Non-technical, Technical Writers

Subject: Non-technical, Technical Writers
From: Chris Knight <knight -at- ADA -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 6 May 1998 12:40:42 -0700

I too have had my resume questioned by an agency for being "too
technical". Now I have written everything from highly technical
stuff (API docs come to mind) to firefighting training videos,
so what's "too technical"? I think that for many people
(especially HR types and agencies?) "technical knowledge" and
"people" knowledge (user psychology etc.) are so different that
they have a hard time believing that someone can have both. Whereas
we all know that that is exactly what's required, don't we.<g>
It seems to me that TechComm is the answer to the "two solitudes"
problem raised by C.P. Snow long ago.

I agreee that a liberal arts degree is supposed to "teach you
how to think"--it did in my case I think--but even knowing how
to ask questions isn't enough. As Max Wyss says "a sound basic
knowledge of the topic is necessary." So I agree with the
originator of the thread that we have a problem with TWs who
simply don't know enough about the topic to write about it. As
to "what to do about it", I say keep on plugging, try to educate
your employers and clients, and get the word out to our

However, many of the same TWs who don't know what they're writing
about also don't care very much. Some are downright contemptuous
of technical people (and their concerns for accuracy). This is a
very dangerous attitude. I have heard smarty-pants TWs sneer and
heap scorn all over the systems they were writing about. Now in
some cases there's a lot of room for improvement, and positive
criticism on product usability is one of the most useful things a
tech writer can contribute. But a basically anti-technological
attitude is, I think, as poisonous as a "Gosh, this whiz-bang's
gonna save the world!" attitude.

Furthermore, as L.H. Garlinghouse and Karen Kay pointed out,
technical people can be next to useless if they haven't developed
or been blessed with some "technical sense" or ability. Like Karen,
"I'm much more concerned about engineering education than liberal
arts education. There is a huge difference between technical
knowledge and technical ability, and ... engineering education
stresses the former and neglects the latter." This is part of what
creates opportunities for us.

Also, like Michael Wing, I have seen suspicion and fear from
non-technical writers because developers related to me as a peer,
and because I could program the word processor to do repetitive
functions for me. I strongly urge TWs who don't have any technical
background to try writing macro programs. Quite apart from their
utility, they get one "thinking like a developer". And I appeal to
managers of TW groups who themselves have no technical skills to
not be afraid of hiring writers who do; they're not interested in
"showing you up"--they want to help you get the job done.

Is that "on topic" enough for you Andrew?

Chris Knight
Consultant, Technical Communication Architect
Vancouver BC, Canada
(currently at Applied Digital Access,
E-mail: knight -at- bcg -dot- ada -dot- com Phone: 604-415-5886 Fax: 604-415-5900)
Opinions expressed are my own, not ADA's

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