We will always need technical communicators

In Content Management: Beyond Single Sourcing, Hart-Davidson states that technical writing duties will be more broadly deployed in content creation in the future. He then asks what technical communicators will do. I am not sure I am reading his chapter correctly, but this is certainly not the case in my workplace, and I would bemoan the fact if it ever were.

This is because technical communication is a highly skilled field with many subsets, each holding specialized knowledge. For example, I am a medical writer and editor, which is a highly specialized discipline under the umbrella of technical communication.

I completed the pre-med curriculum at my university, I’ve worked in scientific laboratories, I’ve written about science and medicine during my 25-year career. Medical writers and editors are not that common, and I’ve never run across another person with the same credentials as I have. So I have trouble envisioning anyone else at my workplace, which is very large, having the skills and knowledge to do what I do. I would think this would be the same at most organizations, that highly skilled technical writers would continue to occupy a niche.

Technical writers—or any other type of skilled, talented writers—are not commodities. And many people who are not technical writers think they are and could do a writer’s job. That is simply not the case. Highly skilled and trained writers have received training in communication theory, rhetoric and many other disciplines that makes them uniquely qualified to do the job they are trained to do. From my point of view, highly skilled writers and the IT guy down the hall who thinks he can do a technical writer’s job are not interchangeable.

There will always be a role for talented and skilled writers, because it is a discipline in itself. And we will always need technical writers, who are one step removed from the subject matter, which allows them to be more objective than the subject matter experts, who might write quite well but cannot possibly have that perspective.

When Hart-Davidson speaks of content management with distributed authorship, I think of the Web site where I work. A few of us have the permissions needed to upload new materials to or to change the Web site, but no one else but me writes content for or changes the site but me, because I have the skills to do that. Other people have the permissions, but their job is not to write, it is to perform IT maintenance tasks or build more wireframes, etc.

We don’t currently allow the rest of the staff to write or post materials for the site without going through Communications. This is for the very reason that we don’t want non-writers to change the voice, the quality or the format of the Web site. It must be consistent and align with our brand and style. In fact, I often get material from non-writers on the staff who want me to post things on the Web site, intranet, Internet or TV monitors, and it is usually full of grammatical and spelling errors that need to be fixed before they’re posted. Without a skilled gatekeeper, that level of quality would be difficult to maintain.

Technical communicators will always have a place at the table, particularly when they keep up with their skills and credentials so they can offer added value to their organization.

Posted on October 4, 2015, in Social Media, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I too hope that technical communicators are here to stay!

    While it is clear that the profession clearly is evolving towards technical communicators who have a broader knowledge base, I don’t think that it is fair to disqualify those who have a specific niche. In fact, it could be argued that in most fields, having an understanding of a specialized discipline is beneficial (if not necessary).

    For instance, I imagine this is especially true in your field of medicine. While medicine is a broad topic in and of itself, there definitely are very specific subsets. Having a detailed understanding of these specialized content areas will not only help the target audience clear understanding, but also may help the company avoid any legal issues that could arise.
    In other words, a “one size fits all” approach is not an option.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Just as we will always need medical specialists (eg, oncology, endocrinology) because no one person can be knowledgeable about all medical conditions in that detail, we will always need technical communicators who have specialized knowledge. For example, medical editors alone can run the gamut from those who only edit manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed medical journals to medical device regulatory writers and instructional designers. There are even subfields, such as regulatory writers who manage drug labeling to regulatory writers who write medical device manuals. It’s simply too much information for any one person to know!

  3. natashajmceachin

    Hi Mary,

    This was a fantastic and well thought through post. It is true, regardless of specialized training in an area, it’s difficult for non-writers to clearly articulate facts and concepts without bias the way a technical communications professional can. Also, when random writers begin to publish work, all sorts of chaos breaks loose. The filter (aka technical communicator) is essential to maintain the quality and usability of whatever document is at hand.

    You also mentioned your own professional background and being unable to find anyone with your identical qualifications, which reminded me of another observation. Most technical communicators I’ve acquainted myself with have very unique and have well rounded educational and professional backgrounds. Individuals with these skill sets are most definitely irreplaceable, which is why they were chosen for their positions.

    I see our value, and I’m confident I’m in the right field. I guess I’m at the phase in my young career where I’m trying to figure out my “niche”.

  4. Your post in tandem with Dana’s from this week is great because it reminds us of the need for quality content and rhetorical awareness.
    I’m guessing those folks who think they can do the technical communicator’s job are only thinking about one aspect of an audience. For example, the Public Affairs Director of our regional Mayo Clinic came to speak to undergrads last week and reminded us all that the everyday audience for health care sites like theirs are people already suffering from something. No one likes to think about being ill or injured, but when something happens and they “Google it,” his office needs to make sure Mayo is at the top of that results page. And while doctors are very smart people, our guest speaker revealed that their number one request of his office is for a billboard with their face on it! Who is that going to reach, realistically?

  5. It’s true technical writers are not commodities, but that doesn’t stop the business world from trying to commoditize us!

    We’ve seen the trend toward hiring workers who churn out content for little pay and the sentiment behind that trend which is “It’s just content. Anyone can write it. I would but I’m busy leading this organization.” Yet, technical communicators cry foul! And, I’m among them.

    I like to bring ideas down to as few words as possible — a process that helps me reason through things. Currently, my thinking on how tech-commers can avoid commoditization looks something like this:

    (specialization + business acumen) leadership = value perception

    What does this mean?

    As you have intimated, Mary, technical communication requires a specific skill set that must be developed and continually advanced. And, we must go one step further to develop a specialization (e.g. medical communication, science communication, and so on).

    In addition, tech-commers have to be savvy business people. We need to understand budgets, cash flow, sales cycles, and so on. We can’t isolate ourselves in a room with our content-friends. Sometimes, we have to get up and go to a meeting where we let other managers know we get what drives our business and we can contribute to that discussion.

    Specialization and business acumen puts us in a good position to provide leadership not only to our teams, but within the organization and within our practice (technical communication).

    These things taken together create value perception among are peers whether at the C-level or department level.

  6. Chelsea Dowling

    This is by far something that I struggle with day in and day out at my own organization – truly establishing my role within the organization as a technical communicator… I can honestly say that I come home nearly everyday, wondering what is really the point of my job because everyone seems “to be able to do it”. I think this is an interesting thought because although, at least in my case, I am a commodity, I am a limited commodity. Because of this there are many things that would be great to address and be able to manage and maintain from a communications perspective, however, I have to teach and educate others to do the same thing and hope it gets done in a similar / professional fashion. Without a doubt, I can that you can truly tell the difference between someone who has training and someone who does not have training around technical communication and the impact that can actually have.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.