What’s In a Name? The Writer vs. Communicator Debate

Writers write, right? You think of a professional writer, and you probably imagine someone at a desk with pen and paper or an open laptop, diligently working to create whatever copy is needed for the day’s project. Because that’s what a writer does—writes. But, the role of a professional writer in the workplace has grown, transformed, and expanded to include more than traditional writing, such as extensive work with multimedia (video, audio, graphics, web sites etc.), usability testing, and even tasks associated with employee training. The professional writer does so much more than writing in today’s workforce that many (read: Martin, STC, and O’Sullivan and Vazquez) no longer like referring to themselves as writers, but rather they prefer the title of communicator.

A Changing Role

Technology has undoubtedly changed the world in which we live. The rise of technology has led to changes in the workplace and, in turn, writing. The process of writing adjusts to meet the different needs between paper and electronic texts—emphasizing visuals and layout, incorporating multimedia to attract and engage readers. We learn to produce effective texts for the digital reader, both the quick, casual audience and the engaged.

There are times when writing might not seem much like writing at all. For instance, professional writers might be responsible for or work intimately with:

A word cloud featuring some of the titles and terms associated with the modern professional writer.

These are only some of the titles and terms associated with the modern professional writer.

  • Event planning
  • Management
  • User interfaces
  • Public relations
  • Graphic design
  • Web design/development
  • Advertisements
  • Usability testing
  • Multimedia presentations
  • Online help systems
  • Training and interviewing
  • Video production

The list can go on and on, hitting some points, like usability and video production, that might never have previously been associated with a career in writing. Maybe that list is a little frightening because you might have thought you signed up to write some documentation, produce copy day in and day out; you didn’t get a writing degree to spend your days clipping videos or messing around with code to perfect your organization’s web site. While not obvious, writing in a broad sense can be applied with all of the above: writing to produce scripts, brainstorm questions and ideas, share feedback, even to discuss the layout of graphics on a page. But it is this lack of clarity that often leads to the name debate.

Writer or Communicator?

The main reason for this debate is because many professional writers do not feel like the title writer describes what they actually do for their career. Writer is too vague yet too narrow; too many people, both in and outside of the field, regard writing and speech as two completely different kinds of communication. Professional writers, however, are oftentimes responsible for all forms of workplace communications (verbal, written, visual), which is where the debate forms its roots. Writer can lead to an underestimate of the kinds of work a professional writer really does, whereas communicator can be used as a sort of umbrella term so that all forms of communication in today’s workplace—written content, audio, video, graphics, and everything in between—are considered.

There is a quote I came across the other day that I think provides some great insight into the writer vs. communicator differences. Advertising creative director William Bernbach once said:

It is insight into human nature that is the key to the communicator’s skill. For whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writing, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it.

Rather than using Bernbach’s quote to argue one title or the other, his insights can be applied to all of our work. Names aside, a professional writer/communicator must utilize both the writer’s and communicator’s concerns; we must always consider and focus on the user while simultaneously producing effective, engaging communication.

We live in a time where names may need some reconsideration. Writer can be misleading or incompatible, while communicator opens the professional writing field, broadening to welcome all who take writing to new lengths in our technologically rich world.

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