The Attitude of the Technical Writer

“We can say that Maud’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn.” 
–Frank Herbert, Dune

When I was in grad school, I encountered a curious attitude among some of my fellow English majors: specifically, they feared or they would not go into technical writing because they felt “I’ll never be able to learn X. That’s why I’m an English major in the first place.” I found that attitude somewhat surprising. Believing you can’t learn something is the most certain barrier to learning anything. If your concern is about doing math, then perhaps they have a point. I ended up in the technical writing grad program because I was reaching the limits of my capability (and interest) in “doing the math” while pursuing a B.S. in engineering.

Here’s a dirty little secret, though: there isn’t a whole lot of math required to be a technical writer. Mind you, I could name a couple big-name aerospace companies that would prefer to hire engineers who can write–okay, stop snickering–but the primary reason a technology-based company hires you in the first place is for your writing ability, not your ability to correct the engineers’ or scientists’ math. To some extent you have to take it on faith that they know what they’re doing. And even if you don’t know calculus, trigonometry or Eigen vectors, your editor’s eye might still catch things such as discrepancies in a document (“The rocket produces 10,000 pounds of thrust on page 7 and 100,000 pounds of thrust on page 31. Which is it?”). Basic arithmetic should be a minimum skill. If not, at least have a calculator handy.

But I want to get back to this notion that an English major can’t learn “this stuff,” whatever the stuff is. I’ve had a rather odd and diverse career, but that doesn’t mean I’m some sort of genius. I do, however, have an abiding belief that I can learn my subject matter, given time and resources. You’ve got the internet, you’ve got the dead-tree-book library, you’ve got Amazon.com or your local book store, and you’ve got subject matter experts (SMEs) around who can explain things to you. Businesses have a vested interest in helping you succeed, but so do you. Employers do not want writers who can’t at least pick up the rudiments of their business. If you don’t know what’s being said, ask.

I surprised a techie friend years ago because she caught me at my desk reading a textbook on object-oriented programming. She asked me why I was reading the book, and I explained that I simply wanted to know what was going on around me. She explained that not every tech writer does this. Good grief, why not?!?? Taking an interest in the subject matter makes you a more valued member of the team because the SMEs know that you will “get it right” when it comes to explaining their work. Another way you can add value through product knowledge comes at proposal-writing time. If you understand how a particular widget works, you can help the SMEs identify the most marketable aspects of the organization’s product and the best way to present them to a particular customer.

I have encountered individuals in my career who quite frankly dismissed me because of my English degrees. It’s not my mission in life to convince people who have that attitude to like me, but it is important that they respect me and my knowledge/skills enough to let me do my job with a minimum of fuss or condescension. The best way to do that is to know their business. And if you work with multiple parts of an organization, you might understand their work in a broader context than they do simply because you see how it fits into the system as a whole.

You can do this–don’t let anyone tell you differently! And if they do tell you that, don’t believe them. 🙂

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in careers, clients, personal, technical writing, workplace. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Attitude of the Technical Writer

  1. bliss steps says:

    ~ What you say is true. I became a technical writer by accident and it does not matter where you came from or what you do back then. As long as you have an open mind and a keen interest to learn new things and technologies, you will survive. But, it takes a lot of patience to learn and through time, we become adept in writing technical stuff and the like. Also, a technical writer must be a bit thick faced as being a technical communicator can be very hard when the times get rough. Thanks for sharing this post. Many readers will be enlightened and encouraged to try out technical writing. More Power! – Bliss, The Lurker’s List

  2. Karen Mulholland says:

    I’ve found that most SMEs like to talk about their work. If you don’t fixate on the thing you’re trying to write, but ask about *the thing they’re making,* it changes the conversation – you’re not asking them to stop and educate them, you’re asking about THEIR BABY. One mechanical engineer taught me (with great patience!) how to read a vacuum system schematic, because I asked him about *his baby* and he wanted to show me how it was different from the previous model. Most people are happy to help you understand what’s cool about their work.

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