Writing assignment, 500 words

The writing prompt is simple scaffolding: write 500 words about what you’re working on right now, so that when someone asks what you do, you have a proof point of it. This is preparation for going to a conference where proof of professional identity is the whole point of the exercise. The thing you say you’re working on should be elaborated on at the top of the page, and any supporting details that don’t fit into the narrative should be omitted.

To this end it’s as important to note what not to write about as what to write about. Better not to write about anything you don’t want anyone to pay you to do. If there’s some old technology that is entirely non-commercial, you’re free to discuss it on a mailing list, but for heaven’s sake don’t lead with it in your writing. There may be one day a year that people save up their odd tech stories for (like April 1 for the April Fools RFC series).

Unfiltered personal observations are also out. If you are eating a piece of pastry, save that for Twitter, where no one expects you to be on message all the time. Cat memes can go on Facebook, sunset photos to Instagram, bookmarks of recipes in Pinboard. They don’t belong in the professional blog.

It’s easier to compose the identity exercise if the entire theme of what you do fits into two or three words. I follow the Hypriot weblog, which is all about Docker on ARM systems. It’s a fantastic channel, always with something new in that field, carefully and cleverly presented. Similarly the RTL-SDR blog is always giving updates about software defined radio, without exception. Dan KB6NU’s ham radio weblog is all ham radio, all the time.

What do you do if your writing to date is not conducive to minimalist descriptors? The easiest thing to do is to unpublish (temporarily or permanently) any distractions. If there’s something that in retrospect makes you cringe or confuses you when you read it, temporarily mark it as a draft. That one person who you want to have read a consistent and homogenized proof point doesn’t need to be distracted.

There was a time when I was a prolific local blogger, and every post had the word “Ann Arbor” in the lead paragraph. It hardly mattered what I wrote, so long as that touchstone was there. That era is over - it turns out that writing about a city in the face of the decline of local news is a career limiting move.

So: the process of writing 500 words about a topic may be less about deciding about what to write about, and more about deciding what not to write about. “What is it exactly that you do” is the prompt question, and the desired simple response is “Here is a sample of my work”.

Sample carefully!