Reflections on the STC Conference 2019

Denver, Colorado in the rain.

In the gray days of February and March this year, I realized that the two conferences I wanted to go to in the spring were both in Colorado, both concerning writers, within a week of each other.

I returned home after the first one last week, the Imagination Redeemed conference. On Sunday, I flew out to Denver again for the Society for Technical Communication (STC) conference and returned late on Wednesday night.

The Imagination Redeemed conference was in Colorado Springs, that blooming valley in the mountains; the STC conference was in downtown Denver, where the brick-and-stone buildings were too short to block the rain-gray sky (unlike the dark skyscrapers of Manhattan – I couldn’t help comparing), and trees with bright green leaves or fresh blossoms dotted the sidewalks.

Though I didn’t plan to attend two conferences back-to-back, and my head spun with altitude sickness the first night and day, comparing the two gatherings was fascinating. Both organizations attract thoughtful, creative, and dedicated communicators who want to hone their craft and connect with people like them.

The STC is made of technical communicators, who help their coworkers or customers understand and use technical information: technical writers and editors, librarians, instructional designers, content strategists, and information architects from software, manufacturing, medicine, business and finance, and other industries.

As technical communicators (I’m a technical writer), we work with brilliant people – software developers, engineers, mechanics, architects, and others – to translate their complex knowledge into simple steps for audiences who benefit from their work. I attended sessions about integrating images and text, the power of story, career planning, best practices of knowledge management, and more.

The Imagination Redeemed conference focused on faith and beauty, imagination and worship; the STC conference focused on transforming the creations of geniuses into plain language and clear concepts. These gatherings represent two sides of my mind and heart that I’m cultivating in work and in play, united by a growing sense of yearning: I long to be a messenger, a world-maker, teacher, and healer through my writing, in my job and my own work.

Soon, I hope to write about how technical writing is so much more than the boring manual-writing I though it would be: how it’s as challenging, inspiring, and wonder-ful (in the old sense of the world) as studying English literature. For now, here are some resolutions as a technical writer to match the ones I made at the Anselm Society conference:

Tell stories for good – The STC conference reaffirmed what I already knew: that stories are powerful. From a technical writing perspective, stories help people understand complex concepts (think of how some people can remember all the plot threads in the Marvel universe) and remember important information. As a technical writer, I want to tell stories for good, to help people gain the knowledge they need to thrive.

Critical consumerism – One of the last speakers at the conference described how we can be critical consumers, thoughtfully examining the evidence to evaluate claims and rationales. Does the speaker’s conclusion exaggerate the evidence or ignore key findings? In the workplace and the rest of my life, training myself to examine evidence will guard me against misconceptions and manipulation.

Wonder in the ordinary – Several speakers emphasized the ancient roots of technical writing: from cairns marking paths in the mountains, to cave paintings, to medieval manuscripts, humans have been teaching each other to do complicated tasks since the beginning of time. I used to think technical writing was dull work, typing up thick manuals of small black text that no one wanted to read. Over this year, I’ve tasted the joy of learning how to uncover the creative genius of software developers and communicate it to non-experts: detective work as close to my childhood dreams of being Nancy Drew as I’ll probably get in real life.

It’s good to find wonder in your work; good to sit in awe of the mind of the Creator as you see the beauty of the human mind in lines of software code, or complex machinery, or the rhythm of a sonnet. In my technical and creative writing, I want to awaken that wonder in others.

My real vocation – A speaker on a podcast I listened to yesterday said that “you work to feed your dream, and then you work on your dream to feed your everyday work” (clumsy paraphrase). Am I a technical writer in the “real world,” to earn a living, or am I “really” a creative writer who has a day job so she can eat? Both – maybe not forever, but for this season, my real vocation is to become skilled at both types of writing.

But I’m back to New England again, at least for a few weeks. The cherry trees are blossoming in bright pink clusters; the rest of the leaves are peeking from the edges of tree-fingers; and I can walk along the beach at sunset with my sister and talk about life. Summer is stirring, and I have writing to do.

White blossoms on a branch.

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