Combatting the "Make-It-Pretty" Philosophy: Technical Writers Fight Back (Guest post by Emily January Petersen)
- Responding to Misconceptions
- About Emily January Petersen
After looking for jobs with an English degree in technical writing and editing, I was told that I was not qualified to be a secretary. I completed college with what I thought were important skills, yet people did not understand the skills that I would bring to their organizations.
Technical writers face continued stereotyping, and after speaking with over 80 female practitioners over the last few years, I’ve learned ways to combat workplace stereotypes and the devaluation of technical and professional communication work. Myths persist that technical communication work is cosmetic, secretarial, unknown, and unnecessary, meaning that writers often feel expendable.
However, practitioners know and can articulate the value of their work. The technical communicators I interviewed are dedicated to proving their value, as they see myths and conflicts as opportunities to change misconceptions. Proving value is an ongoing project and must continue to be a concern for all technical communicators.
Technical communicators are knowledge workers, who analyze and communicate. They contribute to organizations what the new economy craves. According to a U.S. Department of Labor report, “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created” (qtd. in Wolfe, 2013).
While particular organizations may not yet understand the value of technical communication, the economy does, as it is moving toward knowledge work, in which technical communicators already engage. Technical communicators dominate the skills necessary for the emerging economy and can change misconceptions by touting the importance of knowledge work.
Responding to Misconceptions
As part of my research over the last few years, I have interviewed over 80 female practitioners in technical communication across various industries. I have used their stories and ideas to trace the themes in this post, and to identify solutions to some of the problems they have faced.
While my work has focused on the female experience in the technical communication workplace, I realize that the challenge of proving value crosses genders and hampers the work of all technical communicators. I have focused on women for my research because of my own experiences in the workplace, many of which are gendered.
As my research has evolved, I have found ways to expand that agenda to include men and women. I am currently working on analyzing the data from a survey of Indian practitioners of all genders about the workplace challenges they face. For now, I am working with what women have told me, but their concerns and ideas are applicable to all practitioners.
Alice highlighted the misconception that technical communication work is cosmetic when she explained, “One of my co-workers was once told to make the documentation look pretty.” Furthermore, the engineers she works with often avoided her, assuming that she “only change[d] the format of the document.” Catherine called this misconception “the make-it-pretty philosophy, and we do so much more than that, but that’s still the way it’s seen by a lot of people.” The attitude suggests that technical communicators lack skill and devalues the work practitioners do.
To combat the “make-it-pretty” philosophy, Jane developed “an incremental approach” by publishing documentation that is usable at a basic level and updating it over time. Through this, she manages expectations and asserts her authority in the workplace. The approach worked by creating communication between subject matter experts (SMEs) and practitioners. The documentation is updated according to innovations and changes in conjunction with SMEs, not according to “cosmetic” concerns. Jane educates her colleagues through this process. Catherine is more deliberate in teaching SMEs to value her. She introduces herself to new engineers by telling them she can work with software, graphic design, and error messages. She tries to “keep it as positive as possible but also . . . [sends] them little reminders that ‘I’m here.’” She knows they will have to adjust to having a writer on the team, so she attempts to make it a smooth process.
Technical communication has been compared to secretarial work. While there is certainly some skill involved in secretarial work, it is very different from what technical communicators do. Corrie, a technical writer with over 30 years of experience, explained that a new position at her company was described as an administrative assistant with 60 percent technical writing. The person they hired for the job “hasn’t done any tech writing because they keep giving her other tasks to do that are more admin oriented.” Corrie has resisted. She told her colleague: “I’m going to give [technical writing work] to you and we’ll just have to fight that battle. We kind of have to make our own job here.” She is also quick to speak up when ignored in meetings.
Conversely, entering a company as a secretary might lead to a promotion to technical communication. I experienced this in my early career, as did Edna: “I had taken professional typing in high school[,] . . . I had a brain in my head, and I could type 60 words a minute, so I got several different jobs as an administrative assistant.” On the flipside, Jean explained, “There are companies that will take secretarial people … and just turn them into a writer with no training or anything.” Anne argued that she didn’t see men with degrees becoming administrative assistants first and then working their way into technical communication positions. She found that women continued to be treated as secretaries even after they are promoted. This suggests that there may be a gendered component to this misconception about technical communicators.
