A Rose by Any Other Name

After reading the first two chapters of Digital Literacy by Carliner and Dicks, I find myself thinking that their entire premise is flawed.  Each refers to a Technical Communicator as a job title and not a skill.  By doing this, they have contradicted themselves in their message or are at least naïve in their conclusions.

Carliner summarizes the impact of digital technology on technical communicators.  He explains how changing technology impacted technical communicators negatively and forced them to take on new job titles or alter how and what tools they used to complete their work.  He also alludes to the shrinking market for technical communicators.  I disagree.  The same technical communicator, by job title, may be someone such as a web designer.  Instead of constructing information bulletins for easier interpretation by the end user, they are constructing a website to enhance the end users experience during their visit.  He continues his negative outlook by stating “However, those who develop and produce content have been facing dwindling work opportunities.” (p44)  Just two pages earlier he contradicts this statement when he quotes Shank 2008 “e.g., the home page of newspapers changing every 15 minutes”. (p42)  Wouldn’t a website which changes content every 15 minutes create more opportunities?  I believe this would especially be true with a content provider that needs to be clear and concise with their information and would require a professional that was capable of executing this effectively.

Here is a perfect time to insert the argument that technical communicators document or convey scientific, engineering, or other technical information.  Surely you can’t document the changes in technology and how it impacts technical communicators over the last thirty years and assume that the definition of what a technical communicator is would remain static to the old industrial mindset.  Clearly a technical communicator is anyone who effectively addresses the arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, and tone (Kostelnick and Roberts) when presenting persuasive or instructional information.

Dicks goes on in the second chapter to go through changing business models and their negative effect on the job outlook for technical communicators.  Again, in the 1982 definition, he would be correct.  However, I reiterate my opinion that “technical communicator” is not just a job title, it is a skill.  The general contradiction I find in this chapter can be summarized by Dicks himself “… many communicators are seeing the nature of their work altered considerably.” (p75) I would argue that the communicators are the ones altering their work to fit their new environments.  On page 60, Dicks highlights the problem of value added for technical communicators.  Except for sales people’s production measured in dollars and a manufacturer’s production in units, how does any employee justify their value added?  Marketing, management (except for sales and manufacturing units), lab workers, IT, and engineers are all examples of employees that must adapt and evolve to show their value to a company.

If the two author’s purposes were to inform, they should have allowed the context of the technical communicator to evolve with the world in which they work.  If Dicks and Cauliner were trying to persuade, they did a poor job in my opinion and their work is more apt to gain a following in the next Yahoo article of five ways technical communicators jobs are changing.

Posted on September 28, 2014, in Literacy, Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I understand where you’re coming from–with technical communication diffusing into other aspects beyond user manuals, it’s becoming less clear who is a technical communicator. And by that I mean someone who makes conscious and intentional decisions about communication output, and the message cycles to be out.

    As background, where I work at a small company, I feel I’m the referee reining in my coworkers’ fliers, emails, and handouts for clients. On a daily basis, I check to make sure we’re being consistent in our messaging, and that the message is crafted for the intended audience, not just thought fragments from my coworkers on the topic.

    While I see your point–and agree–is calling technical communication a skill demoting what we do? We’re all in the MSTPC program or a certificate program; are we investing all this time and money to have one more skill to add to the list on our resume?

    • I can see how calling technical communications a skill could be viewed as minimizing the profession. I tried to point out that it makes one qualified for almost any job. Similar to how you described your current employment, the technical writer (communicator) is an employee of many trades. The job title is just a title, you yourself and your ability to keep the train on the tracks is what makes you and other technical writers so valuable.

  2. “Wouldn’t a website which changes content every 15 minutes create more opportunities?”
    Well, a company could implement a Web content management system that could easily do this–without necessarily needing a technical writer.


    Frankly, I think the authors make a valid point when claiming that our industry is evolving. Technical communication is in a “seismic shift.” The primary responsibility of technical writing is no longer documenting how to use the software. We no longer have to write “type your name in the “Name” field.” For example, here is a job posting for a technical writer position, and it states: “personality goes a long way as these positions are about relationships and communications: NOT creating a document.”


  3. Michelle Mailey Noben

    I think you make a valuable point that a job title is basically just semantics. Most people probably have widely varying concepts of what a “technical communicator” is. Taken outside of my own prior knowledge about the field, I might see it as a very broad concept that includes graphic designers, instructional designers, commercial writers, content editors, web designers, etc. The very nature of technology ensures a definition of the job title and overarching field that is ever evolving. Will “technical communicator” ever be more than a very broad concept again? Probably not, since technology will change before anyone defines it satisfactorily.

    In the “support economy” referenced in the reading, perhaps technical communicators will find a way to define themselves in terms of various currently valuable skills instead of any ambiguous job title.

    As for shrinking job opportunities, technology again comes into play. Keep in mind that a newspaper website, for example, employs possibly thousands of fewer people than a printed newspaper, many of whom would fall under the “technical communicator” umbrella. A website updated every 15 minutes is simply a matter of timing posts through technology, no need for anyone but a reporter and editor (and initially some web/IT specialists) to coordinate. One might argue there are other opportunities to be had, but as several bloggers have discussed, many of those opportunities are overseas.

    I like your critical viewpoint, thanks for sharing.


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