Technical and Professional Communication vs. English Degree
Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer and Paul Curran’s (2014) article, “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” reaffirms the breadth and depth of communication and web 2.0 knowledge that is needed in many job positions. However, this article specifically took account of Technical and Scientific Communication as well as Professional, Technical, Business and Scientific Writing degrees, but English degrees could also fall in this category. Since English majors potentially are doing the same types of writing, collaborating, and web 2.0 work, I’m not sure if employers valued a technical communication degree more than another English or related writing degree.
Methodology and Results of Survey
The authors surely provided an extensive methodology to discover the types of communication that TPC graduates used in their lives and the graphics equally supported their results of the study. Surprisingly, TPC graduates are employed (or studying) in “education, technical and scientific communication, and publishing and broadcasting” (p. 271) as well as more women were employed in the software, hardware, and network industries. However, the authors did say these numbers were “skewed” based on the number of male vs. female respondents. Other noteworthy statistics from this article was the most types of writing done and the ones most valued. These numbers were from the respondents; however, I wonder how their supervisors/managers’ opinions would differ? For example, Grants/proposals was eighth on the list of type of writing and sixth as most valued (proposal was not included on most valued list) and Definitions was fifth on type of writing and did not appear on the most valued list (I’m not sure what definitions means anyway). Would supervisors/managers agree with these statistics?
More Technologies Used in Writing Process
Email, not surprisingly, is the most popular type of communication written and most valued. Does this mean that colleges should teach students how to write effective email more and less about blogging? According to Russell Rutter (1991), college graduates discover that what they learned in college do not always correlate to the writing type/purpose/audience in the workplace (p. 143). On the other hand, as Blythe, Lauer and Curran (2014) noted, technical communication graduates use a multitude of technologies during the composing process from pencil and paper to social media (p. 275); likewise, Rutter noted, “technical communicators must know how to do more than write – do more than inscribe, type or keystroke” (p. 145).
I still argue that English and other related writing degree graduates could accomplish similar tasks with a similar amount of success. Writing skills can be taught, but writing seems to be a natural ability. Rutter (1991) asserts, “Education should seek to create sensible, informed, articulate citizens. Some of these citizens will want to become technical communicators…” (p. 148).
Blythe, S., Lauer, C. and Curran. P. G. (2014). “Professional and technical communication in a web 2.0 world.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:4, 265-287. DOI: 10.1080/10572252.2014941766
Rutter, R. (1991). “History, rhetoric, and humanism: Toward a more comprehensive definition of technical communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21:2, 133-153.
I work for a company that provides outsourced employees for a variety of industries. I report to one company, but I represent another. I am comfortable with this. My loyalty can be bought for the price of my paycheck. I can assume the culture, goals and procedures of the company that I represent, although ultimately I am not their “employee.”
My long-term goal in becoming a technical communicator is to be an outsourced employee, but without a larger “umbrella” company sending me my W-2’s each year. I want to dictate the companies I work for and have some control over the projects I accept. I am comfortable putting on that “company’s uniform” for a temporary time and then moving on.
I felt such joy when I read R. Stanley Dicks discuss the prediction that “many more technical communicators will be officially unemployed but constantly working. They will be following the consulting/temp agency model that already characterizes the work of many communicators (Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, p. 59)”. I am hoping to open a fortune cookie with just that prediction for my future: “You will soon find yourself unemployed, but always working.”
The expansion of telecommuting opportunities is, in part, one of the catalysts that finally pushed me back into school. I currently follow several job sites that focus on home-based and freelance work. Flexjobs.com and ratracerebellion.com consistently have an extensive list of job opportunities for telecommuters in all aspects of the technical writing field, primarily ones with technological competencies.
In 2001, I was on the verge of enrolling in a “technical writing” program, when a job offer–in an unrelated field–removed me from that path. I went to work for a company I loved and put that plan on the “back burner.”
While I am disappointed that I allowed so much time to lapse before entering a graduate program, I am grateful for that derailment. The technical writing program I was set to enter was very solid and respected. But in 2001, it wasn’t very focused on digital media. Within a few short years, their “technical writing” program became their “Technical Communications” program. It was completely revamped several times over the next few years, as they slowly began to focus the program more on the emerging use of technology.
Had I enrolled back in 2001, I would have been “getting to the party a little too early.” Now, I don’t know that a 14 year lapse between degrees was quite necessary but…. At any rate, I cringe to think of how many competencies I would have been scrambling to learn within a year or two (maybe less) of earning that degree.