Practitioners dealt with this problem by speaking up, setting boundaries, and performing such work when it makes sense to do so. Lois explained, “When I was younger, they would try to talk me into doing meeting notes and minutes, and now I’m up front about it. I’m like, ‘You guys, I’m more knowledgeable than just a secretary.’” Sandra said, “I definitely don’t mind pitching in every now and then, but if it interferes with deadlines or something more important, … then I can’t do it.” She weighed the situation against other responsibilities and put technical communication first. Technical communicators also recognize when performing such work is useful, and many of the people I interviewed proceeded as such.
Technical communication work may be confused with administrative work because coworkers and managers in other disciplines may not understand what the field contributes. Uneducated colleagues created many misconceptions about the value of technical communication. Jhumpa summed up the problem: “[U]neducated managers [are] probably my biggest stress … [O]ne of the engineering managers … has absolutely no idea what a documentation person does. As far as she’s concerned, the user guide just describes the software. … So every time I change managers, I have to reeducate them as to exactly what we do. … [O]ur degree has been around for a while, but somehow we have not generally communicated our value and exactly what we do over the whole world. We’ve only done it person-to-person for each manager we’ve worked for, and it hasn’t spread.” Jhumpa sees a need to educate managers and colleagues, but she questioned whether or not doing so in a single workplace situation is the right way to change perceptions.
Yet individual conversations about value are necessary. Jennifer suggested, “Nobody is going to advocate for you except for you, so I think in that way you have to make yourself valued.” Pearl, the manager of a documentation team, broadcasted her team’s value. She gave a presentation to the managers of engineering and development teams “to show … how it is beneficial to the company, because I don’t think they understood … so it’s a constant education.” She engaged her colleagues in a conversation about the relevance of technical communication work and kept the conversation going by forwarding positive user messages to her boss. She additionally forwarded the articles she has published in Intercom to show “that the largest technical communication organization … in the world is publishing this in a magazine, which goes to show we are on the right track.” She knows her work is valuable and that she is competent, but she constantly brings that to the attention of others.
Betty added that technical communicators should use the technical knowledge they learn over the years to prove value: “You get to become a subject matter expert in whatever you write about, and if you take that and run with it, pretty soon you’ve got this enormous bag of technical knowledge that you can reach in and pull out the right piece and throw it into the conversation as needed. You develop credibility quickly if you are able to make a relevant technical observation.” She used her knowledge from experience to prove value to colleagues. The expertise of practitioners may be unknown to colleagues. Technical communicators must make that visible. Practitioners are positioned to address this problem in organizations because their work is about making connections and building relationships.
The colleagues of technical communicators may suggest that the work is unnecessary. Participants used phrases like, “they brush you off,” “you are the first to go,” “they get credit,” and “it is hard to get into meetings.” Shirley heard the misconception “that it’s not useful.” She explained that this is frustrating because, “I sit in sales now, and I can hear them talking about my work every single day. That’s part of how they sell the product. … I know they use it.” Because she has seen colleagues using her work, she can speak up and make sure they are aware of how important and useful her work is. Such misunderstandings provide opportunities for practitioners to draw attention to their documentation. When practitioners see their documentation being used, they can and should make others aware of it.
Unfortunately, and despite some of our best efforts, misconceptions continue to permeate organizations. What can technical communicators do to change this situation?
- Implement approaches that require collaboration between technical communicators and SMEs throughout the entirety of the process. Make colleagues aware of the integral nature of documentation with design and implementation.
- Speak up when ignored or asked to do work that is not part of your job description. Set boundaries when you do accept administrative work.
- Share the importance of your work with colleagues and managers. Find ways to explain why documentation and writing are necessary. This can be done through formal presentations, email reminders of accomplishments, or person-to-person interactions. Point out the uses and benefits of your work often.
- Claim authority over your work. Use the knowledge you have and your voice to establish credibility.
Educating others and speaking up about the value of technical communication continues to be a critical part of the workplace experience. The varied work of practitioners demonstrates that technical communication is an integral part of an expanding knowledge economy. Technical communicators’ work is threaded through the history and current practice of various fields, and we must continue to challenge and change stereotypes.
Wolfe, I. (2013, August 26). 65 percent of today’s students will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet. Success Performance Solutions.
About Emily January Petersen
Emily January Petersen is an assistant professor at Weber State University in the professional and technical writing program. She earned a Ph.D. in technical communication and rhetoric at Utah State University. Her research focuses on women in technical communication, historically, professionally, technologically, and extra-institutionally. She enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her two children. She has conducted research in India and is currently planning an archival research trip to South Africa and Botswana to look at technical documentation from women’s organizations as part of an effort to recognize women’s historical and global technical communication work. She can be reached at [email protected].
About 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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