Collaborative Post: Why Is the “Technical” More Important Than the “Writing”

Questions from a Grad Student about Technical Writing CareersI recently received the following question from a reader:

The job listings on Indeed.com for local companies (in the San Francisco Bay area) all sound like they (or their recruiters) are really looking for engineers, programmers, web designers, or graphic artists “who write”, not for just straight technical writers who gather information, write it up, get it reviewed, and deliver it in whatever form it’s needed (PDF files, hardcopy, online help, web help, etc). Do you know how things got this way?  How did this change happen so quickly, and how is it that experienced tech writers (like me) got blindsided by it?

This change puts technical writers in a real bind.  They could take courses etc in a number of tools (e.g. XML) to try to meet listed job requirements, but still not get a job, because what is really wanted (but not stated) is an engineer or programmer who writes, not a tech writer who has taken some more courses.  How would someone know if that is in fact the case so they don’t waste their time or money? Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.

— Sandy

Sandy,

Great question. You’re asking how the market shifted from an emphasis on writing to an emphasis on technical knowledge. In your experience, it seems the jobs you encounter require more technical expertise than writing expertise.

A constant theme I explore on this blog is that writing is a commodity that is not valued as much as it should be. I don’t know how things got to be this way, but here are three guesses.

1. The proliferation of self-publishing on the Internet has caused people to feel that “anyone can write.” If anyone can write, the value shifts from the writing skill to the technical knowledge. While many people can fake or claim writing ability, they can’t do so with technical knowledge.

2. Another factor is a lowered standard for writing. We’re so used to seeing poor writing — in everything from blogs to magazines to help manuals to essays — the general standard for what passes as publishable has dipped far enough that now anyone can write. Again, the Internet here is a reason for the transformation.

3. A third reason why people have come to value the technical more is because the world has become much more technical, and the level of knowledge has become highly specialized. One doesn’t merely know how to program. Today there are more than a dozen programming languages to know — PHP, C#, C++, Fortran, Java, .NET, Ruby, Python, Perl, Javascript, and more. And it’s not just programming, but every IT field has followed similar trends.

With help authoring, writing is not the only skill. There are a dozen or more common tools and technologies to know — Flare, RoboHelp, Author-it, DITA, SharePoint, XMetal, Captivate, Camtasia, XML, CSS, HTML, InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Flash, and so on.

Twenty years ago, I don’t think the technology was this diverse. Because of this diversity of technology, it’s harder to find someone who understands the tech needed. As a result, the basic law of supply and demand causes the market to place higher value on technical knowledge.

If other readers have ideas about why the shift toward “technical” in technical writer occurred, please share your reasons in the comments below.

Adobe RobohelpMadcap Flare

This entry was posted in beginner tips & careers, general on by .

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

23 thoughts on “Collaborative Post: Why Is the “Technical” More Important Than the “Writing”

  1. Spilling Ink

    It’s incredibly hard to get it through to recruiters that it’s better to hire someone who can write and who doesn’t have all the technical knowledge already. Vice verse doesn’t work nearly as well in my experience.

    I’ve hired more than 10 writers in my time as manager of a team of writers and you can’t beat solid writing skills. The technical stuff most writers get the hang of quite quickly. The difference can be enormous!

    1. Melanie Blank

      Thank you SO MUCH!

      I have heard the same from other hiring managers. IMHO, you can more readily teach the required level of technical background to an excellent writer than you can try to teach writing skills to a technical expert.

      (And thanks for another excellent post, Tom!)

  2. Gautam Soman

    Hi,
    This is because, frankly, technical information is what the end-user actually wants!
    Having worked as lead tech writer on a documentation project that spanned more than 5000 pages, I can testify that we almost never received complaints about the ‘writing style’ in the online help. Did this mean all documents were written in a glowing prose? Far from it.
    But an error in ‘technical facts’ would invariably result in a documentation bug being logged in the defect tracking system.

    When end-users use help, they do so primarily with the objective of finding practical information; one that is (usually) best presented in non-ornamental text. The motto of technical writer is to be clear, correct and concise in whatever he/she writes. I do admit that this is no excuse for not being able to write a lucid piece of text, but tech writers often have to deal with an information overload that leaves them with little time and space for improving upon their writing skills.

    1. Barbara Saunders

      Being a good writer isn’t just a matter of “style.” If the writer is truly bad, the reader will not be able to understand the technical information she presents regardless of how knowledgeable she is about technology.

