Expertise versus Skill: The Dichotomy of a Technical Communicator

When I first began my journey to finding a master’s program that had to do with something around technical communication, I kept telling myself it was to gain more validity with my career and give me the necessary expertise that I needed.  Within my role, it has always been a struggle to claim my position as a real “job” and not just something that needs to be done, for example, drafting e-mails to the rest of the organization about a particular issue that occurred in relation to technology.

But this idea of a dichotomy came up for me in a recent article I had written for another assignment.  When does technical communication change from just being a skill to it being considered an expertise or career?  This is often something I have contemplated, but it seems to be coming up and more and more, even in Pigg’s article on distributed work.  As Pigg discussed the skills needed for technical communication, one of the problems she conjured was that “technical communicators’ expertise is threatened to be reduced to functional technological skill (p. 72).

I often ask myself what does technical communication really mean to me?  Of course, this is in the context of my own work environment and experiences that I have had, but I am beginning to wonder if that question is ever attainable?  As we think about the growth in technology, it wasn’t until about the last 40-50 years that modern day technology really began to shape our human culture.  With this sharp increase it will only began to increase at the same rapid pace.  So what is our role as technical communicators within these changes?  Can we even bare to handle all aspects?  As organizations continue to grow, consumers begin adapting new technologies, and distribution begins to happen in our everyday lives, the role of technical communication will become even more distributed.


In looking at my current organization there are many areas where the skillset of a technical communicator is needed but often times it is covered by a technical, or even non-technical, subject matter expert.  For instance, our business analysts are often reaching out to members of our organization to gather requirements for technical projects.  The work they do surely involves some type of technical communication skill but it is not something they are necessarily trained in.



I saw this Bruce Lee quote and it really seemed to tie in nicely with my article this week.  As I thought about this idea of skillset versus expertise, I actually disagreed with Lee’s quote.  It has to take expertise to know 10,000 different kicks versus, being able to do one really well (which is a skill in and of itself).  Practice makes perfect, right?

In correlation with Pigg’s problem statement referenced earlier, I believe it is important that we distinguish between what skill and expertise mean for the field of technical communication.  Otherwise, I too fear, in alignment with the work Slattery conducted (Pigg, 2014), that all technical communication roles will be subjected to a skill rather than an expertise.

Posted on November 15, 2015, in Literacy, Technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Good questions, Chelsea. I am not sure if technical communication will be thought of as a skill only or as a career as we look into the future with even more and new technological advances. From what I am seeing, is that if you can find a niche in something, it might last a good 5-10 years before you have to learn a new niche to become an expert in.

    But, the funny thing is, I am in a rather antiquated niche as part of my own business. In a section on my website, I became an expert in a certain area. Since most people have moved on and probably never heard of this niche, you would think that there really would not be any interest. But imagine my surprise that some libraries have given out links to this section of my website, and I receive emails from people asking me to tell their the value of their items, if I can sell their items, or where they can buy them or see them in person.

    I would advise to find something that you love to do, and try to think of ways to make money from that, using your skills and experiences as a technical communicator.

    • Hi Kat. This one was an interesting topic to write about for sure. I can ultimately see this play out in so many different ways and can see all sides of it. This is something that even changes for me day-to-day. But it might also be when we get into these more creative and undefined regions where we begin to question at what point do skills take you from being skill full to being an expert and at what point can a “career” within each of those realms be formed? I don’t know. I definitely think it’s a brain teaser no matter which way or what day we think about it. Thanks for your response this week!


  2. This was a very thoughtful post and your sincerity really came through.

    I’ve encountered this line of questioning more than once since past several months since starting at UW-Stout. One idea that keeps coming to mind, is that it will be up to technical communicators whether or not we are experts or technical communication is a skill. We have to start asserting our claim to professionalism (not the behaviour the qualification) and be unquestionable about it.

    • Hi Aaron,

      Thank you for your comment this week. Your thought on this really resonated and I think I should print that off and hang it up in my cube with Dr. Pignetti’s comic. As I was writing this week’s post I was very torn. Even writing it my mind seemed to battle with myself on what I thought. It reminded me of this quote by William Castle, “an expert is a man who tells you a simple thing in a confused way in such a fashion as to make you think the confusion is your own fault.” Needless to say by the end of it, I wasn’t quite sure if it would be a confusing mess. But I am glad to see that it resonated with many class members.


