RE: Professional Trades

Subject: RE: Professional Trades
From: "Michael West" <mwest -at- oz -dot- quest -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 29 Mar 2000 11:15:25 +1000

Andrew Plato's strongly stated opinions are worthy of comment. I think he
misses at least one important point.

He mentions two "sides" of technical writing as:

1) "having a firm grasp of how to communicate complex, technical
information" -- which he (rather illogically) equates to "fundamental science
and engineering skills"; and

2) knowledge of "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 ever)."

But there is another "side" that I would rank as more important than either
of those -- and that is the desire and the ability to explain things to
others. To teach. To guide. To discover. To share. This must be a driving
motivation in a good technical communicator. I know many fine engineers and
scientists who are "fascinated" by scientific and technological subjects, and
in few of them is a flair for communication "a natural extension of their
fascination". On the contrary, few are particularly good communicators.

Unfortunately (I guess), Mr. Plato's world seems to be peopled with "morons"
and "people dumber than rocks". My own experience of the world has been more
pleasant. I have been building and leading successful technical writing teams
for a few years now, and I think I recognize in his attitude a very familiar
symptom of engineering types. They believe that superior people like
themselves, who "understand complex subjects" are worthier than those who
don't. I would advise people hiring tech writers to give these superior types
a wide berth. They are the ones from whose lips I have actually heard the
words "if they need a user guide, they don't deserve to be using this

Mr. Plato says he 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."

Aside from the thorny issue of what Mr. Plato would recognize as "an
intelligent question", I cannot agree with this. I wouldn't hire either
person on the basis of the evidence provided.

I would (and do) hire good communicators. I wouldn't hire someone on the
basis of their knowledge of a particular scientific field OR their
familiarity with a particular publishing tool. Both are trivial
considerations. I have found that good technical communicators can come from
scientific backgrounds, teaching backgrounds, linguistics/literary
backgrounds, journalistic backgrounds -- and many others. The things I look
for are:

* a demonstrated ability to collect, organize, and present
complex information (on any topic)

* a demonstrated interest in and grasp of whatever business
area is relevant to the position

* a desire to learn and to help others learn

* a natural flair for language,
visual design, and logical organization

"Understanding" technical subjects is a very different thing from being able
to communicate them with enthusiasm, empathy, efficiency, and accuracy. And
it is not "FrameMaker" skills OR depth of subject knowledge that make any
difference whatsoever. It is a love of teaching and sharing. A love of
getting the message across using whatever means are available. You can't do
that very effectively if you are busy looking down on your audience as

Michael West

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