Re: Baseline Skillset for Technical Writers?

Subject: Re: Baseline Skillset for Technical Writers?
From: "Alan D. Miller"
To: techwr-l
Date: Mon, 20 Dec 1999 12:58:55

Tony Markatos wrote (in response to Horace Smith's comment: "Technical
Writer is two words. If you aren't technical, how can you write
about something technical?"):

"Easily. The primary thing that a TW has to do is to determine the
essential end-user tasks accomplished with the product and how all of those
tasks interrelate. The determination of the interrelationships is
especially important.

"You may have to know some stuff about technology; however, that is
secondary. (In fact, a pretty good manual can often be written without
knowledge of the technology employed.)

"Technical Writer is a poor name for our career field."

Sorry, Tony, but I have to disagree with this. (He said, leaping onto his
soapbox.) While the skills you list are important ones for a TW to have, a
thorough-going understanding of the technology (s)he is writing about
cannot be ignored. The TW can acquire that understanding by research and
self-study, by formal education or training, or any other method (s)he
finds effective. But the understanding is essential. How else can the TW
tell the difference between accurate and inaccurate information? (SMEs _do_
make errors. Sometimes.)

<Example> (Non-technical types can skip this bit. <g>) The skills and
knowledge database prepared for power plant operator tasks by an industry
organization contained six different definitions for the term "ampere."
This database was populated with data collected by task analysists
interviewing supposedly qualified (i.e., licensed) operators. All six
definitions were incorrect! (The _closest_ was "ampere equals current per
second.") I was helping a client evaluate the technical accuracy of the
database and whether it would more cost-effective to modify the existing
data or do their own analysis. They ended up doing their own analysis,
because there were too many similar errors in the existing data.

How did this happen? (It cost rate-payers millions in extra utility costs
to fund the analysis, BTW.) The SMEs were wrong, and the analysts did not
have the basic technical knowledge to spot the errors. (Basic college
physics tells us that 1 ampere is 1 coulomb per second.)

Can a "pretty good manual be written without any knowledge of the
technology employed"? Well... Consider the technical accuracy of supposedly
well-written news and magazine articles on Y2K, nuclear power, medical
research, (add your favorite topic here). These are mostly written by
non-technical writers (especially for the popular media). How many times
have you seen or read information presented as fact that was inaccurate,
misleading or just plain wrong? More to the point, how would know if
something you just read was incorrect? Think about it.

The TW's skill set has to include the analytical skills acquired from basic
training in science, math and engineering.

Another Precinct heard from.

Al Miller
alan -dot- miller -at- educate -dot- com

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