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Collaborative Post: Why Is the "Technical" More Important Than the "Writing"

by Tom Johnson on Sep 18, 2011
categories: beginners technical-writing

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

The job listings on 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


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.

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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