Core skills for technical communicators -Reply

Subject: Core skills for technical communicators -Reply
From: Bill Sullivan <bsullivan -at- SMTPLINK -dot- DELTECPOWER -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 16:49:34 -0800

To appraise a "technical" communicator (or yes-man or yes-woman),
Anton Holland offers a list of eight unweighted criteria, two of
which pertain to writing and editing. I would either give more
weight to writing and editing than I would to the other six, or I
would go into more detail about writing and editing.

Holland tries to test workers whose best work comes from the use of
intangible skills. Thinking back on writing I have done, technical
or otherwise, creativity is what has made my best work valuable. I
figured out what to say and how best to say it. This is not
translating technical details because the boss said to. I don't
advocate obstinateness, but I think a good tech writer (or any
creative person) worth his or her salt must constantly look at the
problem and ask how to solve it. Sometimes this means taking a hard
position. You don't just accept the solution they give you. When it
comes to tech writing, you would do best to hire someone with a
passion to write clearly, not a yes-man (or yes-woman) who fits the
description on Holland's list. And also: What if the solution is to
write less rather than more? Will the writer you hire know how to
shorten his or her strokes?

Rather than "The ability to translate a morass of technical details
into a clear hierarchy of concepts," (which sounds like the
quesitoner is afraid of technical details) I might say: A compulsion
to explain and clarify technical details, concepts, and procedures.
You want somebody who dies to explain stuff, who lives to explain
stuff. A little teaching ability works here. As a test, I would
probably ask the so-called writer about his or her last big job and
ask for an explanation of the technical details.

Rather than "Knowledge and attention to document design," I might
phrase it: Skill in all details of document preparation, including
document design, graphics, styles for text and tables, document
formats, INDEXING, production, and (if applicable) document control
procedures.

I would amputate "consistency in editing" in favor of: Ability to
function as the editor and writing mentor on a busy documentation and
subject matter expert team.

And why is Holland limiting this to technical communicators? Why not
communicators period? It could be that the best person for the job
would be someone with a background in, say, technical journalism. If
the person had the interest, the enthusiasm, and the zeal to do the
business of documentation, I'd say give him or her a shot. If you
find somebody who really wants to write your stuff, consider yourself
lucky.

Other than that, Larry, I haven't much to say except thanks for
asking the question.

Bill Sullivan
bsullivan -at- deltecpower -dot- com
San Diego, California

>>> Larry Kunz ((919) 254-6395) <ldkunz -at- vnet -dot- ibm -dot- com> - 3/14/96 11:45
AM >>>
The newest Writer's Block, recently announced on this list
(http://www.magi.com/~niva/writblok/index.html), contains an article
titled "Reviewing a technical writer's performance" by
Anton Holland. The article is interesting in light of our off-and-on
discussion of what our profession's core skills are.

Holland lists eight criteria a manager can use to appraise a
technical communicator (quoting verbatim):

- The ability to translate a morass of technical details into a
clear hierarchy of concepts
- Knowledge and attention to document design
- Consistency in editing
- Ability to plan one's workload
- Proper and consistent reporting habits
- Establishing and maintaining a good rapport with clients
- Good knowledge of documentation tools
- Desire and ability to learn new concepts

It's a pretty good list, although the longer I look at it the more
I feel like rewording, reshuffling, and generally messing around with
it. I'm glad, at least, that the next-to-last item doesn't say
"Ability to use (name-of-your-favorite-DTP-system-here)."

Comments? Would (should) the list be any different if we were
talking about hiring technical communicators, as opposed to
appraising them?

BTW, the same Writer's Block carries a feature article that refers --
I am not making this up -- to a study of the human brain done by a
Professor Hare. The rest of the pun is left as an exercise for the
reader.

Larry Kunz
STC Assistant to the President for Professional Development
ldkunz -at- vnet -dot- ibm -dot- com


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