  3. Tim Penner

    I don’t think it’s complicated at all. The slimming of profit margins amid the intensity of competition cause the decision-makers to care less about subjective product quality than objective product cost. If you stack the learning that a newly introduced writer needs to become productive, the technical parts are potentially hard barriers, whereas producing great, well-organized prose is barely a measurable result.

    Also, everyone knows that findability is a deadly important attribute, whether searching, browsing or surfing is the best approach. Without much help from a “good” writer, it’s possible to plan for users to find their instructions, whereas the cost of plowing through “bad” writing is a distant problem, seldom revealed in feedback.

    The only way to make quality writing important is for the money men to empower a trusted documentation manager to make it important. And how often is that going to happen?

  4. Mark Baker

    I believe the phenomena should be seen not so much as a market shift as a reversion to the norm. Technical writing has traditionally been an engineering discipline. In the 80s and 90s, the tech boom created a profound shortage of engineers. It also created a huge range of brand new consumer electronics that no one had any idea how to use. These two event created an anomalous situation in which thousands of tech writing jobs opened up which demanded little more than an arts degree and a copy of PageMaker. Engineers had to be freed up to do engineering, and the audience of these new products was profoundly non-technical, meaning that the new flood of writing-oriented technical writers actually had a pretty good grasp of the audience and their problem domain.

    But in 2011 we have reverted to the norm. Millions of students have graduated with engineering degrees, and the general consumer is now familiar with the use of all the electronic devices they buy. Technical writing is increasingly business to business in focus, and the audience for documentation is increasingly a technical specialist in a a particular field.

    As I argued recently (http://everypageispageone.com/2011/09/15/three-components-of-writing-skill/), domain knowledge is an essential part of writing skill. Where the domain is homework and general office duties, most people with good grammar and composition skills are qualified to be technical writers. Where the domain is a specific industrial or technical field, grammar and composition skills alone do not suffice to qualify you.

  5. Patty Blount

    Great post/great question. I’ve blogged about this before because I see this problem as epidemic. Yes, Technical Writing is a convergence field so we SHOULD all be both ‘technical’ and ‘writers’. But I understand Sandy’s frustration when so many non-TWs dismiss the ‘writing’ part as not that important.
    Writing skill should NOT be ‘nice to have’ and no, not everyone can write – at least, not well. I frequently compare it to race-car driving. Just because I have a license does not mean I am skilled enough to win the Daytona 500.

    Tom, I agree with you – technology being what it is, people have grown complacent to accept bad writing. I read a user guide the other day and was appalled to find “thru” in it. Texting, email, blogs, YouTube – all of these technologies contribute to the erroneus perception that developing high quality content is so easy a cave man could do it.

    Like some of your commentors here, I have taught both Non-Writers and Non-Technical folks to be technical writers. Every time, it was the Non-Technical group who delivered higher quality work.

    Every. Single. Time.

    Left up to me, I’d hire writers with little technical experience over a programmer or engineer with intimate product knowledge. There are two reasons: first, I believe subject matter experts make too many assumptions when they write – the result being an information product so full of problems, it’s unusable.

    Second, grammar, tense, spelling – all just the tip of the iceberg – and professional writers understand this. When non-writers document product usage, I see mixed tenses, sentences full of pronouns with no clear antecedents, run-on sentences, telegraph shorthand, and enough redundancy to kill a localization budget in a single swoop. Even if the deliverable is technically accurate, few readers can tell because the water is so muddy.

    I guess we need to do a better job of communicating what it is we do. Technical writing is more than good grammar. It’s organizing, planning, indexing, and anticapting how customers will read our information.

  6. Scott

    Regarding #2, I think degradation of literacy contributes as well. A very large portion of any readership these days has “good enough” reading skills and doesn’t require or appreciate time invested in writing and reading higher quality communication. Text messaging, hastily assembled blog posts, and videogame dialogue rewards speed of communication over quality, and people just don’t expect or need more in-depth communication like they did in the days of lengthy novels and academic papers.

    There is a huge difference between content that holds the hand of a brand-new user as they explore new territory, and technical reference material. The expert users of technical reference material couldn’t care less about writing style and usage. The beginner that has a lack of confidence, however, appreciates more carefully crafted help content. But the very nature of that content, if it’s well-crafted, quickly converts the beginner into an expert who no longer needs or appreciates the well-written help, and only wants bare-bones reference material.

