A while back, I suggested that the future will need technical writers because, among other things, we can act as a “philosopher of the internet age.” I wanted to expand on that subject a bit.
Before I settled on Heroic Technical Writing as the name for this blog, I considered “Philosophical” Technical Writing, as I am interested in philosophy as a subject, and I see tech writing as a philosophical discipline. It’s my goal to be observant of the philosophical context behind the content I write. Think I’m kidding? Read on!
As I noted in my last post, technical communication skills can be applied to event management, among other lines of work. My experience with Science Cheerleader is a case in point. While we can now boast of over 300 current and former NFL or NBA cheerleaders with science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degrees/careers, the organization is still in the growing phase.
For much of the last five years, in fact, it’s been Darlene Cavalier and me doing everything from marketing and outreach to event and database management. Because the organization and budget started out small, we made up much of our infrastructure as we went along. As a result, I accidentally used or learned a lot of what HR people would call “transferable skills.”
One key technical communication skill I’ve been able to apply at Science Cheerleader is information organization–anything from creating forms to setting up our original “database” of contacts in Excel form. When it came time to bring in a programmer to build an actual database, I got first dibs on describing how it should function and what should be included in it–mostly based on my experiences with the needs of the organization.
Along the way, I’ve also worked on interview templates, event agendas, forms, and blog posts. In each of these cases, the trick has been to put information in useful and usable format so that it can be acted upon later. Usability is important because as we grow, we are building a network of regional coordinators to facilitate and expand upon what we put in place. Therefore, the documents I create and save need to be organized, accessible, and easy to modify.
In my more technical writing jobs, I’ve put together spreadsheets or graphs for anything from tracking competitor products to engineering requirements to sharing performance data. The important common skill used in all of these is putting data into a format that makes sense to the reader.
Writing in Different “Voices”
When I support engineers in my day job, it might not surprise you to learn that I “speak” with a different voice when addressing Science Cheerleaders or their website readers. Engineering writing tends to be more direct and sans emotion (unless I’m doing marketing copy, which is a whole different thing).
Cheerleading writing is, well, perkier for one thing. Upbeat is another good word. Darlene and I both came from the Disney system, so that vibe and attitude carries over to ScienceCheerleader.com and our interactions with the cheerleaders. The tone is upbeat, action-oriented, positive, and supportive (“You can do this! It’ll be great!”) This attitude is especially important because the Science Cheerleaders are, for the most part, volunteers.
The audience for the SciCheer website is primarily girls ages 10 and up who are cheerleading and who might or might not have an interest in pursuing a STEM career. Again, the tone is upbeat and positive, with an eye toward inspiring interest (“This is pretty cool!”). Secondary audiences include the parents of cheerleaders and female scientists who want to see what we’re up to.
Understanding What is Said and How
I learn a great deal about my clients based on the words they use to describe themselves and their work. For example, a federal agency will be careful to emphasize its competence, judicious use of taxpayer resources, and careful operating within the law.
An entrepreneurial company will emphasize newness, excitement, lean-and-mean operations, and flexibility.
A larger, more established corporation, in addition to whatever its primary culture is, will be more prone to use words that emphasize solidity, trustworthiness, and quality.
A nonprofit will focus on the importance of its cause, its dedication, and its accomplishments.
Whatever words are used–verbally or in text–constitute the ideals of the organization.
Philosophy as a Career
Technical communication embodies most or all of the philosophical disciplines. Organizing information, in philosophical terms, might be seen as the business form of logic and epistemology, i.e., understanding how to frame and integrate knowledge. Writing in different voices can be seen as a mix of epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, politics, and even metaphysics, as you’re shaping words to convey and advance particular ideals.
In all these ways, I’d argue, technical communicators serve as practicing philosophers. It is our job to integrate the content (logos), integrity (ethos), and emotions (pathos) of the organization we represent. And if you’re supporting all three in a worthy cause, you can enjoy the pleasure of having your work coincide with your beliefs. That’s a pretty good way to live.