R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find Out What It Means to Me, the Tech Writer

A lot of technical folks–scientists and engineers–have some automatic assumptions about liberal arts majors: we’re unedcuated, unable to do math, non-analytical, just not smart. And if you haven’t encountered attitudes like that, you know other technical communicators who have.

My personal “favorite” war story occurred with a person, department, and company that will remain nameless, but it made an impression on me. I was trying to complete a document, which required inputs from a technical person whose work was critical to my deliverable. Finally, exasperated with my latest request, he asked, “Why are you working so hard on that document? Nobody’s going to read it.”

To which I replied, equally heatedly, “Why are you working so hard on that [product]? No one’s gonna use it!”

Mutual contempt and male egos having been satisfied, we went back to his office and I got the information I needed. It still stung. I don’t like that sort of confrontation, but it did illuminate a gap in respect for what I was doing.

Since then, I’ve tried to put myself into jobs where a) somebody would read what I was writing and b) where I could show that I was adding value. In the technology world, technical communicators gain respect mostly by taking distasteful tasks off the engineers’ or scientists’ hands (conference papers), bringing in money (via proposals), or adding value in some fashion (say, by writing documentation or articles that match what they’re trying to say in plain, simple English). Respect must be earned, in both directions. Personally, I respect the techies’ ability to do the math, do the analysis, do the science, et cetera because that’s their domain of expertise. In return, I agree to take their “disagreeable” writing tasks. If I do the write well enough, often enough, the respect comes. Usually.

Still, it’s amazing how communication skills are held in such low esteem by some in the technical community. Technology is driven by funding, and funding comes from corporations and governments, who want to know where their money goes or what their return on investment will be. To get the money, you have to be able to communicate the benefits of your work. And that’s where the technical communicator comes in. He or she will ask questions from a different point of view from another engineer and translate the technobabble into words a financier can understand and will want to know. More bucks, more Buck Rogers.

I have a passion for communicating about technology. It’s why I have the job that I do. Most of my interactions in the technology world have involved technically minded people with a passion for what they do. The trick, as always, is for professionals with very different skill sets to recognize the complementary skills of the other. It does get easier as one gains experience. As Aretha Franklin says, “What you need–you know I’ve got it.”

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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