Are you a writer?

Subject: Are you a writer?
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 27 Feb 2002 08:45:35 -0800 (PST)

I have gotten a lot of interesting emails privately regarding my editing vs.
writing thread. Most people were very supportive and agreeable to the idea. A
few were, as usual, rude and nasty.

I chewed over the responses I got and came up with this little test:

1. Do you ?own? the documents you write? In other words, are you 100%
responsible for their production?

2. Is your work mostly creation of new material or maintenance and improvement
of existing material?

3. Are you actively involved in the development of your organization?s products
and services?

These three points divide editing work and writing work.

A writer is mostly focused on creating new material. This demands them to be
very actively involved in the development and marketing of their organizations
goods and services. It also requires them to completely ?own? their work.

The alternative is an environment where the writers don?t really own the docs.
Somebody else generates (or generated) the content, the writer tidies up the
work.

Now, there is a gray zone between these two extremes. Some writers must both
create new material and maintain old material. Clearly, the best situation is
to possess extensive experience with the subject matter because this will make
you better at doing BOTH jobs. As Bruce pointed out, this isn?t always possible
right off the bat. However, a good writer would quickly remedy that and learn
the subject matter ASAP.

Where my complaint hinges is that many writers are doing essentially editing
work, but describing themselves as writers and selling themselves as writers.
When it comes time for these people to do real writing work, they struggle.
Eventually, the project goes bad and they blame other people for their
inability to produce quality documentation. This usually involves blaming the
SMEs for failing to support them and give them

You can?t have your cake and paycheck too. You cannot expect the ?ownership? of
documentation if you refuse to own the content. A few people who responded to
me privately seem to think they can offload all content issues to an SME while
they just focus on English. Their justification is that they were hired to be a
communicator, not an SME.

My reply is ?then don?t expect any ownership of your documents and don?t expect
a lot of respect from the SMEs.? If you won?t own the content (which is the
overwhelmingly most important part of any document) then you really shouldn?t
own the document.

I have come to find that complaints of ?no respect? for technical writers
consistently come from the same writers who don?t really do any writing. They
rely on the kindness of SMEs and other people to generate all the content for
them. And since content is overwhelmingly the most important part of any
document, offloading this responsibility is, in essence, offloading virtually
all responsibility for that document. Responsibility and respect have a direct
relationship. The more responsibility a person accepts, generally the more
they are respected.

What would happen if you turned in an essay in history class that had glaring
inaccuracies? Would the teacher give you an ?A? because you used a stunningly
efficient mode of generating the text and impeccable grammar? Or would you get
an ?F? because the information was wrong? Do you think your history teacher
would understand if you said, ?it isn?t my fault, my SME didn?t review the
content in a timely fashion??

If you expect to stamp your name (literally or figuratively) on a doc, I would
think you would make it a personal mission in life to make sure the information
was not only accurate and useful but also totally complete.

I agree that editing is a crucial part of writing. The two are very dependent
upon each other. But to focus on one, at the exclusion of the other, creates
an overall lacking. Good ?writers? are both good at generating content and
cleaning up content.

However, just because a person is a skilled editor, does not mean they are
intrinsically a good writer. The two tasks, although closely related, are
fundamentally different. Just because somebody can identify bad grammar, does
not mean they can write about relational databases. Those two tasks require
fundamentally different skills.

And this is where many writers are lost. STC and other writers have told them
that they can be an accomplished technical writer if they know grammar and some
tools. They have misled these writers into thinking that content isn?t really
that important. That somebody else will take care of all the ?hard work?
freeing them to worry about grammar and fonts.

Some firms are beginning to change their expectations of writers. They want
more than just editors. They want people who are willing to take complete
responsibility for the documentation ? and that includes content.

Andrew Plato


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