Re: Not Technical Enough

Subject: Re: Not Technical Enough
From: "Jeff Hanvey" <jewahe -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "Dan Emory" <danemory -at- primenet -dot- com>, "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 1 Jun 2000 21:54:32 -0500

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

Unless, of course, you're in a company that holds to the "last in, first
out" rule...and most are. Those who don't have jobs and have little
technical skill will have trouble getting jobs in say, software

However, technical writing covers a lot more than software, and it's all
about finding a niche in the industry.

So someone doesn't know computer language? That person might know the real
estate industry and will be able to produce documents salient to that
industry. The same is true for ANY industry.

> 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
> not college courses. Successful writers will tell you most of
> their skills were self-taught.

This is true of any job. At my last job, the head of marketing didn't even
have a degree--hell, he never finished high school. But he was a great
marketer, and brought in a lot of money. Last I heard, he was named
*president* of that company. That just goes to prove that education isn't

> 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.

Again, I would have to disagree...My SME doesn't have any "formal" training
in computer coding (and is another person who didn't finish high school),
but he's putting together an invoicing system. Sure, he wasn't stupid enough
to do the whole job himself, and brought in a database administrator to help
with the process. He is mostly self-taught and one of the most intelligent
people I know.

The bottom line is that it doesn't matter how much "education" you have.
It's how much you are willing to apply yourself to learn.

> 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
> statistics.

I fully agree. I lived in both worlds. I double majored in English and
Mathematics. Most of the English people took the bare requirements of math
and science and doubled up on religion, philosophy, psychology, sociology,
and all the other arts and humanities.

I think, however, that you're limiting humanities people. Just because
someone doesn't like math or science doesn't mean that s/he necessarily
doesn't grasp it. I spent four years trying to get a master's degree in math
and absolutely abhorred it. That didn't mean I couldn't do it. I finally
realized that I had to be a writer in some form or fashion. Discovering tech
writing was a godsend.

> 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.

Again, you're selling Lit people short. The argument you're following says
that people can only be good at one thing - and only one thing. Lit majors
are not good at technical stuff because they spend their lives immersed in
philosphical questions. It's a false argument. A person can be good at many

A college major generally represents only one aspect of what that person is
good at. Besides, ff the person has enough intelligence to pick up the
technical aspects of one job, s/he can pick up the technical aspects of
another. It's not so much the material that's important, but the ability to
write clearly and coherently.

Again, I'll use myself as an example: I love to read novels, I love the
philosophy of literature, and I like going to plays, concerts, musuems, et
cetera. I immerse myself in cultural activities. But I also am good with
software. I can do almost anything with Word, PageMaker, Quark, Windows, and
other software. I didn't know FrameMaker until 2 months ago, and this week
I've learned to create custom Master Pages and developed a template for a
Preventative Maintenance manual. I also learned the internal components of
an air conditioning system (among others).

At my last job, I developed Web content for a major autoparts supplier. I
know how to maintain a car, but had never even considered replacing a
piston. But I had to write the procedures for doing so. Guess what? I

Yes, there are humanities people out there I wouldn't trust to put their
finger in their ear. But there are also programmers out there who couldn't
code their way out of a paper bag. These people won't last long anywhere
(unless they have extremely good connections).

> 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.

There's the rub: you're discussing "Engineering writing." That's a
specilized type of technical writing. Could I do it? No. Would I want to?
No. I'm good at instructional writing, policies and procedures, and similar
forms of writing. And I would be the first to admit that I don't have the
background to document the things you have. However, I see myself having
longevity in this field because I have a niche.

And that's what it is all about: Niches. Technical writing is a varied
field, and some people never document anything technical - and some spend
their lives discussing tortillia machines.

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