Real Technical Communicators

Subject: Real Technical Communicators
From: Saul Carliner <CUISACX -at- GSUVM1 -dot- BITNET>
Date: Wed, 28 Jul 1993 22:01:26 EDT

I'd like to offer some personal reflections on the topic, "who is a 'real'
technical writer:

o When I was interviewing for my first job in the field (in the good old
days when college seniors could interview for jobs on campus and have one
lined up before graduation), a recruiter wanted to end an interview before
it began because I didn't have a degree in technical writing; I had one in
professional writing.

I responded that he obviously hadn't read my resume. Because if he had,
he would see that I had nearly an identical education to the technical
writing majors, but my courses were distributed differently. I had much
stronger math and computer science sequence than required at the time in
the technical writing program.

The interview continued. Moral of the lesson: there's no one path to
the profession.

o Speaking of computers, on the first night at my first STC conference, I met
a group of experienced technical writers. (I was only three years out of
college at the time.) The year was 1983 and these hardware and mil spec
writers were bemoaning the meteoric growth in the number of software
writers (my background at the time). "They're not REAL technical writers,"
they all laughed.

Moral of the story: this is an old debate.

o When I was planning the 1989 STC conference (Chicago), I received comments
from two camps. In one, people were complaining, "When are you going to
realize that we're all about computer documentation and get rid of those
other sessions." The other camp complained, when are you going to realize
we're NOT all software writers and include us in the program.

What the statistics say: the majority of technical writers are employed
in the high tech field, primarily software documentation (over 50 percent
of us). But majority and entirety are not the same thing. We need to
hear from the scientific writers (I'm really excited about the new
professional interest committee), environmental writers (one of our
fastest growing markets as our society rushes to clean up the
environment and re-engineer products to eliminate contaminants),
and biomedical writers.

The reason I say "we need to hear from" is that some of these communities
within our profession have their own specialized groups, such as the
American Medical Writers Assocation and the Council of Biology Editors.
Without the presence of these types of people at our conferences (we have
some, but most choose not to participate in STC), we get the wrong
impression that our profession is only about software writing when that's
only one part of it.

o Although I might have misunderstood the comment, I think the comment about
English and journalism majors in a previous note suggests that people with
these backgrounds are less technical communicators than people with
technical or technical communication backgrounds. If I have misunderstood
that comment, I am sorry. But if I understood it correctly, then I'd like
to remind you of the significant contributions of people with such "soft"
backgrounds to our field.

-- One of the leading business women in the field has a Ph.D in English.
-- Our leading usability expert is a linguist by training.
-- One of the most quoted authors on user manuals has a background in
speech communication.
-- Our leading authority on online information is a registered engineer.
-- One of the most widely used methodologies in the field comes from a
cognitive psychologist.

Forget the "experts." Our profession is full of people who've reached
their jobs by unusual routes. One of the best indexing manuals I've ever
read was written by a former secretary with no higher education. One of
the best user guides I ever read was written by a former dancer.

Moral of the story: what makes a REAL technical communicator is how
effectively they exchange technical information from those who know
the information to those who have a need to know. Who really cares about
how they reached that point in their career or the how technical the
subject is? We're not the Colbys and the Carringtons of Dynasty on
some soft of muscle-flexing match. We're colleagues and we need to show
respect for one another's work.

After all, how can expect others to if we won't even do that for ourselves?

Saul Carliner, Ph.D Student CUISACX -at- GSUVM1 -dot- GSU -dot- EDU
Instructional Technology 404/892-3945 (w&h)
Georgia State University

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