RE: Do I have to understand the material?

Subject: RE: Do I have to understand the material?
From: Mike West <Mike -dot- West -at- oz -dot- quest -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 20 Aug 2002 12:32:14 +1000

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Andrew Plato

> As usual we're all nitpicking over detials. So lets make this
> nice and simple:

> 1. Do I have to understand the material I am documenting.
> Yes, if you want to be a good writer. The only way to write
> authorative material is to have authorative knowledge.

Let's assume that what Andrew meant was "details"
and "authoritative."

The notion that technical writers need to be
subject-matter experts in areas other than
technical communications is perhaps not a
peculiar one. But I am accustomed to hearing it
far more often from people outside our profession;
for example, from pointy-haired bosses and their
multifarious ilk.

Of *course* you have to understand the material
you're working with. That's what the "research"
phase of writing is all about -- that and understanding
your audience and their requirements. But your
object in all this is not to become an "authority" on
the subject-matter.

I think a useful analogy is that of the teacher, or
the journalist. Your goal is not to prove how smart
you are, but to help others understand -- to give
them information they need.

The best teachers I had in life were not good
teachers because they were "authorities" in some
field or other. They were good teachers because
helping people learn was an intrinsic need for them;
a passion that flowed in every vein and cell of their

The most successful technical communicators I
have known (looking back over 20+ years in the
field) were people with a passion for learning and
helping others. What made them uniquely qualified
for technical communications was this passion
combined with an "authoritative" knowledge of
*their own profession* -- writing, editing, handling
technical subject matter, instructional design,
information delivery.

> 3. But all I do is rearrange text, edit, and apply styles.
> You're not a writer. You're an editor.

This is a specious distinction for several reasons.
First, most technical writers have to be their own
editors. They need, therefore, an in-depth
understanding of editorial practice. Second, I know
of no-one who gets paid to do nothing but
"rearrange text, edit, and apply styles." Those are
only a few small bits of what editors get paid to do.
Either Andrew Plato is inventing straw men to knock
down, or he has worked in some peculiar

Andrew Plato can throw away his style guides
and let his editors clean up his messes if he likes,
but I think it is bad advice to give to newcomers.

Here's my advice -- which I guarantee to be as
useful or as useless as anyone else's advice ever is.
Life is short. If you want to become an "authority" on
something other than your chosen profession, choose
something worthwhile. French wine. Northern Italian
cooking. Jazz piano. T'ang dynasty pottery. Taking
care of the rainforest. I'll stop there, but feel free to
continue the list according to your own passions.

Michael West
Melbourne, Australia

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