As I do work-from-home and spend a lot of time following web sites and blogs devoted to such work, I have come across many people who are constantly working as technical communicators, but as independent contractors. I see a flood of freelance job openings in the field. I have yet to find one person that lacks or job that doesn’t require technical skill.
I feel certain that the degree I was going to begin in 2001, is not the same degree that I will be getting now. This is what gave me the final push to go back. As I researched schools this time around, it was interesting to see how every strong program focused on digital media.
As R. Stanley Dicks pointed out in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (p.52): “It is important to remember, when discussing current and coming trends in the discipline, that they largely have to do with the tools and technologies associated with the discipline, and not the core competency skills that the discipline continues to require; that is using words and images to inform, instruct, or persuade an audience Schriver’s (1997).” That program I was set to start 14 years ago would have given me “core competency skills,” but not what I needed to achieve my current goals. Of course, I realize with the constantly evolving landscape of technology, there will always be new things that I need to learn to “stay on top” of the field. I am reassured, though, that the evolution in technical communication as a whole, and the changes that have occurred in academia as a result, will enable me to start with the foundation I need.
I enjoyed Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s (BLC) article immensely because it directly ties into my post from last week that discussed the value of a writer.
In one section of their study, BLC display a graph that shows the most often produced written materials as well as the most valued written materials. The first four items in each graph (email, websites, instructions/manuals, presentations) are the same, which did not surprise me because these seem to be the standard documents any tech writer is responsible for in a modern workplace.
However, a trend began to emerge after the first four. I noticed that it seemed as if the writings that had more value were written the least often. This appears to be true, save for the top four items, which may require further exploration and research to find out why these four things are mirrored on both lists.
For example, press releases are not highly-valued yet they are written quite frequently. Research papers on the other hand are written less frequently, but have a high value. The most interesting aspect of this article was the inclusion of fiction, which I found odd for an article regarding tech writing. What is even more interesting is that fiction is listed as being valuable, but it is nowhere to be found on the most often written chart.
These graphs and discussion of the value and frequency of different writing types was a small section in this paper, but a very important one that I think has the potential to be explored in more detail in future research studies. BLC may be well on their way to pinpointing exactly why writers are often undervalued and understand what makes other types of writing more or less valuable than others, even if it is written at high frequencies.
Zachry and Ferro’s article, Technical Communication Unbound, helped me organize my thoughts on a topic that has been circulating in my mind for some time: the value of a writer.
This particular part of their article was the source of inspiration for the topic of this post:
“..it now appears that the tasks of those working in the profession are necessarily expanding to include such concerns as real-time monitoring of texts and other communicative performances that circulate in the network of social media.”
Since the responsibilities of a writer are evolving and expanding, I would hope that this means that the respect and appreciation for tech writers is increasing with it.
In my own personal experience, this is not so. At my place of employment, more importance is placed on skills such as design or coding, which has been made completely clear to me from recent conversations with my boss. In fact, I’ve been told that my position as a content writer, “requires no real skills.”
With the emergence of social media and its emphasis on shorthand writing forms, it is easy for one to think less of writing or not even think of it as a useful skill at all.
I suppose that I worry that, with the increase of responsibilities, tech writers will be thought of more as an administrative assistant with a laundry lists of tasks to accomplish and less like a professional with useful skills.
Content managers face the twin pressures of simultaneously reducing the total investment a company must make to produce content and increasing the quality, quantity, and sustainable value of that content. – William Hart Davidson
There it is, black and white, plain as day; the centerpiece of the modern business structure. We must create more with less while making our creations higher quality than those before them. Logically, it makes no sense. How can you create more things with less materials and resources?
Magic, of course.
Thankfully technical communicators are not only trained in various technical disciplines, but the Arcane Arts as well. Some of their specialties include time travel (yes, travel, not management) and The Impossible.
From the beginning, Hart-Davidson’s article struck a chord within me. Primarily, I liked that he got right down to the heart of the matter: the expectation to do more with less.
It boggles my mind that companies truly believe that this model works and that their employees are getting their degrees in magic on the side to keep up with the workflow. Newsflash: Everyone does not get a letter to Hogwarts. I would know since I’m still waiting.
I recently started a new job at a startup ecommerce web design company and I already feel the pressure of this expectation. I’m supposed to split my mind in three different ways simultaneously and accomplish several tasks at once. These tasks vary in nature and focus, but somehow I manage to get them all done. I just internally worry about the quality of my work, but not for long, because the fast pace always forces me to keep moving forward and not dwelling on what has already passed.
I don’t foresee this issue getting any better with time, but worse. I can understand the need to be competitive, but realistic expectations goals need to be set. Like I said before, not everyone was lucky enough to get their Hogwarts letters to study magic.
