Our identity as technical writers (long)

Subject: Our identity as technical writers (long)
From: Kris Olberg <KJOlberg -at- AOL -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 22 Dec 1995 15:39:09 -0500

In a message dated 95-12-21 02:28:31 EST, GRLANGLE -at- ECUVM -dot- CIS -dot- ECU -dot- EDU (Christy
Langley) writes:

>Perhaps these irritating "please no more discussions on ______" could be
>eliminated if someone would take the initiative and devise a list of
>those strictly technical communication issues that we are neglecting,
>according to some list subscribers. I don't mean to snap, but the other
>lists I am devoted to hardly contain constant bickering over what
>correct topics are or should be. Frankly, if this bickering is
>going to continually resurface over every other topic, then this list
>needs more structure.

This directly relates to the article entitled, "Society Leaders Take Aim at
Future," in the December issue of STC's Intercom. The article was written by
Saul Carliner, current STC president. Carliner discusses how STC resources
are being used "to identify what [technical writers] really do and
demonstrate that trained people are the only ones who can do it." He points
out that human resources experts define a profession as a group with "a
defined body of knowledge and skills that can be performed only by properly
trained people."

Are technical writers as a group having an identity crisis? Can we point to
the list as evidence that technical writers are unable to focus on technical
writing because we don't know what defines technical writing?

IMHO, we are not having an identity "crisis," which would mean that our
identity has suddenly and recently been challenged, which is not the case.
Our identity has been challenged almost since the very day we came into
existence! As a contractor, I have been hired "as a writer" to be a:

* typist
* editor
* project manager
* business analyst
* desktop publisher
* software analyst
* programmer
* graphic artist
* photographer
* etc.

Personally, I don't object to doing these tasks, but what defines the "writer
part of me"? Here's some of my thoughts:

* I analyze the subject and determine the appropriate communication vehicle.
This requires analysis skills as well as knowledge of the various technical
communication media. It also requires deep knowledge of the subject matter.

* I gather the source information and write the materials. This requires
writing skills, which include not only communication skills but the ability
to use proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc, which are the hammer and
nails of our profession. (See "sidebar" below on how this does not exclude
the editing profession but instead dovetails with it). This also requires
interviewing and researching skills.

These are the tasks that I see as being truly definitive of a technical
writer. Many other tasks are involved, such as project management, but these
are utility tasks needed by most professionals, not just writers.

I applaud Saul Carliner and anyone in the STC working to define what a
technical writer is. Their work will surely be the key to making us credible
and ensuring our professional longevity, especially as user interfaces (of
hardware and software) get smarter and more intuitive. Without their efforts,
our future is not necessarily one of doom and gloom, but it is certainly

Sidebar on the editing profession: Although writers should be able to use
grammar, punctuation, etc. correctly, this does not preclude the use of
editors. Editors add value by refining the writing through a number of
techniques such as: copymarking for grammar and punctuation, clarifying,
reorganizing, locating small potholes and big sinkholes in the information,

kjolberg -at- aol -dot- com
kjolberg -at- ix -dot- netcom -dot- com
102031 -dot- 3556 -at- compuserve -dot- com

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