Re: Fair wage

Subject: Re: Fair wage
From: Katherine Graden <kgraden -at- MAIL -dot- DANCRIS -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 13 Mar 1997 17:19:49 -0700

At 02:21 PM 3/13/97 -0600, Wing, Michael J wrote:
>All right! One of my favorite debates is raising its head again.
>>Why? Because I believe (and have seen people demonstrate many times) that
>>it's much easier to teach a bright, talented writer programming or
>>engineering than it is to teach an equally bright programmer or engineer
>>who's a poor writer how to write well.
>I couldn't disagree more. The "writing is harder than engineering"
>response is usually made by someone who has never been an Engineer. It
>seems to be the theme song of writers with an arts and humanities
>background. They seem to find it comforting to think that Engineers are

KG: Well geez, I'd feel barbecued by your response above if it weren't for
the fact that I have degrees in both writing and computer science (yes, a
double major)! I've done my share of programming. And I said nothing at
all about engineers being illiterate. (Check my phrase "equally bright
programmer or engineer".)
>I think that is much, much harder to teach a Writer to subclass objects
>or perform step analysis on a circuit than it is to teach an Engineer
>not to end a sentence with a preposition. I believe this because
>whether used correctly or incorrectly, words are something that we have
>all had in common since birth. Performing loop equations, frequency
>response analysis, and so forth, is not. Therefore, the starting point
>for an Engineer in learning to write is closer to the final goal than is
>the starting point for a writer to learn to design.

KG: I wasn't talking about writing in terms of using correct punctuation
and grammar, though that's certainly a small part of what technical writers
do. My point was that many untrained writers aren't good at analyzing
information and organizing it for the highest clarity and conciseness.
Information design is as much a high-level skill as circuit analysis. And
I think that a large number of technically trained people tend to use
jargon instead of looking for the best way to word a topic. All too often,
techies turned writers gear the information they write to the highest-level
user, not to the person who is using a product for the first time. (Even a
programmer or engineer who has 10+ years of experience and training can
have difficulty understanding how to use a product if the instructions
aren't clear enough.)
>Personally, I have both a humanities background (Education degree) and a
>technical background (Electrical Engineering degree). I've seen plenty
>of Engineers with adequate to excellent writing ability. I've not met
>any Technical Writers who can design a circuit to compensate for the
>effects of acceleration on a signal source. If you don't believe me,
>compare the salaries of Technical Writers to Engineers. Even if it
>could be proven that both sets of skills are equally difficult or that
>writing skills are more difficult, the demand and rewards are greater
>for those who can design products than for those who tell others how to
>use products someone else designed.

KG: Though my background is programming and technical writing, I now write
for a company that produces finite element analysis software for
engineering applications. I knew next to nothing about engineering when I
started with this company, but now I can take an engineering spec and turn
it into draft copy fairly easily (and without pestering the designers to

I don't think the disparity in salaries between engineers and technical
writers is solely because engineering skills are more advanced, though I'd
concede that management commonly holds that perception. I think salary
differences are also a gender issue, because a large proportion of tech
writers are female, and male programmers and engineers still predominate.
(Thank goodness that's changing!) I also submit that the demand for
solidly experienced tech writers, with or without a technical background,
is growing. I know it is, because I've seen writers' salaries rise as the
demand increases.
>>Don't forget, excellent writing ability is the basic requirement for someone
>>producing documentation.
>I somewhat disagree here. Writing ability is A basic requirement. It
>is not THE basic requirement. Let's pick another basic requirement.
>How about the ability to discern information?

KG: OK, I'll agree that discerning information is just as important as
writing ability. But any organization which blindly hands a tech writer an
uncommented code file or a circuit blueprint and expects him or her to
produce complete documentation based on it is courting disaster. And a
professional tech writer with any ability at all should know better than to
enter technical input verbatim into a document.

Another basic skill a tech writer needs is the ability to identify the
information needed for thorough documentation, and to ask the right
questions of SMEs. If a writer asks the right questions, she or he doesn't
need to rely very heavily on SMEs.
>Without the ability to discern information, a writer relies too heavily
>on Smells. Because the information befuddles the writer, they just put
>whatever the SME gives them into the manual. A writer with poor
>discernment abilities has a hard time filling information gaps when the
>SME cannot devote adequate time and attention to their needs. This type
>of writer goes to pieces when information from different technical
>sources conflict. However, a writer with good discernment abilities
>gathers information from multiple sources, compares the information to
>specifications/white papers/code/schematics, tests the application, and
>then distinguishes what is valid data.
>>Although you can train a poor or mediocre writer to write better, she or he
>>probably never will become a great writer. An average writer with
>>excellent technical knowledge may be just what's needed in some situations.
>I'll go out on a limb. Adequate writing skills are probably enough for
>our profession. Excellent writing skills are a plus. That is because
>the purpose for our writing is to convey the proper information to the
>reader. If, as a result of reading a document, the reader can correctly
>use the product (or understands that the product does not do what they
>want), I would say that the writing requirement has been satisfied.
>Writing for us is functional, not artistic. The artistic side to
>writing may be more suitable for other fields of writing.

KG: Who's talking artistic? I just don't think it's enough for a writer
worth his or her salary to produce serviceable documentation that just gets
the job done. Writers working on documentation for Product A need to make
their documents better designed, more complete, more retrievable, etc. than
the documentation for Product B. You seem to be from the "documentation is
a necessary evil" school of thought. I've seen five- and six-figure
contracts won or lost on the basis of which product has better documentation.

Of course, if the product someone documents doesn't have that many
competitors (and certainly such cases exist), then yes, I'd agree that
functional vanilla documentation does the job.
>>Mike Wing
>| Michael Wing
>| & Principal Technical Writer
>| Infrastructure Technical Information Development
>| Intergraph Corporation; Huntsville, Alabama
>| :
>| ( (205) 730-7250
>| . mjwing -at- ingr -dot- com
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