  7. Doreen Marson

    Another reason is that there now a plethora of Technical Writing templates and kits that simplifies document creation. I share these templates with my Developers, DB Admins and Software Architects and they fill in the blanks. My role in this case is to format the document for content, appearance and readability. Additionally, I apply meta data to the documents, post to SharePoint and manage revisions, etc.

  8. Sushant Paikaray

    I believe every documentation assignment or project doesn’t require a programmer who can write documents. The need is purely project specific. But, yes, I have in fact come across a project where a client needed a technical writer who can understand Java, J2EE codes and produce a guide from these codes. The client hired a programmer, instead of me, to write the guide. I am sure technical writers can write way better than programmer-cum-tech writers. It is the effective writing that matters most and technical writers can learn the basics of technology if needed.

  9. Mariann

    I’ve run into a lot of these types of job descriptions for technical writers. I think that some of it has to do with the state of the economy right now. With a higher unemployment rate, companies and hiring managers can be pickier. They are looking for technical writers with existing knowledge in their industry and they are finding them. When the economy was doing better, companies were more willing to hire technical writers from other industries and let them learn the industry.

    In addition, (I have a feeling this is going to get me in trouble) I think part of the issue is our own fault as technical writers. I have meet a number of technical writers that are unwilling or have to be pushed to learn things beyond their “writing” skill set. I think if we as technical writers/communicators can show HR and hiring managers that we are willing to learn things outside our field this epidemic of looking for programmers who can write may fade.

  10. IDC@SPSU

    The irony here, it seems to me, is the disconnect between what’s listed in the job description vs. what’s truly needed on a day-to-day basis as a foundational skill set in the workplace. How often do we hear companies bemoaning the poor communications skills of its hiring pool? Why, then, value the technical over the writing?

    Incidentally, I am finding an increased demand in the world of instructional design for individuals who can write…to the point where we are refining our curriculum to offer greater emphasis on writing for our ID students.

  11. Comma Hater

    Tom et al,

    For this discussion, we need to acknowledge that TWs are hired at a multitude of companies which produce various products. Many products that we write about are specialized and for a technical user. I’m not talking about a slightly technical user, but in a field where there’s a relatively high specialization. i.e., scientists and engineers are the customers of your company.

    For this HUGE swath of the market that requires technical documentation, it is a stretch to say that most writers can be hired into a job and can pick up the technical aspect of the work.

    Certainly any competent TW can massage an engineer’s notes into a user document, but tasks like this effectively equate the TW with a Secretary. And the fact is that today, most conscientious and smart kids just out of college can perform these tasks.

    Or look at it this way, if it’s that easy to pick up the technical aspect of documenting a product, then why doesn’t the tech writer ditch her 70K/yr job documenting the API and actually code using the product for 100K/yr?

    I’m sorry, but it’s offensive to suggest anyone can just pick up the advanced tech they are writing about. I see so much poor documentation in the real world to confirm this. Further, don’t complain about not being employable when there are engineers out there who can create a product and write an 85% great document and you add merely 15% of polish to it.

    I’m not saying there’s no place for an unspecialized TW, but you need to target the areas where you can add value in an organization. Unfortunately the economy is probably stopping you right now.

    1. Anne Sandstrom

      I agree with Comma Hater. For the past 20+ years, I’ve been saying that the ‘technical’ and ‘writer’ were equally important.

      As for writing style, I don’t think most readers can distinguish between a well written and a poorly written piece.

      Too often lately, I’ve witnessed writers who were unwilling/unable to truly grasp the depth of the technology they were documenting. That’s unfortunate, because it paints us as dabblers.

      On the bright side, we can add significant value to an organization by:
      – Providing context for the information we impart in our documents
      – (If we work on multiple teams, which we often do), cross-pollinating information from team to team – making the connections that engineers focused on their area aren’t able to
      – Organizing information for findability, because we do have the big picture
      – Asking the questions that we anticipate users will ask (even if that user is another programmer, for example)

      Journalists are still often embedded with troops. Some of the same reasons soldiers don’t simply report from the field include:
      – They’re busy doing other things
      – They don’t bring a wider perspective (they’re only assigned to their squad)
      – Writing is probably not their forte, so having them write isn’t cost effective or efficient

      Done right, tech writing is hard work. Damn hard work.

      Would your team(s) miss you if you weren’t there? If not, maybe now would be a good time to figure out how to add the value that makes you an integral part of your organization.

    2. No Quotes

      I agree with Comma Hater. I have a technical background (Computer Science degree & 20+ years developing software & hardware) and now work as a technical writer. I believe it is easier to learn to write well than to learn technology, especially with business products.

