Re: Not Technical Enough

Subject: Re: Not Technical Enough
From: Dan Emory <danemory -at- primenet -dot- com>
To: stpats -at- storm -dot- ca, Steve Read <stephenread -at- earthlink -dot- net>, "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>, "Free Framers" <framers -at- omsys -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 01 Jun 2000 18:29:49 -0700

In response to Sarah O'Keefe's polarizing statement that English Lit majors
were better at tech writing that those with a technical background,
I rose to the bait and predicted that, in the next economic downturn,
for "obvious reasons" The English Lit majors will be out on the street,
wishing they'd settled for an academic sinecure or editing position.

If my prediction turns out to be true, it would demonstrate that
O'Keefe's premise is mistaken.

William Gage, Steve Read, et al begged to differ on the grounds that
they were Lit majors, and have had long careers as tech writers.

If any of them had ever taken an academic course in Statistics,
they'd know that such anecdotal evidence is meaningless. My
prediction is based on the likelihood that what has happened in the past
will happen again, given the same conditions (that at least is what a
History major would argue).

Stephen Martin interpreted my (originally terse) comments correctly.
Since I am being flamed from all corners, I am posting his and my
reply to the lists.
At 03:47 PM 6/1/00 -0400, Stephen Martin wrote:


Remember, gentlemen, at this point the conversation is about the recent
glut of writers.
To paraphrase Dan:

When push comes to shove, the fresh faced Lit grads will be put out in
the street in favour of those who bring the value of experience to the

I'd prefer to say that, when push comes to shove, good writers with a solid
technical background will be kept, and good writers without that kind of
background will be laid off.

The fact is that there are one heck of a lot of successful authors
who never went beyond the basic English classes we all took.
They, presumably, "got it" better than most pupils, but most
likely, they also developed their salable skills through diligent practice,
not college courses. Successful writers will tell you most of
their skills were self-taught.

It's also true that most people who are reasonably well grounded
in basic English can, through reading and practice, greatly improve
their writing skills. But there is no equivalently straightforward way
to improve your technical skills without some kind of academic grounding
in science, mathematics, and engineering.

I think it's true that most English Lit majors drop mathematics,
physics, chemistry, etc. at the earliest possible point in their
academic careers, and shy away from subjects such as

A newly graduated English Lit major who gets a tech writing
job when there's a scarcity of qualified ones can, if they're
reasonably intelligent, pick up enough technical knowledge
about his/her company's product line to become a proficient
tech writer for that company's products. But that is not the
kind of broad technical proficiency one needs to survive
in this business.

So, when they leave that first company, either voluntarily or through
layoff, they expect to find a more senior position at a better
salary. If the company they apply to is in an entirely different
kind of business, their narrowly based technical knowledge
about a particular product counts for nought, and their lack
of any significant academic grounding or experience in technical
subjects is likely to disqualify them.

Thus, as I predicted, they're likely to find themselves "out on the street"
with few prospects for jobs in their chosen profession.

In my career, I have written every sort of technical manual on
every kind of thing imaginable from 4-story-high nuclear reactor
pumps to 4-story high ICBMs, plus Air Defense Systems, Military
Command Control Communications Systems, Satellite
Communications Systems, computer hardware, computer
software, microwave spectrum analyzers, medical diagnostic
equipment, car washes, and a tortilla making machine that
produced 10,000 tortillas an hour.

Without a firm academic grounding in science, mathematics,
and engineering, coupled with a few years of hands-on
experience as a technician in the military and in a
technology lab, I couldn't have done it.

Almost anyone can get a job in a hot market, but survival over
the long term as an Engineering Writer during good times
and bad requires a broad technical background. If
you don't start out with that kind of background, but
are lucky enough to stay employed until you acquire it
through working on diverse projects for different employers,
then your long-term success may be doubly sweet. But
I'll settle for the easier way: Get technically grounded first.

| Nullius in Verba |
Dan Emory, Dan Emory & Associates
FrameMaker/FrameMaker+SGML Document Design & Database Publishing
Voice/Fax: 949-722-8971 E-Mail: danemory -at- primenet -dot- com
10044 Adams Ave. #208, Huntington Beach, CA 92646
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