  3. Hi, Chelsea:

    I once mentioned how I was somewhat thankful for my procrastination in returning to grad school. I initially planned to go straight from my BA to a graduate program in technical writing. Life delayed that plan and fifteen years later, I’m finally here. Technology has completely altered the degree programs for technical communication. I may have learned a lot, but the skill-set needed is much broader and the types of writing considered “technical writing” is much broader now. I would have had to re-educate myself on so many things to be competitive in this job market. Of course, technology is a constantly evolving beast so I may have this same feeling when all is said and done.

    One thing that I think is great about entering the field now and designing our education plans, is that we have a lot of leeway to determine our areas of expertise. The term “technical communicator” is in such a stage of change and morphing, that I see a lot of options for my own career.

    It’s almost like we are at the “ground level” of a new era of technical communication. I see this it as an advantageous to those of us entering now, because we have some flexibility to define our expertise, and then determine the skills necessary. In the future, I imagine that as the definition of technical communication becomes refined, the positions that exist within it may also begin to be more clearly defined and “tech comm” itself may become the broad category for a range of specialized degrees. I wonder if the degrees in the future will allow for as much flexibility and exploration of the available skills or expertise. Thanks for the interesting piece, Chelsea!

    • Hey Becca!

      Great response! That’s going up in my cubby at work. I feel like the walls of my cubicle are going to be lined with the articles and responses from this class. It’s amazing what these courses through our graduate program can really offer us. The guidance and commentary that we get from our peers and our professors is so liberating in some cases. But I couldn’t agree with you more in this era of technical communication where we find ourselves with the “power” (so to speak) to really define what this role might mean. And who knows, as technology evolves, over time we may see waves of technical communication careers evolve – much like the ever evolving specialties of doctors. (Ohhh – food for thought – maybe we would get paid as much as them?) Oh well – wishful thinking.


  4. We are really coming from the same place in this week’s blog posts! The skills that we are learning are so scattered and multi-faceted that it’s difficult to bring them all together and then convince the world that is a job separate from other related fields. Yes, other people might be able to do some of the skills of a technical communicator, but they don’t wield the power that one person with all of these skills can within an organization.

    Today I was talking with an administrator at my technical college. We were discussing how the position of a graphic designer is so boxed-in, and that I’m seeking a role that may yet be undefined and that draws upon more of my interests and skills. Is it a “communications architect?” A “design strategist?” An “imagineer?”

    I think I am seeing a lot of the same frustrations in my classmates’ posts. We have these interests and skills that are timely and broad and strategic and smart!!! Now we just need to find/create a role that takes advantage of what we have to offer.

    • Hey Allie –
      Spot on! Oh I could not agree with you more on that one. Today at work I had someone (from our Help Desk) tell me she couldn’t do what I do. She had to create an e-mail communication to send out to all of our employees about an issue and she was very nervous about it. To me, it’s all about being human and relating to people, feeling empathy – but this very well may be part of those skills that fit me personally and what I have been able to fit successfully in my role.

      Your point really highlights for me that our interests and skills might very well define our position within technical communication. For example, journalism can be both a skill and a career. But even within journalism there are facets of that area. Regardless, as the others indicated in their comments, we do have the opportunity to recognize these skills and evolve. Thanks for your response this week!


  5. Wonderful post that obviously resonates with your peers. My training is more in rhetoric and composition than technical communication, but it was my internet research and early adoption of social media that led me to propose this course back in 2009 and then direct nearly every social media-focused thesis since then!

    • Hi Professor.

      Thank you for your comment. Your transition within the field aligns so well with what the others mentioned in their posts. Some days I question what it is I am exactly doing. Am I skillful in a particular area? Can I really be considered an expert if everyone can write an e-mail? But I think to your point on the more educated we become about these different facets and we focus on those areas, we have the opportunity to form the direction. All of the work up to that point in theory becomes a skill to support that. It’s funny to see how something go full circle…


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