Give Me a Clear Thinker (was STC certification: what's in it for tech writers?)

Subject: Give Me a Clear Thinker (was STC certification: what's in it for tech writers?)
From: Chris Despopoulos <despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 28 Oct 2011 05:46:38 -0700 (PDT)

Cant...  Stop...  Myself...  Must...  Not...  Contribute to this!!!  Can't...  Help...  It...

In my decades of experience,  I have found that basic literacy is enough to get a technical writer started, ASSUMING a competent, clear thinker who can devote his time fully to the documentation tasks.  And this also assumes that an inexperienced writer has support from management (mentors, editors, etc.).  I have horror stories to tell about tech writers who look like true journeymen on their resumes, but can't turn their heads away from fonts long enough to understand the product at hand.  Or writers who create templates that look exquisite, but are impossible to use or maintain.  How is that possible?  Can you assume such writers would never pass a certification?  I would bet the answer is NO.

A few points:
* If degrees or certification were required, I would never
  have started in tech writing, let alone do it for decades,
  and have the success at it that I enjoy.  The fact is, I'm
  completely self-taught at writing and programming.  Don't
  you know, I'm supposed to be a drug-addled rock star?
* In any trade, there's such a thing as a journeyman.  Tech
  writing is a trade.  Yes, in some trades you can get certifications
  that indicate your journeyman status, and I think in some unions
  you actually have to test into that status.  A journeyman is
  somebody who can come into a situation, set up a job from scratch,
  and finish the job.  For a welder that means reading plans, getting
  the right materials, cutting and fitting the pieces, then
  laying the beads.  I guess that correlates with a senior tech writer.
* In most situations, a journeyman performs a subset of the identified
* It seems everybody is a senior tech writer these days.  It's kind
  of like you get the title by attrition.

Ok, so where does that leave STC certification?  If you're a welder, and you can point to structures you've built, and you can refer to foremen who are happy with your work, chances are you can demonstrate where you stand clearly enough.  If you're talking to a journeyman welder, he'll know whether you're in that class within minutes.  Just the same, if you're welding stainless steel pipe for a nuclear reactor you're going to have certifications, because lives depend on your work.  But those certifications are vertical, sort of like Mil-Spec experience, or medical writing experience. 

So if you're getting hired by a journeyman writer, I like to think a certification might be icing on the cake, but it's the cake that's important (don't leave it out in the rain).  In fact, I wonder if a journeyman in a field that knew no certification before might view your need to get a certification with suspicion.  The hiring journeyman is going to see you as a tool in the tool chest.  Can you do the job, yes or no?  I don't see certification informing that decision too much...  It's more a question of the heft of a hammer, the edge of a chisel, etc. 

If the hiring manager is no journeyman writer, but is looking for a journeyman, then that manager had better see your end results.  All the certification in the world can't change what you have produced in the past.  This manager should be a journeyman at *something*, so again...  One journeyman can usually recognize another pretty quickly.  Sure, you goof sometimes.  But in general, you pretty much know.

I don't see how certification will be significantly more reliable than a title of Senior Technical Writer.  Well, ok...  You won't get the certification without actually doing some things that are judged by a supposedly impartial panel.  So it is a step up.  But I wonder if it's all that high of a step.

For the people I work with, I look for their ability to think clearly, and for fundamental literacy.  All the ins and outs of tech writing can be taught.  I've taught QA engineers and others to be quite successful tech writers...  People who get rave reviews from SMEs and readers alike.  People who are preferred to their "Senior Tech Writer" peers.  It was their native ability that brought the success, and that can't be taught.  All you can teach in this context is how to apply native ability in a particular domain.  Give me a team of smart people, and I'll set up the job (read the plans, even fit the pieces if necessary).  But at least I can rely on these people to move the job from point A to point B, keeping the right priorities, and making smart decisions.

And I think this finally hits on what bothers me about the certification thing...  It tests application within a domain, but where is the test for native ability?


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