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Wield the Power of the Written Word
2004, Q2 (February 21, 2007)
By Michael Uhl

Technical writers can change their professional destiny and the destiny of the organization for which they work by choosing to write or not write a particular document. Too often, technical writers avoid or reject opportunities to influence their working environments positively because they look at their professional role too narrowly.

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Technical writers should recognize this power and avail themselves of opportunities to contribute to the success of their profession, employer, and even friends.

What I hear from students at Duke University's new Certificate in Technical Communication program who aspire to technical writing careers and from seasoned colleagues who continue to build theirs tells me that many are missing careerenhancing opportunities for advancement and personal growth. They miss, or avoid, these opportunities for different reasons: fear, ignorance of the opportunities, or lack of skills.

What opportunities, you may ask? Many of us have written procedures manuals, help guides, Web pages, and so on. Some of it has actually been fun to do. We could describe this kind of work as the brickwork of technical communication. There are, however, many kinds of business documents that serve as a kind of mortar between the bricks. They're often unappealing, mundane, and tedious assignments. But they're a mother lode of opportunity. They serve crucial functions and if you offer to do them, and you do them well, you will make Dale Carnegie proud of you.


Most businesses win work with bids and proposal (B&P). Unfortunately, this work is often done in a department, such as marketing, where technical writers are scarce or nonexistent. When possible, volunteer to help your company write its technical proposals. Be a little pushy if need be; few companies have considered asking a technical writer to assist with writing a technical proposal. These documents have a direct impact on a business's bottom line. Do them well, and you'll be perceived as a money maker.

White Papers and Reports

White papers are written by folks in engineering or marketing — rarely by professional writers. Nearly any manager anywhere has to write reports. Most hate to do this. Volunteer to help. It's amazing what you will learn about your product when you work on a white paper, and what you will learn about what's going on in your office when you work on a management report. Also, learn to use whatever spreadsheet tool that you're boss is using. It can be good for your career to be ready, willing, and able to assist your boss with both the writing and the financial parts of a management report.


A pattern of helping colleagues with something as simple and mundane as interoffice memos can enhance your reputation as someone worth having around. Such efforts are not beneath you. Being a go-to person is always a good thing.

Meeting Minutes

As my department's technical writer, I was asked to attend a videoconference between project managers in the US and UK. The US people figured they would do their British colleagues a favor and offer me as the person to take the meeting minutes. When the meeting began, and the introductions finally got around to who I was and why I was there, our British colleagues became indignant and explained that they had brought their own writer to take the minutes, revealing not so much by what they said as by how they said it that they felt the minutes were too important to be left to the Americans. I stayed, off camera, and the US side used my notes as a means to compare their take on the meeting with that of the Brits. The point here is that taking meeting minutes is often a privilege — and an opportunity to learn about what's going on — more than it is a burden. Whoever gets to write the history often gets to control its slant.


Feel free to disagree with me here, but I think the ability to write well is a talent that we should use to help others. I have edited at least a couple hundred resumes in my nearly twenty years as a writer. I have almost always done it for free and I have almost always enjoyed the gratitude of the person for whom I had done the editing.

If you haven't been extending yourself into some of these areas out of fear that you might fail (or succeed!), let me reassure you that if you are a good writer and humble enough to learn from others and from your own mistakes, your efforts will nearly always be well-received and appreciated. You will also get better over time. Now that you've read this article, ignorance is no longer an excuse.

If you don't feel you have sufficient skills to pursue work beyond where you are now, I offer two suggestions: books and classes. Find out whether your employer will pay for technical books or classes. If they do, buy books and sign up for classes. If not, buy books with your own funds or borrow them and teach yourself these skills. The ability to learn new skills autonomously is a key characteristic of a good technical communicator. By the way, used technical books are often available if you're on a tight budget.

Do not restrict what you do on the job to what you agreed to do in your initial job interview, nor compartmentalize your ability to write from your personal life. Technical writing is a vocation worth having and sharing. Use the power of your written word for good.

Mike Uhl is a past president of STC Carolina. He can be reached at mikeuhl at mindspring dot com. End of article.

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