Technical Communication is Multifaceted

Ever since I joined the MSTPC program, I have noticed a repeated theme throughout technical and professional communication literature. Technical communication often doesn’t seem to know what it is, what it does, or why it matters. I have read many research papers that seem insecure about the profession and try to pinpoint what technical communication is and who it is for. Notable technical writers like Tom Johnson have even tackled this issue in posts like “Why is there a divide between academics and practitioners and tech comm?”. In my Theory and Research class, I wrote my final essay about why researchers seem to explore the identity of the technical writer more so than other professions. I understand all professions do research about about their own field, but technical communication is one of the first fields I’ve run into that seems unsure of itself. 

I saw some of these themes of identity in Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World.” However, these authors seemed more sure about what technical communicators do and seem to be okay with the fact that technical writers are a diverse bunch with a wide skill set. They focus less on “What is a technical writer?” and instead, “What does a technical communicator do?” I particularly enjoyed and agreed with this quote from the piece, “In other words it is not enough in a Web 2.0 world to ONLY write effectively, you must branch out and be a master of many skills and tools.” Blythe, Lauer, and Curran explore these many skillsets and tools throughout the paper and it inspired me to create my own list of common writing tasks and tools I use in my day-to-day job as a technical content writer: 

Most often used types of writing Most often Used Tools
1. White Papers 1. Google Drive (Doc, Excel, Slides)
2. Case Studies 2. Sketch
3. Blog / Syndicated Content 3. Slack / Email
4. Website / Landing Pages 4. UX Research tools like Ethnio
5. Blog / Syndicated Content 5. HubSpot
6. Press Releases 6. Asana
7. Advertising 7. WordPress
8. Strategy / Planning / Internal Sales documents 8. Survey Tools

Most Often Used Types of Writing

I decided to create two different list of my writing tasks / tools to show the multifacetedness of technical writing. For instance, many of my “most often used types of writing” involves doing more than just writing (especially the higher ranked types). To create a strong white paper or webpage requires knowing design skills, information management, and UX expertise. Sometimes, I spend more time designing white papers and case studies with design tools than I do actually writing. This often makes me feel more like a visual designer than a technical writer, but I would argue that you would need to know skills from both trades to make a compelling document that is exciting to read. 

A case study I created for work

Case Study Design

I created this document above to explain how Jacuzzi is using my company’s platform to create a connected hot tub. One of the biggest challenges with case studies is they offer a lot of information and most clients don’t have time to read them. As such, I believe it is important to create a document that would excite clients and can be read quickly. For this case study, I create a document that is easily scannable with data visualization and short paragraphs, while adding visual interests with color contrasts and visuals. I had to use design tools like Sketch to make visuals that draw the reader’s attention and use information management skills to organize the information in a way that is compelling. 

The Importance of Tools

In “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making,” Longo discusses how technical communicators must become masters of ICT technologies. I would add to that and say that technical communicators must master more than ICT tools nowadays, but also must become a master of design, information management, task management tools, and more. The number of tools required to be a become a proficient technical communicator is only increasing too. However, while mastering all of these tools is helpful and certainly increase career opportunities, I wouldn’t say a technical communicator must be an expert at all of them.

The Bottom Line

As a marketing technical writer, it makes sense why I see visuals and design tools as such an important element of being a technical communicator. However, a technical communicator who focuses on creating internal documentation may not need to know the same number of design tools as I do. They may prioritize other skillsets and tools that I may not even know about. And that’s the benefit of being a technical writer – there is so many different routes and paths to specialize in. These wide range of skillsets and purposes make it hard to define what a technical communicator is, but it is certainly not a weakness. It’s something we should celebrate more. 

Posted on September 29, 2018, in Creative, Marketing, Workplace and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hello Jeffrey,
    This is a very interesting and informative blog post. When I started working at the company I’m at now, I did some technical writing. I would sit down with a subject matter expert (SME), I’d learn how they use an application, take notes, and then write instructions for the everyday user. Since then, I’ve also had some experience with user testing where I wrote test scripts and carried out testing on new applications. But, as you mentioned, I learned that being a technical communicator is a very broad role. Mine included writing instructions, testing, and even communicating events. Because the job is so broad, it requires one to do a lot of on the job learning.
    I have also found that there is general confusion as to what a technical writer is. Some people think it means you write technical manuals all day, while others think a technical communicator is anyone who holds and IT communication role. I did some research on it myself when I took Theory and Research in Technical Communication, and I was surprised at how the role has evolved. I am sure that this is largely due to the fact that how we communicate has evolved and expanded. We have more tools and modes.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences.

      I often wonder how other technical communicators handle subject matter expert interviews. When I was interviewing for a new job, I always tried to explain my SME interviewing tactics to recruiters. For instance – when interviewing engineers on highly technical topics – I don’t just interview them, but I try to have a pen and pencil out and give them an outline of how I’m thinking about the topic. That way, they can interject and add their own ideas and explain where they think they should go in the narrative. This usually involves them picking up the pencil and creating their own outline for the topic. Not only does this help me reconstruct or add to my narrative, but it helps me understand how they think about the topic.

  2. Jeffrey,

    I remember reading several articles when I first began this program (Engl 700?) that mentioned how hard it was to truly “define” technical communication or the different careers that a technical writer may enter. I think that the emergence of the social media “jobs” within the field have further muddied the waters and, like you said, “technical writers are a diverse bunch with a wide skill set.” 2.5 years ago, the fact that Tech Comm couldn’t be easily defined worried me some – because, in my only experience just out of college in 2001, I heard lot of, “so a technical writer is like some kind of secretary, right.” It was bad enough when that came from friends and college classmates, but made much worse the first time I had a interviewer look intently over my resume and then glance up at me with that same inquiry. It was disheartening, to say the least. However, here we are 17 years later with technical writing being a “thing,” and most companies understanding not only what we do, but their own company’s need for people like us. It seems that social media has opened up new doors and more potential jobs for us – such as “Social Content Manager.” I am glad to see our fiend continuing to thrive and change.


    • Rebecca,

      I have never heard of technical writers being compared to as secretaries so this is new information to me. Interesting – I can possible see how a misunderstanding like this could occur in the early 2000’s. But I can possibly even see the same misunderstanding occur today because of the general confusion about technical writers. I have notice that companies are using technical writers more as content managers and social media experts / managers. In an age where anyone can post anything at anytime, our role has become useful for more tasks than just documentation and such forth. Another reason why technical communicators always have to be multifaceted and constantly evolving.

  3. Great post–I appreciate the example you give of visual work you’ve done and that you say you spend more time designing than writing. I feel that’s the case for many of our undergrads, depending on their workplace of course. But whether or not any of us goes on to use our communication training for speaking, reading, writing, or editing contexts, I think they are powerful skills to have and being able to adapt is key.

    • Incredibly so – my undergrad university didn’t spend so much time talking about UX, document design, or even technical writing. On the note of communication training – are UW-Stout English undergrads taught about UX, document design, or technical writing? Or is technical writing and UX introduced at the graduate level? Just curious!

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