      Certainly there are technical people who cannot write, however, there are also writers who cannot produce quality documentation due to their lack of technical knowledge. Furthermore, there are many technical people can write very well. To write with clarity requires a solid understanding of the subject matter and nuances of terminology.

      Because of my technical background, I can write documents from scratch, or with minimal input from the developers and product managers, thereby freeing them up to focus on their own work. This is considered very valuable to my employer.

  12. NoveltyHoliday

    Personally I think that this–‘technical’ writing being more important than technical ‘writing’–is a result of the vast and booming state of the tech industry.

    Being so cutting edge has allowed many advances in products and convenience, but this forward momentum also leads to problems. One of the most popular issues, with advancing tech, is the concern of privacy. User data is stored and shared across networks in a manner that is likely unknown to the average person. If you told someone that their information and online activity was monitored and logged by nearly every website that they visit–not to include that it is used in a manner to personalize (*cough* market *cough*) content–what do you think their reaction would be? What should it be? When everything is made up of bits, distinctions become hard to make.

    With law and user knowledge needing to catch up, businesses didn’t have to worry so much about writing quality as they do with having a presence and something to offer over a digital medium. But technology is based around people, and so when these things do start to catch up, then re-valuations can be made. Take organic SEO for an example. Before, meta tags were just used in quantity to trick algorithms into highly ranking a site’s content; but now, one must have relevant and unique content that is also fashioned in a manner that leads to optimization (in English we would call that Form).

    So, I think the fact that a “Technical Writer” even exists is evidence that technical knowledge, as being the most important aspect, is starting to be re-evaluated.

    BTW, writers in earlier centuries didn’t necessarily have it easy. Many of them wrote tons and lived off of meager earnings. Not everyone was Byron.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Right, the fact that a technical writer can be a sub-species of the larger writing disciplines points to the predominance and importance of technical knowledge.

  13. Tania

    i do not know if what spilling ink says is right… but being a person with no technical background i surely was encouraged by that. :)

  14. Miss Kitty

    I’m a couple months late to this post, but thank goodness someone else has noticed the same thing I have in all these job ads! It’s been maddening to read a job ad and see that I meet *many* of the qualifications…except to see at the very bottom of the ad that it’s looking for a software engineer (or other technical/engineering field) and NOT a “technical writer.”

    I recently saw an ad for a “technical writer” that listed extensive programming experience…and at the end of the ad, “Bachelor’s degree in English.” I teach college English, and while the discipline’s come a long way from when I earned my M.A. in 1998, you will find almost *no* English majors who are programmers. So these companies are looking for people who don’t exist. I wonder whether their managers sit in the offices, frustrated as they delete applications: “Argh! Why do all these English majors keep sending their resumes?”

    Perhaps the misused terminology is more proof that the companies placing these ads need *real* technical writers–not programming documentation writers–to help them more accurately craft their wording. :-)

    1. Tom Johnson

      Miss Kitty, I think many employers write job descriptions based on an ideal candidate’s qualifications, when the reality is, as you point out, usually different. I think that in many cases, candidates who fall short of the ideal qualifications would still be seriously considered. Overall, though, technical writers have to be tech-savvy to thrive in this environment. That tech-savvy doesn’t usually require programming, though.

  15. R.S.

    I agree with Mariann in that this could have a lot to do with the current economic state of affairs. Employers don’t have to settle for someone with the minimal requirements for a job when they can have that, plus a whole lot more. This is because of the sheer number of applicants for each position. At minimum, a technical communicator is a person who is skilled in communicating effectively, with the ability to learn new technologies to the extent that they can write about them for a specific audience. However, it doesn’t hurt if the applicant already knows about the particular technology and needs less training. While it may appear that technical skills are being valued over writing, the level of competition is so fierce that exceptional skills in both areas are expected.

    As a co-op student in technical communication, it is definitely a sign of the times that people with considerable prior working experience as technical communicators are in the running only for low-paying, entry-level co-op positions. Even though co-op positions are intended for students to build upon limited real-world experience, companies are happy to accept applicants who they would normally hire permanently on their regular staff, for co-op positions with low pay. The bottom line is that the less training they have to deliver, the more willing they are to hire.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Having just gone through a hiring process at my work, I ranked writing ability as the highest priority in filtering applicants. After discarding resumes of poor writers, next we looked at technical ability. No one knew our toolset already, but demonstrating technical prowess through familiarity with other tools ranked highly.

      By the way, I think the hiring market is picking up for technical writers (at least in Utah).

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