Professional Trades

Subject: Professional Trades
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: Techwrl-l <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 28 Mar 2000 13:03:40 -0800 (PST)

The gaggle of magical toads hath spake...

One of the problems with our profession is that it is 1/3 trade and 2/3's
profession. There is a part of tech writing I see as synonymous with
professional careers like engineering, law, and medicine.

Doctors, engineers, and lawyers go to school to learn the basics of their
profession. Lawyers must take contract law, tax law, and criminal law, etc.
classes. Although a lawyer may graduate and become a criminal lawyer - he/she
still had to take a class in tax law and other forms of law. Part of being a
professional lawyer is having a firm grasp of basic law concepts. The same
holds for medicine, engineering, nursing, etc.

Likewise, part of being a good tech writer is having a firm grasp of how to
communicate complex, technical information. Although you many never write a
document on Object Oriented Programming (OOP), a class in (OOP) would be very
valuable to because it would require the student to analyze and understand a
complex, technical concept.

Eric called this theoretical background, I think of it as fundamental science
and engineering skills. Seeing as how the majority of technical writing jobs
are closely related to engineering and science, it stands to reason that all
good tech comm programs should emphasize this.

But they don't.

The other side of technical communications is the trade skills - grammar,
whitespace, fonts, layout, organization, FrameMaker, and all the assorted tools
and techniques a writer needs to facilitate placing words on a page (or where

Theories about how to communicate and reach the tender soul of your audience
may feel like "theoretical background" but it really isn't. It is just an
extension the trade skills. Knowing HOW to put words on a page is not the same
as knowing what information must be communicated.

In my biased experience ANYBODY can learn trade skills with enough time and
practice. I know people who are dumber than rocks who can do some damn cool
things with FrameMaker and have amazing layout skills.

But professional skills...this is a bit harder. The best writers are usually
scientists and engineers at their core. Writing is merely an extension of their
fascination with technology.

My complaint is that many (not all) certification programs do not ever address
technical communications from a professional stand point. They focus solely on
the trade skills and hope you learn all the engineering and science stuff out

Out here in the "real world", you won't learn the basics. You'll learn
cockeyed, slanted versions of engineering. As Anthony Markatos routinely points
out to us, most companies and organizations do not adhere to good engineering,
management, and science principles. They cut corners and skimp on details. This
is fine for business working on a profit margins. But if you do not KNOW they
are skimping on details, you'll wind up with a very skewed version of

Case in point, writer came in for an interview recently. At least 10 times in
the interview this person said "well, that is how we did it at XXXX." Great,
but it is not the way EVERYPLACE does it. This person had gained all her
understanding of the Internet from a company that was run by morons. Now she
had the moron equivalent of Internet knowledge. In her mind, the Internet is
everything she learned at her previous (now defunct) company.

I would much rather hire a physics major who needs some help with FrameMaker
and grammar than hire a FrameMaker whiz who can't form an intelligent question
about technology.

Doctors and lawyers go out into internships to learn the ropes. The basics
mechanics of being a doctor. Where to put the forms, how to take blood, etc.
However, in their head is 4 years of education in viruses, anatomy, pathogens,
etc. They don't leave med school knowing that Upjohn makes a better syringe
than DuPont.

Tech writers should be coming out of certificate programs with solid
engineering, science, and technology skills. This makes them intellectually
prepared for analyzing the information given to them. Knowing the theories of
communication, audience analysis, tools, and so forth can be picked up along
the way.

Andrew Plato

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