Re: Non-technical, Technical Writers

Subject: Re: Non-technical, Technical Writers
From: "Wing, Michael J" <mjwing -at- INGR -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 6 May 1998 11:48:29 -0500

When I entered the field I was the only Technical Writer in company. I
spent the majority of my tenure in the Engineering department and was by far
one of the least technical of the group. However, I was hired because one
of my degrees is in E.E. and because I had experience as a technician. The
philosophy of the department was that the writer was to spend as little time
with the Engineers as possible. In fact, for one project I was allotted
only 4 hours of Engineer contact time (the lead Engineer kept a running tab
on me). Therefore, the position required that the writer develop from
specifications, testing, design documents, and so forth.

When I switched jobs, I was under the impression that a Technical Writer is
a technical person whose product was a document but whose main purpose was
to convey technical information. IMO (based on working in electronics and
software), writing is the avenue to producing the document but it supports
more important skills such as technical/subject matter understanding (not on
an SME level, but on a functional/logical level), innovative thinking
(actually, more so than creative thinking), and the ability to discern the
information for a variety of audiences. Writing, therefore, is one of many
tools, but is not the only tool. In the fields of technical writing that I
have experienced, being able to write without good technical comprehension
is like water skiing without a rope.

After being in numerous writing groups (from 3 to 32 members) and involved
with this listserv, I realize that there are as many definitions as there
are writers. I've experienced an antagonistic blending of skills in a group
and a complimentary blending in another.

In one group, I was the most technical person. My efforts to point out that
the documents left the user starving for information did not warrant the
same interest that amount of leading to use or initial caps in illustration
captions did. However, the philosophy of the group was that everyone is the
same (same assignments, same perceived skills) and that an effort by one to
provide more detail and information would have to be reflected by the
others. And because we all had different degrees of technical
comprehension, it was decided to write to the lowest common denominator.

In some situations, I drew some resentment from the non-technical writers
because the Developers related to me as a peer and because I could get the
computer to do repetitive functions for me. For example, we had to pull the
error messages out of some code. The other writers were opening the code in
a word processor and cutting and pasting the messages. This took days. I
wrote a batch file and parsed all my messages in 15 minutes. One writer
complained to management that I was just "showing them up" and that I should
have to do it their way.

In another large group, our duties were distributed according to skills. We
had a mixture of writers with technical/computer skills, subject matter
knowledge, and language/grammatical/presentation skills. We worked
cross-product to support each other. I would write programming
reference/user guides, design reusable help templates, write time-saving
programs (such as file conversions), and talk with other's SMEs to get
technical details. Others would help me in areas where they had more
experience and aptitude. Had everyone in the group been the same type of
writer, I would have to arm wrestle them for the assignments. As it stands
now, I write about the stuff no one else wants to (mostly API material).


Michael Wing (mailto:mjwing -at- ingr -dot- com)
Principal Technical Writer
Intergraph Corporation; Huntsville, Alabama

"Humpty was pushed!"

> It seems like there is a glut of writers who can discern the minute
> intricacies of bullet shapes and alignment proportions, but they can't
> deal
> with anything remotely technical.
> I am curious what you and your company do about this problem. How do you
> deal with non-technical people selling themselves as being technical?
> When
> someone starts obsessing over the shape of bullets and completely ignores
> the fact that the material in question is technically inaccurate what do
> you
> do?
> It seems to me that the more non-technical, technical writers there are --
> the more it hurts those of us that work very hard stay current with the
> latest technologies. I'm not talking about knowing how to use the latest
> version of FrameMaker. I mean knowing the nitty-gritty technical details
> about the technologies you are documenting.
> Thanks.
> ........................................................
> Andrew Plato

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