Roles change for technical communicators

For this post I decided to write about Rachel Spilka’s book, Digital Literacy For Technical Communication. I learned a lot from the first chapter regarding the evolution of technology and thus the evolution of the role of the technical writer.

Chapter one, in Digital Literacy For Technical Communication by Rachel Spilka provides a straightforward description of how technical communication as a field has evolved with technology. In this chapter, Saul Carliner analyzes one company—the largest employer of technical communicators—to represent the field at large. The result, in my opinion, is a robust essay that suggests technology has indeed altered the roles of technical writers. Carliner’s analysis begins in the 1970’s, “In a few instances, people were hired with formal training in technical writing, but during the 1970s, this employer typically emphasized technical knowledge over writing skill” (23). The primary reason for this was that they were writing for individuals who already had an in-depth knowledge of computers, who didn’t need a step by step guide or manual (22-23).

However, as technology progressed into more and more people’s homes, the audience of the technical writers began to change. That is, Carliner states, “Both the change in markets for computers and the rise of word processing and desktop publishing led to profound changes in the work of technical communicators in this organization” (26). As a result, the emphasis of the technical communicator shifted to include writing technique, audience analysis, and the ability to prepare user friendly guides. To show when each significant advancement in technology occurred and how each advance in technology affected technical communicators, Carliner breaks a 40 year period, 1970-2010 (roughly) down into five phases.

The fourth and fifth phases, the rising popularity of the internet as a communication tool are perhaps the most relevant to me, since this is what I have grown up with. It seems clear that the internet has had a large impact on virtually all aspects of daily life. For technical communicators, the internet created not only new topics to write manuals for, but also provided a new method to transfer the information from those documents. Carliner states, “Electronic file transfer had many effects on technical communication (38). Indeed, the internet made possible email and on-line meetings/discussions. Thus, Carliner notes, “Electronic file transfers also facilitated remote work, as workers in one location could now easily collaborate on or manage projects across multiple locations” (38).

In essence, technical communicators transformed from being product specialists to product designers/explainers. Their primary roles changed from writing for a few individuals with an advanced knowledge of a product, to writing for potentially millions of users with limited or no knowledge of a product. The primary result of the advent and popularity of the internet on technical communicators then is that, technical communicators of today need to have specialized writing skills. They need to be able to write across cultural borders, across many levels of user experience, and in such a way that all audience members find the technical documents useful. This is a large task and why we are all learning how to do this in the MSTPC program!

Posted on September 30, 2012, in Social Media, Society, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I found Carliner’s point about technical communicators of the past having technical skill/knowledge first, and formal writing training second to be really interesting. I’m sure this is largely true–particularly because many universities didn’t have technical writing programs until fairly recently–but I also think it’s still prevalent today, just not at all companies. I have read a lot of technical communicator position postings that require applicants to have knowledge of the appropriate subject matter (usually science or engineering), and classify actual writing experience as more of a “nice-to-have.” Carliner’s chapter also makes it clear, though, that writing abilities and communication skills are more important than ever in today’s technological climate. I think this makes it really tricky to determine a good balance of technical knowledge and writing ability.

    • Lana–your point about job ads here intrigues me. I know when our Professional Cmmn majors present on their internships they often mention that the ad they answered didn’t even label the position as a “technical communicator.” More often it is a hybrid of marketing and graphic design, which falls in line with the point about formal writing training being a secondary skill.

      • The next time I stumble on a good example of trade experience over writing experience, I’ll link to it in a comment. I too have seen a lot of marketing writing/graphic design type positions that border on technical communication. Unfortunately for technical communicators (with backgrounds like mine—relatively broad, more on the technical side of communication), that just seems to broaden the pool of job applicants. Also, I think communicators with “technical writer” on their resume at times get an unfair reputation for not being able to communicate in a more “creative,” marketing-type way. Really, most of us are more than capable and are asked to do this type of thing a lot.

  2. This post is a such a great compliment to Britta’s and showcases the varying levels of experience you all in the MSTPC have!

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