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Transitioning from Literary Studies to Technical Communication

by Tom Johnson on Nov 20, 2008
categories: beginners technical-writing

Last night, unable to sleep at about 4 a.m., either because I went to bed early or because I simply couldn't sleep, I grabbed my BlackBerry, on its usual place on my nightstand, and began to read through my email and feeds, as I am accustomed to do, lying half-conscious on my pillow, when I saw this intriguing question from Harold Motley about whether the transition from literary studies to technical communication was fairly common, or rather difficult.

Harold writes,

I've just recently came across your website and I find your posts and podcasts very informative and interesting. I'm currently a third year undergraduate student studying English, philosophy and professional writing. In exploring possible post-undergraduate paths and careers, I have been extensively researching the careers of law and technical communication.

My strongest skill is writing; and most of the writing I do is through the form of papers, essays etc. in which I analyze text and form arguments. In addition to applying to law school I am also looking for other careers in which I can apply my strength and interest in writing.

I have looked at M.A. programs in Technical Communication and found a few in Chicago (where I live) and I was just wondering how beneficial this degree would be if I were to pursue a career in technical communication.

I do not have much technical knowledge aside from the standard programs like those in Microsoft Office. Would this hinder a successful transition into technical communication, or is the technical knowledge something I would acquire through grad school?

I'm planning on taking a technical writing class and another on writing & the Web, which I think would act as a good intro into technical communication. Is the transition from literary studies to technical communication fairly common, or is it rather difficult? Also, what's your opinion on a M.A. in Technical Communication and Information Design vs. a M.A. in Information Architecture?

I greatly appreciate any feedback you can give.


To summarize, you're debating between a career as a technical communicator or a lawyer, and you feel an inclination to pursue a masters program in technical communication because your strength is writing. If you pursue this route, you want to know whether you should get an advanced degree in some technical communication/information design/information architecture field.

First, let me say that I have no idea how to advise you. And according to Joel Spolsky and Dave Winer, the blogosphere has too many examples of people expounding on things -- often from anecdotal evidence -- without having any expertise in the subject.

In that spirit, I direct you to the excellent post Scott Nesbitt wrote yesterday, which is amazingly and coincidentally relevant to your question. Responding to the question of whether would-be technical writers should take courses, Scott writes,

If you want to [take courses in technical writing], fine. I've never taken a formal technical writing course and I've done OK. That's not quite true; in the late 90s, I did start to do a certificate program in information design and finished about half of the required courses.

Essentially, I'm a street-trained technical writer and technologist. I learned the basics of tech writing from a textbook that I bought at my alma mater's bookstore in the early 1990s. I put what I learned from that volume into practice by writing manuals for myself and for a community environmental group with which I volunteered. I critiqued those manuals, and others that I read. I wrote articles for technology publications. I taught myself HTML, graphics conversion, various computer skills, UNIX, and even tried to get a handle on SGML.

But a big part of my development as a technical communicator was the two years that I spent working at a financial software firm. Long hours, a mix of applications running on Windows and OpenVMS, and a lot of developers with a low tolerance for ignorance honed various skills.

That's not to say a technical writing course won't be useful. I just never saw the need for one. ("Becoming a Technical Communicator")

Rather than putting all your effort into a technical writing course, Scott recommends you acquire technical knowledge related to whatever it is you're documenting:

Aside from basic computer skills, you should have (or plan to acquire) a good level of technical knowledge. At the very least, you should have a cursory knowledge of the key technologies you will or may be working with, of programming and scripting languages, and more.

I echo what Scott says -- if you need to know Java, or HTML, or some other technology, learn it. It may be more valuable to you than an academic degree.

Scott also brings up the importance of acquiring technical knowledge to gain respect from other team members. (Note: If respect is important to you, be sure to read this guest post: Technical Writing Careers – The Raw, Unvarnished Truth.)

About applying to law school -- when I was in college, I had a similar dilemma as you. I didn't know whether I should pursue law or writing. My father supported me in either direction, but he thought fondly of the idea of my "sallying forth to battle the evils of the world through law," or something to that effect.

I decided, for reasons I can't remember, to go in the direction of writing instead. A few years later, while I was getting an MFA in creative writing, I became friends with a Columbia law student. Often at his house there would be dozens of law books lying around -- half read, with bookmarks in various places. I realized, looking at his reading, that I never had an interest in law and could care less about this or that legal decision. I looked back to my deliberation between law and writing as foolishness.

So my advice to you on careers is this: What kinds of books do you have lying around your house? What are your real interests? Are you looking into law because you find law interesting, or because it's one of those classic careers that everyone considers?

Now granted, it's unlikely that you have a bunch of technical writing manuals lying around your house. (If so, you are weird.) Most likely you have literary texts here and there. You should know that technical writing is not the same as literary analysis, but it is still writing. As a technical writer, the kind of content people pay you to write is not creatively fulfilling. But that doesn't mean it's not challenging -- it can bend your mind in exhausting ways.

A 250 page manual for a complicated product may be more difficult to write than a master's thesis. It may require a massive amount of deductive and inductive logic, as you try to figure out how the product works. You may spend months interviewing subject matter experts, asking them hundreds of questions about how the product functions, and then hundreds more to clarify their cryptic answers.

Once you accumulate a massive jumble of information, you'll rack your brain trying to organize and arrange the content in a way that fits the vocabulary and behavior of your audience. You'll shape and craft the manual, analyzing how each topic fits into the whole. You'll shave words and phrases to increase the conciseness, rearrange one paragraph with another, deliberate over word choice and semantics, and consult various style manuals to ensure proper word choice, formatting, and punctuation.

As you near the end, you'll go through the tedious editorial process, reviewing the printed manual with a red pen, circling, crossing out, writing notes, and then inputting your edits. Once you finish, you'll feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and breathe a heavy sigh of relief. Does this sound like a familiar process to you? It should.

Much like a scholarly essay on literature, almost no one will read it, except a select handful of people whom you will never meet. But you'll still feel a lasting reward knowing that you conquered a monster and helped people come closer to the application truth, similar to how a literary scholar unfolds a book to show how the text really functions.

In brief, yes, your preparation in literary studies will prepare you well for the analytical and exhausting challenges of technical writing.

As to the question of which masters program I recommend, again, follow your interests. However, I see a lot more jobs for technical writers than I do for information architects or information designers. Given the state of the economy, you might not want to confine your specialty to a small niche that sounds cool, but in the end isn't marketable.

Here are some other posts on the subject:

photo from Flickr

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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