone who is already experienced in technical writing and even some game development, content strategy and development is one path that would not be much of a stretch. Is there a User Experience or UI design team at your current employer? Would you be willing to contribute on a voluntary basis with them to gain direct UX writing experience? That could set you up to transition if you enjoyed that work. A lot of content strategy is closely tied to marketing, but a fair amount is technical in nature. You could be in a sweet spot for opportunities.
posted by smuna at 10:45 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Came here to ask the same thing as nebulawindphone. I was a technical writer for 13 years, and in that time I only had a one-year stretch in a situation like you describe. That job totally sucked and almost made me leave the profession altogether, but then I found a tech writing job at a different company and fell in love with the work again. If you're interested in learning about technical topics, I'd encourage you to apply for technical writing positions at other companies. It definitely doesn't have to be like your current role (and I would argue that the nature of your current role is not what technical writing should be, but that's another topic).

If you're not interested in technical writing at all anymore, you might look into product marketing positions (that's what I do now). Product marketing focuses on positioning and messaging. The exact duties vary from company to company, but in my experience, it involves involves a lot of writing (blog posts, white papers, webpages, etc.) and little to no pressure to do things like talk to customers or work the company booth at conferences.
posted by neushoorn at 10:51 AM on June 2, 2018

Response by poster: @nebulawindphone and neushoorn: I wouldn't say that technical writing is a field I deliberately pursued and had any particular hopes or expectations for that my current job has dashed -- my current employer was just the first place to offer me a position after the business I wrote ads for finally folded. It saved me from a resume gap/income interruption, but now I'm kinda stuck with a job I feel like I didn't freely choose.

Most of the other tech writer job postings I've seen veer in the opposite direction from my current role -- sort of a "you yourself are the Subject Matter Expert, but despite this highly lucrative knowledge base, you would rather write documents for us." They seem way out of my league and I've mostly disregarded them. But I'll keep in mind that a middle ground is out there.

@smuna: There aren't any opportunities to move or volunteer laterally within this particular company (I tried at my last company to move laterally a few times, but didn't make the cut). My employer will actually reimburse classes at 50% (I think with a cap on the total amount), but the string attached to that is you have to stay at least an additional year after you finish the class.

The suggestions are helpful so far and I'm not discounting them, I just wanted to clarify my current situation a bit.
posted by space snail at 2:03 PM on June 2, 2018

Best answer: Instructional design is a fairly short step away from technical writing. I, personally, find it a lot more interesting, because you get to be a lot more creative and have more autonomy. When I do straight-up instructional design, I'm responsible for analyzing the requirements, developing a purpose and objectives for a training program, creating a course design, and then actually developing the course, including activities and assessments.

Also, eventually, if you want to, you can transition into learning program manager or a consultant, or move into the Change Management or Business Analyst side of things. The downside is that, often, good training is viewed as a "soft skill," and not as high-status as more technical work.

There are some decent certificate programs for instructional designers out there - I was in a training role that supported my writing my own curriculum, and I learned by doing. Another way of going about it is to find an organization you like that needs some help, and put together a training program for them pro bono, and then you'll have the start of a portfolio.
posted by dancing_angel at 2:30 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is it possible to supplement your resume with some work examples that include the kind of work you would like to do? Then apply for those types of jobs? Perhaps do some free work on the side in that vein to pad out your resume?
posted by xammerboy at 12:57 PM on June 4, 2018

Social media and/or digital marketing management, especially at an agency if you feel like you'd benefit from more project variety, might be a potential avenue to explore if you liked the work at your first job. A sharp eye for detail would serve you really well in avoiding embarrassing Twitter typos. Any knowledge gaps you might have in this field are fairly easily filled with free or low-cost online blogs/webinars (Hootsuite, Buffer and Sprout Social in particular are great sources of free info) and you'd be able to write a wide range of copy AND work with graphics and data, if that is a thing that appeals to you.

Caveat: as a fellow Type-B-masquerading-as-Type-A, this can be surprisingly stressful work, especially if you don't have much departmental support and have to bootstrap everything. If this is an avenue you think you might want to explore, I'd definitely ask in the interview if a) this is a newly created position, or if there is already an established role/workflow, b) who else on the team works on social media, and c) how does leadership feel about the role of social and/or digital marketing.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:27 AM on June 5, 2018

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