Tech writing & incompetence (very long)

Subject: Tech writing & incompetence (very long)
From: Andrew Plato <aplato -at- EASYSTREET -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 6 Jul 1998 13:41:27 -0700

I recently made a claim that I thought technical writing was rife with
incompetence. A few of you challenged this opinion and pointed out that I
did not explain this point. Therefore, I considered this claim and wanted
to share my ideas as to why I believe the technical communications
profession as more incompetence then other fields.

First, I realize that not ALL tech writers are losers. I know many writers
who are stellar. They work hard, like their job, and take great pride in
their work. However, I fell the truly good ones are few and far between.

Likewise, I also realize that ALL professions have incompetence. I know
plenty of programmers, managers (especially managers) and engineers who are
Grade A Losers.

However, I still feel there is too much incompetence in technical writing.

Reasons for Incompetence-------------------------------------

1. Excessive Moonlighting

I can name 20 or so writers who work as a technical writer merely to pay the
bills. They are aspiring musicians, novelists, and in one case an Amway
Regional Distribution Coordinating Lackey. These people simply do not have
their heart in their work and it shows. I think a lot of people who like to
write thing technical writing is a good line of work because it allows them
the chance to write everyday. Unfortunately, many of these people are not
interested in communicating. They love to write, but they hate to
communicate. I think there is a fundamental difference in the act of
writing words, which is what a general writer does and communicating, which
is what a technical writer must do.

2. Availability of Entry-Level Positions

This is both a good and bad quality of tech writing. Tech writing is one of
the few professions where a liberal arts educated person can get a decent
job. There are numerous entry-level positions in technical writing. This
is good because it allows people who like technology and like writing to get
into companies and work their way up into decent paying jobs. Unlike some
fields such as television or newspaper reporting which are locked tight and
have extremely few entry level positions, technical writing is far more open
minded to hiring people with little to no experience.

This is bad in the sense that a lot of dreck wander into the profession and
mask their incompetence for years. I know writers with 10 - 15 years of
experience who are flaming losers. These people wandered into technical
writing eons ago and have been tap dancing ever since.

3. Technophobia

I have written about this before. Most people agreed that being a technical
writer and not liking technology or communicating technical details was
pretty awful. But too many writers are this way. Once again, they may
enjoy the process of writing, but they do not seem to enjoy the process of

4. Lack of Feedback

How many times have you written a document and the people who were supposed
to read it never read a single page? Too many companies place too little
emphasis on reviewing, editing, and revising documentation. In the process,
this means really bad writers can hide their incompetence inside mounds of
paperwork. Moreover, many managers take little to no effort to review and
assess the performance of the writers working in their company. I know a
manager who once said "giving a performance review to a technical writer is
like telling a Jesus freak that God doesn't exist. They have a billion
reasons why you're wrong and they are right."

Feedback is a vital part of growth and maturity. Without accurate, fair,
and regular feedback people become closed-minded and stubborn. Moreover,
they lose perspective on their worth, their talents, and their roles. I am
reminded of a writer I worked with at a large company in Seattle. Nice
woman, pretty smart, but she worked alone and had virtually no supervision
or feedback on her work. When I came in to review her material and help her
out, she had spent nearly a year drawing a picture book about entering
information into a database - complete with cute pictures of ants. The ants
were nice, but she was supposed to write a data dictionary, er schema, and
an operations manual. She was livid when I recommended to the boss that
they hire another writer to manage her. She felt that because she had been
there a year, she deserved some management position when she had no idea
what her company made.

5. The Secretarial Syndrome

Too many writers are either treated like glorified secretaries or treat
themselves this way. I think this is a complex problem involving a lot of
misconception and prejudice in the technology industries. I also think it
is because some writers never aspire beyond being a secretary. When faced
with a complex project or document, rather then actively work the issues,
these writers work passively. They expect the information to come to them,
rather then going out and getting the information. This typically comes
about in an environment where technical writers are considered as glorified

Thus the Secretarial Syndrome is really a positive feedback loop. As the
employees and company treat the writers more like annoying secretaries, the
tech writers grow more and more self-centered and resentful. Ultimately,
the working environment becomes paralyzed. I have seen many companies in
this kind of place. The writers lived on one side of a brick wall and the
engineers, technicians, and support staff lived on another. None of the
writers were willing to rise up and break down the walls for fear of losing
their job or worse -- having to actually work.

6. Brain Power

Writing is inherently a detail oriented task. It also involves parts of the
brain requiring equal amounts of creativity and logic. Studies have shown
that writing and communicating is one of the most brain intensive activities
that a human being can perform. There is so many parts of the brain working
at once that it is not surprising that many people burn out or can't muster
the brain wattage to do it. I must admit, that when I am in the middle of a
complex technical manual, my head hurts sometimes. I feel like my brain is
going to pop out of my skull. Maybe it is just because I am one of the
idiots and can't muster the wattage either. However, I think it is because
communicating, especially really complex technology, is a very intense
mental activity.

It is any wonder that many of the greatest writers are also completely
insane? All that brain activity drives you crazy after a few years. It is
the same as driving a car 200 MPH for days on end. It would break. Not
because it is a crappy car, but because putting that much power through a
device will burn it out quicker.

Ultimately, I think this is why a lot of the good 400 MHz writers leave the
field. They fry their chipsets faster then those with slower buses. The
difficulty of communicating and comprehending complex technology simply
fries them. What is left? Dolts running at 25 MHz.


Believe it or not, I have some ideas for solving this problem.

- Stop hiring just to plug holes. To many people with no skills and no
ambition are allowed to entry the field because companies are desperate to
plug holes in their headcount.

- Raise expectations. Writers need to be expected to turn over good
material on-time. Lazy, ineffectual writers need to be weeded out.

- Service oriented. I think a lot of companies look at technical writers as
annoying necessities. Writers need to prove that their services have value
in a company. The way to do this is through adopting a "service oriented"
atmosphere. Rather then looking at your work as an end in an of itself,
look at it as a product that serves others. Writers are providing a service
to engineers, technicians and scientists. The writer is helping those
people hone ideas and communicate those ideas to others. Moreover, the
writer is also serving the reader by writing material that meets their
needs. If technical writing groups took on more of a service oriented
mentality, a lot of the incompetent people would fall away quickly because
their incompetence would be immediately displayed in front of others. Too
many writers hide behind their fonts and FrameMakers. In the process, the
technical writing field suffers as a whole.


Technical writing is an excellent profession for those that enjoy
technology, writing, and communicating. I enjoy what I do because I love
the process of learning new things and then explaining those things to
people. I love the look on people's faces when the light goes on and I
helped to turn it on. It is a feeling of great pride and satisfaction.

However, too many writers never see the lights go on and they roll-over and
accept it. Technical writing is a diverse profession. It is up to everyone
to maintain the highest standards and ensure that the losers and purged and
the truly talented are rewarded.

Andrew Plato
President / Principal Consultant
Anitian Consulting, Inc.

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