Value of technical writers - Sorry, boss is (mostly) right

Subject: Value of technical writers - Sorry, boss is (mostly) right
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- YAHOO -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 29 Dec 1998 18:21:35 -0800

"It's difficult to rank technical writers along
> with Engineers, because people who go into tech writing and QA are
> people who tried to be Engineers and failed.

Your boss is correct in some regards. Many writers are writers
because they aspire no further. Half the writers I meet are writers
only because they want to pay the bills and cannot get a job doing
anything else. This might not be the case for yourself, but it is for
a lot of writers out there (in my experience).

Now, some writers actually break out of this mold and become
technology experts as well as good writers. For example, in my line
of work a technical writer with Oracle experience is like a brick of
gold. They can command high salaries and great respect. However,
there are so few writers with this knowledge, that most of the writers
I interview I turn away.

> Also, Engineers can keep learning and advancing
> in their field, but technical writers have no
> where to go or new things to learn."

This is essentially true. Tech writing has not changed much in the
past 10 years. Get mad an curse my name, but apart from a few new
tools, on-line help, and some interactive medias - by and large
technical writing is pretty much the same as it was 10 years ago.
Moreover, what has absolutely remained the same over the past decade
is that the majority of writers obsess over tools and techniques while
never focusing on the technologies they are documenting. This is why
most writers have no where to advance. Once they learn a few tools
and techniques and then keep re-learning the same tools and techniques
over and over again. I know writers who have been to on-line help
seminars 10 or 20 times. Sheesh, how much training in on-line help do
you need? It isn't that flippin' hard.

If writers started focusing more on the technologies they are
documenting and less on the tools they use, your boss's opinions on
tech writers might change.

In comparison, software design and development has dramatically
changed in the past 10 years. Entire new languages have risen and
fallen in the past 10 years. Moreover, the technologies are radically

This revealed such a horrific
> misunderstanding of the value of technical writers, that I feel I'm
> teetering on the edge of an abyss. All I could come up with at the
time, was
> to splutter "You are completely wrong, and we need to have a long
talk about
> this soon." After 20 years of being a technical writer and manager,
I find
> that I am continually challenged to learn new technologies and that
this job
> is still fun and exciting. In no way do I feel like a "failed
> What in the world do I say to this dyed-in-the-wool Engineer who
holds my
> fate and salary in her hands to convince her that technical writers
> different skills than Engineers and should be valued differently?

Unfortunately, your boss's views of writers are what many managers

I hate to say this, because I know this irritates a lot of people, but
most non-tech writers find tech writers brittle, small-minded, and
generally less skilled than engineers. Why do you think Scott Adams
paints Tina the Technical Writer as a short tempered, brittle person?

The frustration you feel is caused by the legions of technical writers
out there that are continuing the trend of tool and technique obsession.

When tech writing becomes a profession focused on technology and
content maybe then the perceptions of co-workers and managers will
change. Until then, all I can say is "deal with it." This is why I
left tech writing for consulting.

Get your free address at

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