Anybody can write.
Posted by jebehles
This post’s title was inspired by the lament of technical communicators on discussion groups and message boards in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Frustrated writers and editors were being downsized because budget-crunched companies saw little reason to hire people just for writing. After all, everybody learns to write in school, so why not save money by having the engineers and programmers write the documentation? After all, they’re already more familiar with the product being documented.
It was clear from these posts and e-mailed discussions that employers no longer valued writing or editing ability, favoring instead technical ability. However, being anecdotal conversations in e-mails or message boards, perhaps these technical communicators’ observations and experiences are apocryphal.
Unfortunately, they may be correct. In Rachel Spilka’s 2010 anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, two authors share their research and advice regarding the past and future of technical communicators. In “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century,” Saul Carliner provides a perspective on the history of the field from the 1970s to the modern day. In “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” R. Stanley Dicks offers an assessment of the current technological landscape as it applies to technical communicators and makes recommendations for technical communicators who “worry about how they are perceived and evaluated and whether they might be likely sources for being reengineered and either eliminated or outsourced” (2010, p.64).
Carliner illustrates how technical communication has changed throughout the years, describing the audiences, tools, outputs, and skills of technical communicators throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. From his description, basic writing and editing skills were only truly valued during the late 1980s, when documentation was no longer written for expert audiences, and the lay user needed an advocates who “[supplied] their versatile base of skills (writing, editing, and illustration) to explain products.. to users” (Carliner, 2010, p. 26). Prior to and following this period, writing and editing skills were not valued by employers compared to product expertise in the 1970s (p. 23), interface and web design skills in the 1990s (p. 28), and expertise in publishing tools (DITA, XML, etc.) (p. 29) and Web 2.0 technologies (p. 41) in the 2000s. In other words, he says, “Hiring managers gave priority to applicants with technical skills” (p. 37).
In the modern of advanced publishing tools and easy access to spelling- and grammar-checkers, Carliner points out, “Those who develop and produce content has been facing dwindling work opportunities” (2010, p. 44).
Dicks (2010) also acknowledges that writing and editing are no longer sought-after skills in the Information Age:
Writing or editing will continue to be important activities for many technical communicators. However, they are increasingly being viewed as commodity activities that business considers questionable in adding value and that are candidates for being outsourced or offshored. (p. 54)
Dicks further quotes Moore and Kreth, who say, “…Today, technical communicators who add value to their organizations do not merely write or edit documents” (p. 54).
In short, because everyone (including offshore employees for whom English often is a second language) can write, technical communicators must demonstrate their value beyond mere writing and editing. In short, technical writers must “learn new talents and tools” (Dicks, 2010, p. 61).
While I do understand the need to stay relevant and maintain one’s relative level of digital literacy, it makes me sad that writing and editing are now largely unvalued. I have seen firsthand the emphasis on tools expertise over writing. While applying for jobs, I have been told several variations on, “Well your writing is great, but unfortunately, we need somebody with expertise in xyz.” With xyz being the publishing tool du jour or Agile or whatever. It was disheartening.
Yet many other fields are having to modernize—old dogs learning new tricks to stay relevant and add value. Why should technical communicators be any different? In fact, I believe that the width and breadth of technical communication makes it much easier to adjust to these changes. We have to learn technology to document it, so learning technology to use it should not be a very large jump. And no matter what tools, systems, or work methodologies we are forced to learn, we will always be able to write and edit—and we care about that even if nobody else does.
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