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Is Technical Communication Like Riding a Bicycle?
2003, Q1 (February 21, 2007)
By Doreen A. Mannion, STC Associate Fellow

I'm sure many of you have heard the expression, "It's just like riding a bicycle," which is applied to something that once learned, is just about impossible to forget. The same may be said for driving a manual transmission automobile; I can go years without driving one, but can easily drive one when I need to. (With the exception of VW bugs, whose clutches I have never managed to master.)

After being laid off last year, I returned to a full-time writing role, which is a role I had not held for almost 8 years. While I dabbled in "hands-on" technical writing here and there, by and large I'd spent the past 8 years in management, with a much stronger emphasis on editing, quality assurance, process development, and project management than on writing. (Unless you count writing employee reviews, which brings to mind the sportswriter Red Smith, who wrote, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.")

Much of what I know about my fields of expertise has become so ingrained in me that the knowledge is almost second nature. Ask me to describe where QA and documentation fit in my ideal software development lifecycle, no problem. Ask me whether Word can handle a particular documentation task or whether something like Frame would be better - I can answer that one practically in my sleep. Give me about 30 topics divided into installation, configuration, administration, and integration and ask me whether they are separate manuals or one manual and whoa, it has been a long time!

I had a few days of "imposter syndrome;" those moments when you think everyone around you will figure out you really have no idea what you are doing. As the days went by, it became clear the client was very pleased with my work and it became clearer still that this was not because I was faking it, lucky, or had them completely fooled. They were pleased because all those skills I used as a successful writer had not been lost by my foray into management; in fact, many of them had become more finely honed. Following are a few examples.


Without listening, there is no communication, there is only speaking. As a writer, you must listen to the subject matter experts, the client, and the voices in your head that tell you there's no way you can write a 200-page manual in 6 days. As a manager, you must listen to your staff, your colleagues, your supervisor, and the voices in your head that tell you there's no way you can edit a 200-page manual in 2 days.

Time Management

If you are a writer, you may be accustomed to being given specific tasks with specific deadlines, along with specific instructions on how to get from the task to the deadline. If so, I am very sorry. Most writers prefer that management skip the "how to get there" part unless asked. As a manager, you walk a fine line in keeping track of your staff's progress without appearing to micromanage.


Compromise is a form of communication as it also requires a 2-way flow, or the only result is failure to compromise. Perhaps you are thinking "If I can communicate, manage time, and compromise, could I be a manager?" Why sure! After all, the only difference between riding a 1-speed bicycle and riding a 17-speed is the level of pain in the derrière.

Doreen Mannion, an Associate Fellow of the Society, is running for STC Region 2 Director-Sponsor. She can be reached at damannion at yahoo dot com. If you'd like to read more about the imposter syndrome, consult the work of Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. End of article.

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