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Guest post: Why are technical writers often treated as such an unimportant part of a company?

by Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt on May 31, 2020
categories: academics-and-practitioners technical-writing

A reader whose company recently laid off two-thirds of their tech pubs staff asked why technical writers are often seen as unimportant in a company. I asked Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt, an academic at the University of Minnesota who has been doing research into tech comm value in the workplace, to respond to the reader's question.

The question

I recently received a question from a reader asking about the devaluation of tech writers in the workplace. The person writes:

I started my career as a writer last July. I came from technical support. I thought the support team was at the bottom of the chain at our company. Today, I stand corrected. It is definitely our tech writing team. Our company, along with many others, recently furloughed many employees. We are an international company that works in retail manufacturing. We had five technical writers with a developer to writer ratio of 43:2. They furloughed three of the five. I and one other person remain. Percentagewise, although other teams are much bigger than us, our team took the biggest hit. I can’t understand this because obviously we were so terribly understaffed to begin with. Also, our backlog was already huge. It’s not like there was no work for us. We were drowning in it. I don’t know what the ratio is now, but I know it’s bad. It is a constant uphill battle to get the resources that we need just to get our jobs done and we are often treated as last priority. I just wanted to ask you, is this normal? Are technical writers often treated as such an unimportant part of a company? Is there a common movement happening to get rid of technical writers?

Guest response

I decided to ask Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt, who recently published some research about tech comm value in the workplace, if he was interested in writing a guest post in response to the reader’s question. Jeremy recently published Fertile Grounds: What Interviews of Working Professionals Can Tell Us about Perceptions of Technical Communication and the Viability of Technical Communication as a Field (Technical Communication Journal, Feb 2020, Vol 67, No 1), so I thought he’d be the perfect one to comment. Here’s Jeremy’s response:

How Knowledge and Perceptions of Technical Communication Can Influence Its Utilization within Workplaces

From what the reader has seen so far in her organization, it’s reasonable to ask those questions. When the economy slows down, companies downsize, and when that happens, there’s uncertainty and concern (rightfully so). Those challenges aren’t unique to technical writing, yet there isn’t much consolation in knowing that when these things happen. Something that can be helpful to think about is technical writing’s status as a broader field.

I’ve long been asking what factors influence the value that companies and individuals place on technical writing. To this end, in my research at the University of Minnesota, I’ve been asking the question, “How is technical writing perceived by people who aren’t actually technical writers?”

There are good reasons to ask this question.

First is the fact that, as the readers’s experience shows, technical writers typically do most of their work:

  • With people who are not technical writers
  • For people who are not technical writers (i.e., supervisors, managers, and executives)
  • In a role that supports the work of—and is often directed by—people in product-centered and/or client-facing roles (engineering, sales, project management, software development, and so on).

To be clear, that third bullet point is not to say that technical writing isn’t important or that technical writers aren’t a part of integral business functions within organizations. Clearly, we are. In order to understand the needs of users of a certain software manual, for example, the person writing that manual will need to talk to the developers to understand how the application works. They’ll need to talk to sales and technical support people to learn more about the people using the product, and if possible, they should interview some end-users of the product to gain a better understanding of what those users need. Clearly, all of these are important business functions.

At the same time, though, we don’t always know what people generally think technical writing is. Sure, people may know that a technical writer writes something “technical” (that much might be apparent), but do they know why technical writing is important? Do they know the consequences of not having dedicated writers on staff? Have they taken a technical or professional writing course in the past, or have they worked with a technical writer at any point in their career? These are the kinds of questions that can’t always be answered by intuition; sometimes we have to dig deeper.

This is where research comes in.

I’ve been working on a research study that looks at the kinds of communications that organizations are producing, how those communications are being produced, what different people think about technical writing, and how likely they believe their organization is to hire a technical writer in the future (if they don’t already have one on staff). I’ve written an article on an early phase of that research (see “Fertile Grounds”), and up to this point have interviewed more than 30 people in the study.

Below, I’m going to talk about some preliminary findings from this research that might provide some insights into the kinds of questions the writer was first asking.

Knowledge of What Technical Writing Is

When you ask somebody what they think of when they hear the term “technical communication,” you might get a quizzical look at first. Since people know I’m asking that for the purpose of a research study, I actually get a little more than that, thankfully. And what I’m finding leads me to believe that, at least in this study, there is a wide variation in what people think technical writing actually is — what functions it has. Here are some examples of quotes from interviews I’ve conducted. Because people in a wide variety of industries were interviewed, I will include the role and industry in which each person worked with each quote.

