Re: New slant: professionalism (long)

Subject: Re: New slant: professionalism (long)
From: Heather Searl <SearlHL -at- SCIEX -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 24 Apr 1998 12:16:55 -0400

I think the one of the most important thing said in this thread was
Jane Bergen's comment:

... one aspect has not been discussed and that is whether we are
enhancing the
professional aspect of technical communication in the workplace, or if
we are part of the problem.

As a fairly long-time active member of STC, I have had occasion to meet
and talk with many people who call themselves technical writers. Believe
me, I would not agree with their assessment of the terms. I see lots of
people who "fell into" their jobs with no technical communication
training. Some are pretty good, but most are not. The only proof is the
work they produce, which unfortunately is acceptable to many employers
who don't have a clue what good tech writing is all about.

Here is a true story.

Imagine a situation where the technical writer's job is to clean up
drafts of the manual written by various SMEs. This consisted of little
more than reformatting the documents since the writers would not edit
the text because they thought it was too technical, and they might
change the meaning. You can image the documentation produced by this

I was brought on to improve the quality and consistency of the
documentation. I talked to the writers and heard all about how the
company wanted things done this way, the SMEs were considered too
important to spend time with us, we didn't have enough writers to do
things properly and no one listened to why we needed more people etc
etc. They said they knew things weren't being done properly, and that
they knew they could do more. They worked with me on defining how things
should work. They said they wanted improvements, but that the
organization would never change, and SMEs and management would never go
for it.

So, I set off to talk to my management and our SMEs about what had to
change and why, fully expecting to have a fight on my hands.

My management immediately saw the value in putting the documentation
process under the control of the tech writing group, and in having
writers learn the products, talk to users, and actively seeking out
information for the manuals instead of passively taking whatever they
were given. Within half an hour I had the go ahead to re-write the job
description (including raising the salary range for new hires and
existing writers who could work within the new job requirements), hire a
couple more people and promises of full backing with any problems
arising with other groups because if the changes I wanted to make.

Then I went to tackle the SME's. They practically jumped for joy. They
didn't want to write manuals, they wanted to develop products. They
quickly understood that by spending more time with the writers up front,
they would improve the documentation and save themselves a lot of time
down the road. Within minutes they were checking their schedules trying
to arrange a regular time each week when they could each work one on one
with a writer to train them on our products.

I returned to the writers, claiming an initial success. Some writers
immediately saw that they were going to have a more interesting job and
they would get paid more for it. Others said they want the change but as
time passed they refused to take responsibility for making the change.
When you get to the heart of it they really believed their job should be
regurgitating information that is spoon fed to them. The scary thing is
that one of these writers was an advisor on technical communications
courses at a local college, and all of them were STC members who seemed
to keep up with technology and trends.

SMEs who worked with the second set of writers quickly soured on the
changes and decided they were spending more time and getting nothing
extra, they grumbled, complained and kept trying to go back tot he way
things were before. SMEs working with the first group of writers saw
that advances were being made and continued to support the changes.

My point (and I do have one) is that most management and SMEs I've come
across are more than happy to work with tech writers, and do things the
way we want as long as they can see the value in it for the customer and
for themselves. Most of the SMEs I've had trouble with have had bad
experiences with tech writers who didn't live up to their end of the
bargain. Usually I can convince even difficult SMEs to give my way a
try. I haven't had as much luck with writers who have created a cushy
niche for themselves where they perform a basically clerical function
with no responsibility for the final product and a reasonably good

So, I think we need to start at home and educate those among us who are
bring us down--lead by example as they say--and if that fails, encourage
them to at least change their job title. Then we can push the right
buttons with management and SMEs to make lasting change in how our
profession is seen.

Heather Searl
Technical Writing Group Leader
MDS Sciex
searlhl -at- sciex -dot- com
(905) 660-9006 x562

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