Anybody can write.

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.

Posted on September 25, 2016, in Literacy, Social Media and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I appreciate your concern about writing and editing skills being devalued; however, it’s not just the writing skill sets that companies want, they are looking for business savvy and ability to adapt to the ever-changing technology. Stanley-Dicks (Spilka, 2010) says we have to be more knowledgeable and contributors to attaining company goals. What do you think technical communicators need to do more of or type of knowledge to further our profession and be seen as valuable?

  2. I’d argue that they don’t want writing/editing at all. From my experience looking at job advertisements on LinkedIn, Indeed, etc. It seems like employers want a vast array of skills that no single technical communicator is likely to have. If you fit the bill for one job, it’s very rare that you’ll do so for another. An I strongly agree with this focus on particular expertise.

    I obviously disagree with the “anyone can write” mentality. And I disagree with the focus on particular tools. I think what technical communicators (and employers) need to excel in is soft skills–how to learn quickly, how to research, etc.–and probably a little programming as well. The tools can be taught.

    Unfortunately, employers don’t look for soft skills, so there’s really no easy answer.

  3. I agree that soft skills are really important; maybe just as important as the skills necessary for the job. A group of instructors and I were discussing something that we noticed. It appeared that a couple of top students kept getting passed over for jobs. They complained that their degree wasn’t helping them get jobs. We knew there were a lot of jobs in that field, so we asked if they had gotten interviews. They had gotten several. We suspect that these students, while their work and grades were great, had poor soft skills and were unable to interview well. They didn’t prepare by researching the company or getting to know the job details. They weren’t socially appropriate or personable. They were unable to market themselves, relying completely on what their resume said about them.

  4. Yes, soft skills are definitely of the “show, don’t tell” variety. I can tell you I know how to use Word styles and field codes, and that’s the end of that. But I can say I’m a good researcher all day long, and nobody is really going to know what that means.

  5. This is great. It’s sad to consider, but I think it’s possible that there are companies and organizations out there that don’t value individual skills but look at the big picture. I hope that for all of our sake that’s not always the case. I have zero technical skills and wouldn’t fare well in too technical a job. Your introduction to your post reminded me of the scene in Office Space where “The Bobs” are meeting with Tom:

    Bob Slydell: What would you say ya do here?
    Tom Smykowski: Well look, I already told you! I deal with the g-d customers so the engineers don’t have to! I have people skills! I am good at dealing with people! Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?

  6. Your final statement says it all!

  7. I can definitely see the reality that “writers and editors” are not valued anymore. Even if you’re job is as a writer/editor, my experience has been that companies feel the need to hide that fact using the catch-all title of “Analyst.”

    My last job was as a Technical Editor working with a government contractor. The job was marketed as Editor when I was hired but before I left, the client decided to change our title to “Compliance Analyst” because senior government officials apparently didn’t know what an editor actually did.

    From a job seeking perspective, it is clear that we have to continue to learn new systems and skills to continue competing in a job market full of people who don’t really care about basic skills. It is true that everyone can write and edit, but it takes training to do both with an eye for client voice, style, clarity, and brevity.

    • I’ve been a technical editor since (and during) college. But I’ve never been a Technical Editor. I was a Documentation Specialist twice, and I’m currently a Cybersecurity Senior Analyst. Which gets me all kinds of LinkedIn job ads (and recruiter e-mails) I’m wildly unqualified for.

  8. It’s very rare that I’m the optimist in a conversation, but I’m actually a bit more hopeful than you all about the future of our profession. From what I see, the skills of being able to write and communicate clearly are still very much needed, especially as more development/manufacturing work is outsourced. I think companies learn from their mistake pretty quickly and appreciate how critical those skills are as soon as they try to go without the role or assume others can just do it on top of other work.

    As for the changing job titles, I actually appreciate the shift to recognize the broader scope of what technical communicators bring to the table. We’re not just human spell checkers. Giving us a role as an “analyst” or “communications specialist” can be a better representation of what we actually do, we long as we’re willing to fight for our role and make our value clear.

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