  • “I hear ‘technical communication’ and … My mind goes to ‘written’. When I hear ‘technical communication,’ I’m thinking about writing a report. It’s oral, as well. But for posterity, you’re not going to record yourself talking. You’re going to write it down.” (An engineering manager at a pharmaceutical company)
  • “What immediately comes to mind is someone who writes user guides and repair manuals. I think of technical writers in the engineering, automotive and medical equipment fields. However, I also think of a technical writer as a liaison between a field expert and the consumer.” (A director at a non-profit organization)
  • “I’m not sure what a technical communicator would do, or what that role is responsible for.” (A product manager in an enterprise financial and HR company)
  • “…someone that looks at more nitty gritty like engineering or scientific things in attempts to turn experiments or rubrics and designs and stuff into a more comprehensible written format, I guess.” (A teacher in secondary education)
  • “I think of translating technical information (whether it is specific, scientific, or otherwise niche) from confusing or jargon-filled to something understandable, more broadly useful, something that better serves its readers, or all three.” (A digital marketing specialist at an environmental consulting firm)
  • “I don’t really know. Maybe, I guess what I would think as technical communication—just the first thing that I think of is manuals for things.” (An instructor/supervisor in the behavioral sciences)
  • “…when I hear technical communication, I tend to think about the communication in those fields. So again, very specific. Not just a layperson type communication and things like that, but writing for very specific purposes frequently within the areas of STEM. For specifically within very technical, highly educated areas.” (An engineering college staff member at a state university)
  • “I think of technology. That’s where my mind goes to and I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but I think of what technologies people use to communicate, especially in this day and age where everything is based on technology. So, whether it’s texting, it’s apps you can use, that’s what I think of.” (An independent consultant in the HR industry)
  • “I usually think of something that’s related to the technical aspect of my job, which is primarily the computer.” (A dietitian in a health care system)
  • “When I hear the term ‘technical communication,’ I typically think of the art and skill of accurately describing complicated processes in a way that makes them easily replicable.” (A marketing specialist in the software industry)
  • “With my background, I first think about communication with technology (online FAQ, forms, etc.). In my current industry, I think about communicating technical details of the jobs we’re working on. This could include someone seeking out our technical expertise or walking someone how to do something with the equipment.” (A project manager at an industrial equipment company)
  • “I guess, having really no idea, I guess it would be…like announcements and things like that. A platform.” (An academic advisor at a state university)

These are good representative examples in which you can see an emphasis on manuals, processes, technology, and “technical things.” As data from many of the audio interviews demonstrated (most interviews were conducted orally, though some were email-based), several participants expressed uncertainty about their responses: “I’m not sure”, “I guess”, and similar expressions were common. Collectively, do these examples illustrate an awareness of the range of capabilities that technical writers often possess? Do they illustrate a sense of a “business critical” — or, for that matter — “value-added” functions? These are things we need to think about.

Who’s Doing the Writing?

Something else that’s been apparent in the interviews I’ve done is that many different people are handling different kinds of formal communications produced by organizations. By “formal communications,” I’m talking about published communications that people in an organization create for internal or external purposes. Manuals, reports, blog and social media posts, frequently asked questions, web and digital content — all of these are good examples. As technical writers, we know that people in technical writing excel at what they do. Yet, in many organizations, technical writers aren’t the ones “doing the writing” (and, in many cases, the editing, the designing of communications, and other things that people in our field are so good at).

Many of the interviews I’ve conducted demonstrate this concept, and the reasons were varied. For example, because the organization she directed was relatively new and had a small staff, a non-profit director stated, “Currently, I am the technical communicator with paralegal knowledge and journalism knowledge. I have no specific training in technical writing.” Though open to the idea of hiring one, she said she was “curious as to the difference in a degree in journalism and a degree in technical writing. I am not familiar with the training of a technical writer.” A software project coordinator stated that her enterprise asset management company “[doesn’t] necessarily need a technical communicator — [we] just need to better work our processes to let other folks do the technical communication,” reflecting a notion that typical work communications may not need a technical writer’s involvement if executed “well.”

Though his company didn’t have a technical writer on staff, an automation engineer at an engineering services firm said that, “At the same time, we do have a marketing department who is doing a great job with all of the social media and getting the message out. So in a way they’re also a sort of technical documentation [group].” And a marketing manager at an industrial pump manufacturer offered some reasoning as to why his company didn’t have a technical writer at its US facilities:

I don’t know if [all of the formal communication work in the company] could be put to one role because of the variety of information that you would need. It’s one thing to write a manual, it’s another thing to … document processes. And it’s another thing to write case studies that update your customers of the benefits of a product, or the benefits of how a product fits in an application or a process…. So, I think also functionally it would be very difficult for us to have a singular person do that because one person would then be pulled by the various departments [in a cycle of competing priorities].

At one for-profit university, there might be a case to hire a technical writer if the organizational culture were to shift, said a multimedia specialist who worked there: “I think that they could definitely benefit from this sort of communicator. But, I also think that the culture around here is sometimes hard to break through. I feel as though we often are just sprinting trying to put out fires. So, I feel like we would definitely benefit from one and I could see that happening. Eventually.”

