Why You Should Write Professionally

Title of the last post was What is Context Sensitive Help? Before that came Introduction to Version Control. My intention has been to write articles about practical issues that arise for writers, editors, and content managers. Some practical issues, such as thought leadership, raise broad questions of purpose rather than narrow questions of procedure.

I've been a consultant for a long time. Standard advice for independent experts is to establish a reputation in your field. One way to do that is to write: offer free advice and practical guidance, show that you have expertise in your field, and that you can communicate it to others. Then people remember you when they need an expert with your skills.

I work with engineers a lot - smart people who have a lot to say. They have skills other people need, but their expertise may be hard to understand, and therefore hard to remember. Thus the need to write professionally acquires extra importance - otherwise potential customers won't readily grasp what you can do for them. Those prospects may go to a recruiter and say, "Here's the job description. Please find someone who can do that." Much better if the hiring manager calls the consulting engineer directly to say, "Here's what I need. Can you do that?"

Even though engineers know that writing a lot can help them establish a reputation, and more specifically communicate what they know to prospective clients, they have good reasons for not publishing their work. One reason, of course, is shortage of time. When difficult projects occupy your days, you won't likely write technical articles at night. Where to publish your work presents a second obstacle. A third question concerns quality and clarity, since some engineers seem to have convinced themselves they can't write well.

You can tell I would not have bothered to state the last reason if I thought it were true. Engineers as a group can write just as well as members of any other group. To take another profession as an example: some attorneys write better than others. In a field like that, poor writing skills may handicap your advancement, perhaps more so than in engineering. Yet anyone - no matter one's proficiency - can become a better writer. You learn how to communicate clearly with practice, like any other skill. To suggest that engineers as a group can't write looks suspiciously like the sort of professional fiction that relieves you from trying to improve.

The first two reasons - where to find the time and where to publish your work - require a little more attention. They are not excuses so much as practical problems. As usual, my advice comes from my own experience.

I used to fret too that my non-paid professional activities slipped badly during periods of active involvement with a project. Now I recognize that consultants just have to operate that way. Even if you do stay active during a project, the likelihood of lining up a new project as you finish the current one is not so high. So you know you can set aside time between projects for those non-paid activities that didn't fit as you worked long days. Writing articles about what you do would belong in that category. In fact, don't think of professional writing as non-paid: it supports your practice, and helps you secure your next project.

Now for publication. A long time ago, that posed some difficult questions. Unless you knew an editor or published regularly somewhere, publication efforts could be extensive, with no certain results. The publication process is still somewhat troublesome, but for different reasons.

Professionals used to publish their work in trade journals. Those publications, like every other paper periodical, are scarce these days. If you want people to read your work, you need to put it online, even though millions of other people do the same thing. You don't have the imprimatur of an established, edited journal to recommend your thoughts to readers any longer. You have to promote your own work, modest though the work and the promotional efforts may be. If your thoughts have intrinsic worth, however, what you publish will serve your purposes: to help others, and to build your own reputation as you do so.

If you have already published your work online, you have a sense of the channels you prefer, to reach the people you want to reach. If you have not published your thoughts online, and believe your career prospects would improve if you did, learn how to do blog posts. Blog posts are nothing more than short articles, published in a particular way. This article, and all the other articles you see aggregated at LinkedIn's Pulse, are blog posts. 

I like to write about politics and current affairs on the side, so I maintain a blog for that purpose. It gives me a feel for the satisfactions and difficulties of the medium. A key plus is ease of use. A key drawback is that promotion of a blog is no easier than promotion of anything else in a teeming digital environment. You can publish for a long time with few readers.

In any case, when I noticed two or three years ago that LinkedIn decided to make a publishing platform available to everyone on the site, I recognized the significance of the move right away. Due to LinkedIn's original purpose, the audience you want to reach when you publish advice or other professional content exists right where you publish your article. Yes, Pulse articles that I didn't care to see started to clutter my home page, but I just set my ad blocker to hide those. I only read the ones I want to read. I expect the same for articles I publish: only people interested in professional writing will read my posts.

Significantly, LinkedIn made its publishing platform easy to use. I use WordPress for The Jeffersonian, my journal about politics. WordPress is a challenge to learn for first-time bloggers. LinkedIn made its publishing tools about as simple as it could. One complication is the sizing problem the platform poses when it specifies a header image of 700 x 400 pixels. We have tools now to accommodate landscape and portrait images in a variety of sizes. For handling everything below the header image, the platform has all that it needs, and LinkedIn does not reward me for that endorsement!

One more thing to note about short articles: you can reuse them easily. You can repost them to professional blogs, and other sites outside of LinkedIn. Most importantly, you can post them at your own website. You don't have your own site? Believe me, if you want to advance yourself professionally, you should consider having one, even if it is only one page. True enough, if you plan to work for other companies for your career, you will probably do well enough with LinkedIn and a resume. If you want to be independent at any point in your career, you need the latitude your own site offers.

Professional websites or blogs come under consideration here because they serve as a place where you can publish your articles over time. When you correspond with colleagues, you can send an easy-to-remember link to your own site, rather than an old link that may be broken. From the landing page, people can visit other pages at your site.

Most importantly, your publications are under your direct control when you publish them at a site that you own. Your only constraints are the site's publishing tools. Aside from creative control at publication time, you can update your articles as you keep up with your field: make corrections and revisions, incorporate feedback, add developments, links, and images to keep the content fresh. For myself, I like to work on new stuff, but I'm also happy to know I can revisit older material.

To circle back to our starting point, people write for a number of reasons, many of them personal, some of them professional. Relatively new publishing tools, as well as new procedures and expectations about what we write and where we publish, put professional communication within everyone's reach now. Leadership, plus growth in knowledge and skill accompany advancement in every area, engineering or otherwise. If you contribute to your field via simple, short articles, you'll be happy to hear your colleagues say, "I've seen your posts."