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Intro to From Overlooked to Center Stage (Overlooked)

Series: From Overlooked to Center Stage

by Tom Johnson on Apr 17, 2010
categories: technical-writing

See also the presentation recording I gave for this same topic.

This weekend I gave a keynote presentation titled "From Overlooked to Center Stage" at the STC Atlanta Currents conference.

I usually write a series of posts that lead up to a presentation, but this time I decided to store up the posts and wait until publishing them until I actually gave the presentation. I also recorded the presentation, so I'll be posting that as well at the end.

A Poignant Realization

The other week at work we had a first-ever community developers conference. People from all over the state and even the nation came to the conference to participate in the community software projects. As facilitators for the volunteers, my colleague and I were asked to lead a tech writing "deep dive" for the participants who would be working as technical writers. We thought curiously about our potential audience. Would there even be any technical writers attending the conference?

As we prepared the session, we thought more about exactly who the track participants would be. It didn't take long before we decided what the technical writing deep dive was all about. For people who wanted to help out with the projects but lacked the technical skills to code, they would be assigned as technical writers. The tech writing deep dive would be a way for the non-developers to participate, because after all, if you can't program, at least you can write.

Realizing this might be the intent, it put our whole team into a fanatical, frustrated state of hysteria and laughter. We broke out in the kind of laughter that is both madness and frustration at the same time. It's madness and frustration because the idea that anyone can write belittles our professional capabilities. It minimizes our skillset and makes us nothing more than replaceable drones whose job anyone, with a little common sense, can easily do. At the same time, we knew the idea wasn't really feasible.

Now, these projects really did need technical writers. It wasn't a cute little thought someone dreamed up at the last minute. But it turns out we were mostly right. About two thirds of the people who showed up to our tech writing deep dive had never done technical writing before. As I gave a tech writing 101 crash course with my colleague, I saw their faces light up when I explained simple concepts about what technical writers do.

The conference went well, but the technical writing deep dive gave me something to ponder: the assertion that "anyone can write," or that writing is a basic skill almost everyone has, is an assertion that threatens technical writers more than anything else. Whenever you bring up this topic, technical writers get defensive and edgy. They blow off the assertions with laughter, but while they're laughing their foreheads are turning red and veins and popping out with anger.

Whether the assertion that anyone can write is somewhat true or false is beside the point. It's a widespread perception many IT departments have. And perception is the reality people act on.

Fortunately, technical writers can do more than write. In fact, technical writers can move in the completely opposite direction, moving from an overlooked peon that everyone assumes is "just a writer," whose skills everyone else also has, to a key influencer who moves about on the center of the stage in the development of the project. I'm going to describe that journey.

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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