What do TWs really do?

Subject: What do TWs really do?
From: John Wilson <jwilson -at- AMADEUS -dot- NET>
Date: Mon, 8 Mar 1999 09:53:35 +0100

What does a technical writer do? You would probably agree that most people
who employ or might employ technical writers do not really know what a TW
does. I would go further: technical writers themselves (at least, many of
the TWs I know personally) have difficulty in describing what they do, and
talk in generalities like about "clear, concise documentation", "suited to
the audience" and even "good English".

With answers like these, who can blame managers for treating us as grammar
checkers or text formatters? The above are all desirable outcomes, but
what do we do in real terms to achieve them?

There is considerable confusion within the profession about this simple
question. The STC journal had a feature "A proof-reading error as big as a
barn" with a photo of a misspelt sign or hoarding ("confectionary",
"gasaline", that sort of thing - hilarious, eh?). Of course TWs proof-read,
but in my view this was not the sort of thing to put in a professional
journal as it sends the message that our job is about proof-reading. Maybe
the STC would agree as I think the feature has been withdrawn now.

Our job is bound to be misunderstood and undervalued unless we can describe
in a sentence or two what we do. It doesn't matter if the answer is not
perfect - we can argue forever, but I think it is important to be able to
answer the question in a concise way that has some meaning for a colleague
or potential employer. Especially as we are selling ourselves as

For example:
"A technical writer designs and implements effective ways to communicate
complex ideas to diverse audiences." (Steve Fouts in the list).
"Technical and professional writers interpret and communicate specialized
information for practical use." (Portland Community College definition
cited on the list).

I am not sure that either reply would help to convince a manager that he
needed such a person as part of a team. These are true as far as they go,
but are a bit too high-level, rather like saying that an engineer is
someone who builds bridges.

To try to answer the question: Technical writers deal in information. But
usually they do not create it: they take existing information and do thing
to it to make it fulfil a function. Maybe our definition of a TW's job
should be along the lines of what TWs do to information.

To take a common example, you are writing a reference manual for a software
product. The information you require is all there - in the product itself,
in a spec and in engineers' heads. In a sentence or two, what do you do to
this information to make the product usable?



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