The nature of technical writing?

Subject: The nature of technical writing?
From: "Geoff Hart (by way of \"Eric J. Ray\" <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>)" <ght -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 10:13:27 -0700

Larry Allingham <<...must confess that as an outsider looking in, it
is difficult to determine the relative importance of writing skills
vs. computer literacy in the profile of a good technical writer.>>

Despite my previous, devil's advocate response to Elizabeth
Vollbach, I come down very heavily on the side that skill is much
more important than tool knowledge... provided that you're able to
learn the tools reasonably quickly. But nowadays, there are ever
fewer situation where we can (say) rely on a pool of desktop
publishers or typists to write down and format our brilliant insights
into what we're documenting; most of us wear multiple hats. Moreover,
given the deadlines many of us work under, we rarely have time to
futz about with a product manual for an hour figuring out how to do
something. So even though the ability to comprehend and explain is
most important, it's getting progressively harder to get by without
good tool skills that let you apply that comprehension and ability
to explain.

<<What other areas engage technical writers besides user
documentation and on-line help for software products?>>

If they produce paper or computer output, whatever the nature, for
anyone other than the writer of that information, there's a niche for
a technical communicator. For example, though I do software docs, my
main job is technology transfer in forestry, with large nods towards
doing presentations, Web design, translation, and half a dozen
other things. Before that, I did popular science writing. In short,
anything that needs to be explained needs someone to explain it!

<<Are there subsets of the technical writing discipline in which
mastery of technical concepts is essential to writing effectively
about them?>>

Yup. When I translate technical French into technical English, my
forestry degree is what lets me use the right terms and the terms
that are used in the industry. When I edit, I edit substantively (for
logic and correctness), not just for spelling and grammar. The same
principle applies, with different particulars, to any other field
(including but not limited to software documentation).

<<To what extent would engineering and business experience offset
ignorance of specific software tools in the eyes of an employer
seeking a technical writer?>>

Depends on the employer, and how tight the job market is. If you have
truly unique skills, even a tool-obsessed employer will probably pick
you over a "Tim the Toolman" who lacks those skills. If anyone can do
your job, then most managers will probably pick someone with
competence equal to yours, but better tool skills.

<<Is there a market for technical translation? (French to English is
of specific interest to me)>>

There's a huge market. Check out the whole European Community for
ideas on what translation opportunities exist.
--Geoff Hart @8^{)}
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Patience comes to those who wait."--Anon.


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