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Perceptions of Technical Writers
2012, Q4 (January 14, 2013)
By William Gray, Junior Competitions Judge

William Gray
William Gray

I enrolled in college with the intentions of becoming an engineer. I was good at math and hoped to build something out of a science-fiction magazine. As I struggled through the general engineering curriculum, it was apparent that a specialized engineering degree would not be in my future. English had always been my fail-safe. I enjoyed the different aspects of English: being technical and precise, diagramming a sentence, or creating fluid, expressive, sound prose. I wanted to combine my enjoyment of English and my technical aptitude.

When I first learned about technical writing, my initial perception was merely two dimensional. It existed on the pages of manuals and procedures. Although I found the idea of manipulating complex information for comprehension by multiple audiences intriguing, I was unable to grasp the full depth of what technical writers do.

Knowing no technical writers, I inquired about technical writing from engineers. They had an unflattering opinion of technical writing and those that herald the profession. They believed technical writers were irrelevant, technically inept, and not smart enough to be engineers. To further indict the technical writer, they accused them of being cold and uninteresting (that is, having the personality of an engineer but lacking the intellect). I wanted to form my own opinion of what technical writers did.

I enrolled in a usability class at NC State University. The definition of usability is the essence of technical writing: "The ease of use and learnability of a human-made object." The goal of this class was to create a how-to manual on using the usability lab. While enrolled in this class, I observed how people learned and adapted to technology and processes uncommon to them. I was also surprised to see how insightful the technical writers were. They were bright, warm, and enjoyed learning. I decided technical communication is a beneficial service.

Technical writing is a multi-faceted field with numerous opportunities to learn.

I was enrolled in a non-technical writing English curriculum. To acquire a technical writing degree, I would have to stay an additional year to obtain that degree. I was not willing to forego my freedom for another year. Thus my plan to become a technical writer was placed on hold.

I still had the desire to pursue technical writing as a career, and I continued to get exposure to it by documenting whatever process I could at my job as a Project Manager. I was also introduced to a technical writer enthusiastic about sharing his story, his day-to-day work, and his knowledge of the field. He exuded passion for what he did and a desire to share that passion. He also introduced me to a woman that was just as excited about technical writing as he was. To further gain a better understanding of what technical writers did, she suggested I participate as a novice judge at the 2012 STC Carolina Chapter Competition.

At this event I was introduced to various media, subject matter, and technical writers from varying backgrounds. We were asked to critique pamphlets, brochures, videos, and books with substantial content. I was quickly empowered to dissect and analyze technical writers’ submissions. Throughout the entire Saturday, we spent ample time critiquing each entry. At the end of the day I had a better understanding of how technical writers think, what obstacles they confront, and how they might overcome issues in translating to their audience.

Being a first-time judge gave me new perspectives that I was not aware of: I was able to view technical writing not just from the writer's perspective, but from the audience's as well. It forced me to look at information differently. The opportunity to judge showed me that as effective communicators, we must be equally critical, thorough, and tolerant.

I knew technical writers provided an invaluable service to the workplace. However, my insight into technical writing has changed. My perception was once two dimensional but now has added depth. My experience has shown me that technical writers are intelligent, diverse, and generous. The best way to learn about what technical writers do is to ask one. Technical writing is a multi-faceted field with numerous opportunities to learn.

I recommend shadowing a writer, or at least interviewing one. And of course take full advantage of the opportunities that the STC offers to technical writers, novice and experienced alike.

William Gray can be reached at i86402 at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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