Re: Researching your Subject

Subject: Re: Researching your Subject
From: Gil Yaker <gyaker -at- CSC -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 21 Dec 1998 15:03:26 -0500

This is my first time posting to the techwr list and also my first time
using lotus notes' email to
quote a portion of the original message. Please excuse me if this is
difficult to read.

TQ> Here's where the discussion gets interesting. Because as a technical
TQ> writer I consider myself an expert in communication, in engineering a
TQ> path from the reader to the information they require. My expertise is
TQ> NOT in the subject matter. That's why I use Subject Matter Experts
TQ> (SMEs).
I feel that if you are a technical writer/communicator, you should have two
primary areas of specialization. The first being communicating, like you
state. In addition, you need to be able to understand and analyze technical
concepts. I think you really need to bring a base level of understanding of
the field you are writing for to the job you are about to take on.

Let me personalize this: In college, I flip-flopped between technical
majors for 4 years. I then admitted that 1. I wasn't driven enough to
complete a BS degree and 2. my poor (upper level) math skills were
postponing my graduation for an indeterminate number of years. As all this
was going on, I was taking a course in technical writing. Bingo...I was
great at this! I could write clearly and at the same time had this huge
background of technical knowledge that I could use as a basis for my work.
I received my degree in English with an emphasis on writing, and got a tech
writing job 2 months later. All this said, I still consider myself
primarily a technical person. Heck, at social gatherings I'm talking
technology and generally geeky stuff instead of communication, unless of
course I can geekify it. heh

Now, I've been a tech writer for 3 years. I always find myself amazing my
managers because they are so pleased I can pick up and explain the
technical concepts we need communicated. In addition, I get closer with the
technical staff because it's their development work that challenges and
intrigues me. Often, when I'm interviewing people, I challenge them with
their system design and help them to look at the project in new ways.

TQ> I've worked for dozens of companies, and have found there is relatively
TQ> little carryover of knowledge about the specific subject matter being
TQ> documented from company to company. In fact, as soon as I have finished
TQ> a project, I make it a point to erase what is specific to my former
TQ> employer from my mental hard drive, to free up space for the next job.
One of the few rewards of being a technical communicator for me is that I
can soak up every else's knowledge for my own enrichment. It's more fun for
me to interview a SME and learn every intricacy of a system than to spit it
back out to the audience. And then if there is a point that I find
challenging to communicate to an audience, it usually turns out to be a
minor point that would only confuse the readers, so I eventually skip it.

So I've read a number of the problems many of you have dealing with your
SMEs and I find myself on the other side of the coin. I can really get the
SMEs going and excited to talk about their work, but probably because they
don't feel that they have to explain lots of underlying concepts of their
work. We can usually pick up at the current stage of their development.
Then I go back to my computer and de-techify their words, filling in all
the gaps and assumptions that are inherent in their words. And then yes,
most of the time when I bring my work to the SMEs and my managers for
approval, everyone is happy.

TQ> I firmly believe a skilled technical writer or skilled instructional
TQ> designer can teach anyone anything, even about a subject they've never
TQ> been exposed to before the project commences. That's where our
TQ> should lie...
But I'm not so sure of that. I would never attempt to apply for a tech
writing position at a bio tech firm. I have no knowledge of the life
sciences. I think that a product manager would prefer that he or she and
his or her staff would have less to teach me in order for me to create a
piece of documentation. There's something to be said for versatility, but
from the jobs I've seen, most require some degree of specialization.
Further, I feel insulted if someone with more formal experience in writing
is chosen over me when I have more experience with the subject matter.

Let me bring this message full circle, and know that I want input from
those of you with more experience than me. So here I am at my job, bored to
tears. I've sat idle for the past two weeks doing nothing. Why? Well it
seems that usually I finish early such that I'm waiting for the parts of
the development team to get their job finished. There are probably a number
of reasons for this, but what I can say for sure is that this circumstance
has been a constant in my relatively few years of work. Do all tech writers
sit around and twiddle their thumbs? I was promised a demanding workload at
both of the interviews for the permanent jobs I've had, and never has this
promise been fulfilled.

So as not to seem like I know everything and feel that I've mastered tech
writing (ha), I need to say that it's quite depressing to be uninspired by
your job. I used to really enjoy this stuff, but as time has worn on, the
challenge has gone. I'm also in a position now that emphasizes training,
heavily, but I have taught computer concepts to lay users so much in my
career, I'm sick of it. Plus I'm not a people person, so when I get up to
lecture in front of people, it's not by choice.

Anyway, I'm now working towards a computer science degree at night school
and enjoying every minute of it. I guess I'm fed up with how things are
going -- plus why do developers get paid that much more than we do? It sure
seems that there are fewer competent writers than there are competent

And one last peripheral question (for now). Buried within the above is my
feeling that if I had something more technical to write about, I'd be
happier. But, who gets to write the REALLY technical manuals? I spoke with
one recruiter from an engineering firm who said there's a field called ILS,
integrated logistics systems (or services, not sure what the S stands for),
that might encompass the more technical spec-oriented work. Or let me put
it this way. Who gets to write the volumes of manuals on say how a computer
microprocessor works and all the associated specs? Is there any way in hell
they'd let someone without a formal technical background author those
manuals? Or is it usually some engineer who gets by his
or her manager to write the docs?

TIA for your forthcoming wise input
Gil Yaker

The words above are completely my own and do not reflect the opinion of my

From ??? -at- ??? Sun Jan 00 00:00:00 0000=

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