These “ambiguous communication role” situations were common, yet there were a few exceptions. Typical of the exceptions were situations where participants’ education or experience in the workplace helped them to realize the specific benefits of having technical writers on staff. A case in point could be found at a pharmaceutical company that already employed technical writers; an engineering manager who worked there explained the benefits this way:

What [utilizing technical writers] does is it allows the engineers and the technical people to go off and monitor their processes and monitor their equipment. And use their big brains to go out and solve big problems, instead of sitting in front of TrackWise [a quality management software] for three hours filling out the various grids that are required to route a change control, or typing up in gross detail, this deviation investigation.

After the engineer investigates a deviation (an industry term for a process that does not proceed as expected), the technical writer can then “generate a nice report that goes through a deviation investigation and says, ‘Voila. We’re good to go.’”

Overall, in his industry, “there [are] multiple aspects that have to be weighed when you’re considering…bringing in the tech writer to do some very specific focused things that [are] right in their wheelhouse,” he said. “It’s an added expense to the business, but it carries value on multiple fronts.”

What is key to this example? In this case, the company has employed technical writers for many years. Their staff has the experience to understand the legitimacy and application to their business, and they have found effective ways in which to optimize technical writers’ place in business-critical documentation work.

So What Does All of This Mean for Technical Writing?

From this research, we can make some observations. For one thing, there’s considerable variation in what people think technical writing actually is. Second, there are differences in what people think of the legitimacy and value of technical writing. Third, in many cases, there’s also a perception that someone other than a technical writer can do the communication work that an organization needs, and indeed this research shows that people in roles other than technical writing are often performing that work.

Does this mean that that technical writing isn’t valued or that it doesn’t have an upward trajectory in the future? No, I don’t believe that at all. But these findings do point to some opportunities. We need to advocate for the value of our field — this is true on the industry side and on the academic side of it. We need to expand notions of what technical writing is (for example, dispelling a common notion that it’s “just about manuals” and things of that sort) and where it takes place. In industry, we need to engage with multiple stakeholders. This can be done by identifying opportunities to expand our scope of work in internal and external communication projects, increasing our visibility by offering opportunities such as writing and communication workshops for colleagues and clients, and conversing with colleagues (even informally) about how we can help make their jobs easier.

Academic researchers can help, too. Researchers need to do a better job of aligning the work they do with the needs of technical writers in the workplace. Doing that requires engagement: talking and meeting with technical writers in a sustained way, spending time talking to non-technical writers about what they and their organizations need, making a point to connect research with practice whenever possible.

All of these things require time and energy, and the challenges I’ve described here won’t be solved overnight — not by any means. But they can be improved.

As to the original questions:

  • Is this normal [that technical writers struggle to get resources and to be seen as valuable within a company]?
  • Are technical writers often treated as such an unimportant part of a company?
  • Is there a common movement happening to get rid of technical writers?

Based on my findings so far, I would say that the answers to the first two questions are going to depend on the organization in question. Let’s take the question of technical writers getting resources and having visibility and perceived value within an organization. How much do company leaders and middle management know about the capabilities of technical writers? How are internal and external communications handled by the organization (and how is that work distributed)? How are the technical writers structured into the organization? And to what extent can the organizational culture be influenced as people within the organization learn more about the uses and applications of technical writing in their company? These questions are important in addressing the second question, as well, since all of those factors will help determine the value that the organization places on technical writing.

To the third question — whether there’s a widespread effort to jettison technical writers from organizations — I would say no. To my knowledge, based on conversations I’ve had and experiences in the field for just under 20 years, I can’t say there’s been a widespread effort across organizations to unload or make less use of technical writers.

In fact, prior to the covid-19 pandemic, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a substantial 10-year increase in demand. Depending on their local job market and the kind of work they were looking for, people seeking technical writing jobs were finding them. Now, in this “covid economy,” you can still find a good number of technical writing jobs on job boards, even as the overall economy has contracted. As my advisor at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Lee-Ann Breuch, said recently, “[T]he discipline of technical communication is extremely well positioned for the challenges we are facing right now.”

Does that mean that the market for technical writers is as good as it was before all of this? No, and there have been and will be staff reductions that impact many jobs, including those of technical writers, unfortunately. The sunnier side to all of this is that, over the long term, organizations will continue to hire technical writers if decision-makers within those organizations understand the capabilities and value of one. Growing the broader understanding of technical communication, particularly among people outside of our field, is incumbent on all of us in the field.

Acknowledgement: Part of the research described here was sponsored by a grant from the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC).

About the Author

Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt is a PhD candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication (RSTC) program. His 14 years of experience as a technical writer influence his research interests in workplace writing and communication as well as emerging and open source technologies, among other areas. He holds a master’s degree in technical and scientific communication (MTSC) from Miami University (Ohio). Feel free to follow up at [email protected].