Beyond Single Sourcing by William Hart-Davidson was a breath of fresh air for the topic of technical writers. Whether you are thinking about a career in technical writing, wary of your current job safety, or bored because you are stuck updating product bulletins for a conglomerate, Davidson creates an outline for the future. Granted theory is almost always shinier when it is discussed, the author lays out logical and plausible applications for expanding roles and responsibilities for technical communicators.
Davidson’s message stirred passion inside of me… my pupils dilated, my heart rate increased and my mind raced. I love an “idea-person” and the author is just that. In a world which can seem mostly cloudy, an economy that is only improving on TV, and a society where negativity is just easier, Davidson is the warm glow of a family room fireplace on a cold winter’s night. He neatly displays his vision on Table 5.1 (p136) which he organized into three rows: text-making, creation and management of information, and design and management of workflows and production models.
The first row of text-making relates to creating an environment for a company’s information to thrive and grow. The technical writer can create support processes such as templates, guidelines, and usability confirmation to help foster growth in the informational environment. The second row of the table describes how the technical writer is involved in the life cycle of the information. They are responsible for the quality, accessibility, and the upkeep of the information’s environment. The third row deals with how human interaction and the information’s environment coexist. Having intimate knowledge of the information and its environment puts the technical writer in a unique position to refine work processes, improve workflow, and develop training materials.
Davidson has presented three intertwined objectives for identifying, developing, and managing a company’s information. Each have a number of possible job titles attached to them and all of them relate to how a technical writer views, interprets, and creates information. A growing question among companies in a “net profit era” is “what does a technical writer do?”. Individually, that is a question each person must answer themselves. However, Davidson offers a clear idea of what technical writers are capable of. Personally, I would not consider myself a “glass half-full” or “glass-half empty” person, but rather a “the glass isn’t big enough” kind of guy… and Davidson fills me up.
Technical Writing is what I like to do. Many people do not understand what I do, but I found this really neat image describing it.
What does this image have to do with this weeks reading? Not much I just wanted to show this neat graphic.
This week the topic was audience. Who is our audience and how to we make sure that we are writing to this audience. I started my job at Sansio in 2002. In 2004 I started working in our Solution Center (Call Center), by 2005 I was working with the in house trainer and maintaining the training powerpoint. Throughout my use of the powerpoint and through my stint as Implementation Coordinator, this one powerpoint turned into 3 with an average of 300 slides a piece.In addition, the training manager had me create checklists to support the learning. The maintenance of these materials was very time consuming, but still was not the main portion of my job. When I was promoted to QA Specialist in 2007 training was changed to be online training and the Business Analysts who took over training no longer used the PowerPoint. At that time I no longer did technical writing. It wasn’t until I took my Technical Writing Practiuum in 2010 that I started writing. My supervisor found that I was good at it and I have been creating/updating User Guide Pages, creating Release Notes and updating other user materials.
Its always important to understand our audience. I have special knowledge of our audience because of my experience with our Solution Center and as Implementation Coordinator. I spent years talking to customers during and after their initial training of HomeSolutions. The image below gives a nice description of what I should be thinking about what I start my writing.
Analysis – HomeSolutions Users
Understanding – When I write, I assume the person has a basic knowledge of HomeSolutions and the terms that we use.
Demographics – Most HomeSolutions users are women around 40 and most do not have a formal degree. There is the occasional user who is a nurse with an advanced degree.
Interest – They are reading the document because they want to know how to use a specific piece of the product.
Environment – The document will be viewed in the users office, most likely online within the application.
Needs – They need to know how to use a piece of the application
Customization – Needs may be to provide an overall description of the page/features that they will be accessing.
Expectations – The ability to use the piece/feature in the future without having to reference the educational resource again.
When it comes to the other product I write for, RevNet, I take a little different approach. The RevNet product is new to everyone. The product has only been around for a little over a year, so everyone who uses this product is brand new. I spend more time on this product line documenting definitions of words and places within the application.
I sometimes worry that I am not writing to the exact needs of the audience. We do not get a lot of feedback on our writing, even by internal customers, and I have not been able to find the time to make sure I get usability testing done to make sure. One thing that would probably help would be creating a persona. A Persona is a very detailed description, including name, age and picture, of a person who will be using the resource being created. In Spilka’s book, Chapter 8 Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age by Ann M Blakeslee they also describe using the persona with the development staff so that they have a better understanding of who they are developing for. One reason I may not do a persona is that I feel I have a very good understanding of our audience because of my experience with our customers in the Solution Center.
How important are personas to writing for an audience? Do I really need to do them, since I have first hand experience with them in the past?