Researching your Subject

Subject: Researching your Subject
From: Thomas Quine <thomas -dot- quine -at- NCOMPASSLABS -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 21 Dec 1998 09:31:14 -0800

Ben Kovitz posted a lengthy rant (which I mercifully will not reproduce
here) making the point that discussing the correct use of programming
terms is inappropriate for this list.

That's foolish. Most of us are in the software industry, and usage is
central to our occupations.

Ben goes on to argue that it's our responsibility not to trouble the
list with such questions, but to "research the subject" and "acquire
genuine expertise" in it.

Here's where the discussion gets interesting. Because as a technical
writer I consider myself an expert in communication, in engineering a
path from the reader to the information they require. My expertise is
NOT in the subject matter. That's why I use Subject Matter Experts
(SMEs).

I've worked for dozens of companies, and have found there is relatively
little carryover of knowledge about the specific subject matter being
documented from company to company. In fact, as soon as I have finished
a project, I make it a point to erase what is specific to my former
employer from my mental hard drive, to free up space for the next job.

Two years ago I wrote an excellent manual about cable installation which
my client was very pleased with and paid handsomely for. This year, I
can't tell you a thing about cable installation. Because my job was to
capture the knowledge of the SMEs and present it in the most accessible
and user-friendly format - not to install cable. I'm a professional
technical communicator - I'd never cut it as a cable guy, and don't even
want to try.

Of course, if I were carving out a career in the cable industry, I would
be wise to build up some expertise in the field. Instead I concentrated
on sharpening my interviewing skills, my communication skills, my layout
and illustration skills, my project management skills, all of which
serve my career and make me more valuable to my next employer.

What I retain is what is relevant to my own area of expertise, namely
the craft of technical writing.

I firmly believe a skilled technical writer or skilled instructional
designer can teach anyone anything, even about a subject they've never
been exposed to before the project commences. That's where our expertise
should lie...

- Thom


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