“All I’m Going to Do is Edit Telephone Books” and Other Lies About Technical Communication

Technical writing, otherwise known as technical communication, is often seen as a career where you need to be the smartest of the smart and only available to a few people. I hope to dispel this myth, as well as a few others. The most important part of being a technical writer is: being a good communicator.

Myth titles borrowed from Technical Writing Is Boring, and 5 Other Misconceptions About This $100K Career. Content is my own.

1. “Technical writers only write about highly technical, scientific, technological, medical, or systematic topics.”

  • Not always. Technical writing includes more than just writing about highly technical, involved, and complicated topics. At its simplest, in its essence, technical writing is breaking down and/or creating content to communicate ideas to your audience. That audience could be technical personnel (such as engineers) or could easily be non-technical (such as end-users or customers).

2. “Technical writing is boring and lacks creativity.”

  • Technical writing is more than just “writing,” it’s a profession often referred to now-a-days as technical “communication.” The professional organization for technical writers is even called the “Society for Technical Communication.” Individuals with the skills of a technical writer/communicator can also hold various other positions to include: content manager, information architect, instructional designer, usability specialist, corporate blogger and many others.
  • Technical writers also create content other than just highly technical written documents. This includes multimedia content such as videos/screencasts, podcasts, Web pages (using HTML, CSS), blogs, illustrations (ex. Visio diagrams, flash files, etc.), and e-Learning content, in addition to text based content such as aides, guides, and help documents. You can even have a combination! A blog that I’ve recently become a fan of is I’d Rather Be Writing by Tom Johnson, a technical writing by profession, currently focusing on developer documentation. In his free time, he manages his own blog/Web site, where he often uses podcasts to describe different facets or ideas in the technical writing profession. I eagerly encourage you to review his podcast (and accompanying presentation) for his Debunking the Boredom Myth of Technical Writing post.

3. “Technical writers are not paid well.”

  • Not only is technical writing a career where you can make a nice living, it is a career with growing opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, technical writers have median annual salary of $65,500. This is a great salary, especially considering the median pay for all professions is $34,750. Additionally, this occupation is expected to grow 15% between 2012 and 2022. A rate higher than the average growth rate for all occupations (11%).

4. “Technical writers need a technical background.”

  • As discussed in the first myth, your audience could be technical personnel (i.e. engineers) or non-technical (i.e. end-users or customers). Sometimes, with more technical audiences, you may need a technical background. However, the most important things are being good at audience analysis and information architecture, though it is rare you will need to have Ph.D. in rocket science. Just look at the description of a few technical writing positions on Indeed.com, they do not all require you to have a degree in some technical field.

The examples above are examples of different possibilities in the technical writing/communication field. In the off chance that you somehow (someway) end up editing telephone books or some other equally boring job, there are plenty of other things you can do. You can use your design skills in Web development, show off your presentation or discussion skills with a podcast, flex your creative muscles by creating illustrations, or combine everything to create e-Learning content. The possibilities are seemingly limitless!

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.