Do You Have to Be an Engineer to Write for Engineers?

The short answer to the title of this entry is “Not just no, but heck no!” However, I encountered a differing few in the comment threads on LinkedIn and felt the need to respond at greater length without clogging the comment thread. Onward!

The discussion that started it all

The full original comment can be found here, with the writer’s primary gripe being that people who write computer documentation should have a computer science or engineering degree, not necessarily an English degree. However, to me the key line in the writer’s blog was this:

>>I strongly believe that if you are a technical writer with an English Degree and you don’t have strong coding skills (in other words, you can’t develop a computer app from scratch) or have a thorough understanding of the technology, you are in the wrong line of work. <<

My original response was…

I agree, even as a technical writer with a M.A. degree. I have had to turn down jobs when the tasks involved are programmer-to-programmer technical documentation. HOWEVER, if you’re a company that needs to write documentation for the user (not other programmers), an engineering degree is actually counterproductive because engineers are focused on the software and how it works rather than the customer’s needs in using the hardware. The customer usually does not care about the back-end coding that makes an application work. They just want the software to do what it’s supposed to do.

After some additional thought, I added:

And, I would like to add that I write about advanced rocket propulsion systems and even some software products without having a degree in engineering. Again, it depends on what type of writing you need: business-, marketing-, or user-focused or engineer-focused. Some folks are strong on one or the other, some folks handle both equally well. My usual tech writing role is serving as a translator between engineers and non-engineers. That doesn’t require a degree in engineering, but it does require an interest in the subject matter and a willingness to get it right.

After posting that, however, I realized that I still had more to say. For instance, I did spend a year writing engineer-to-engineer documentation. And while, yes, some of the engineers would get exasperated with me for coming back to them with some fool questions about what they were doing, I was also reading and researching on the job so I could get a better handle on the techie nomenclature and make my design documents technically correct. I managed to do this work reasonably well without a technical degree or being able to speak “Coding.”

Why this should matter to you

A lot of my readers want to know what sort of background or education they need to break into X business. My advice to people still in school is to get some technical education–say, a minor in a scientific or engineering field as a starting point. If you’re a techie (science/engineering major) who enjoys writing, you’re well ahead of where I was coming out of my B.A. because you speak the language. Get that science/engineering degree and a technical writing minor. However, as with foreign languages, there are varying levels of proficiency that can enable a person to get around another country without using absolutely pure, speaks-like-a-native vocabulary and grammar. In the end, “translating” for scientists or engineers–as with any writing project–comes down to your audience, situation, and intended outcome.

If you are writing for engineers to engineers, it helps to have a higher level of proficiency with the subject matter than someone who is writing user documentation or marketing materials about the product being developed. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there’s a lot more work involved for the pure English major than the engineer/scientist-writer. I addressed this subject recently when explaining to a reader what being a “space writer” means. The answer is: it depends. I’ve written and edited design documents by engineers to engineers. I’ve also written conference papers about things like rocket propulsion for AIAA or IEEE, which is also engineers explaining technical developments for other engineers.

Where the author has a point is in situations like the job I had to bow out of recently. I admitted that did not speak coding at a sufficient level to be of use to the project. In that case, it was a job writing training documentation to teach people who do speak code how to develop their own applications/apps in a code-based environment. I explained to the employer that if it was just a matter of using a drag-and-drop interface to develop an app, then I was more than qualified to do that. However, my level of knowledge stopped at the point where I needed to understand the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of coding well enough to explain it to another person. It would have taken me too much time to get up to speed enough to be useful to the project.

So: if you are in school and want to be a technical writer having anything to do with computers, it would serve you well to take at least one programming class, possibly two. Depending on where you want to end up–defense/military vs. the web–you might need to choose a language that is common to that field (C, C+, C++, or C# for defense applications, Python, HTML5, or iOS for internet/mobile apps, SQL for database work). If you want to write about science/engineering for other scientists/engineers, you’re best off getting an actual technical degree. If, like me, you’re interested in translating Engineerish or Scientese into English for non-scientists and non-engineers, then you can do that just fine with an English major, a healthy interest in science and engineering, and a willingness to research things you don’t understand. But don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do something “because you’re just an English major.”

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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One Response to Do You Have to Be an Engineer to Write for Engineers?

  1. Hope Wyss says:

    Bart, I agree with what you wrote. I’ve been a tech writer for 25 years. I’ve had this conversation of whether tech writer should have a computer science degree multiple times over the years. For me, along with the arguments you outlined, I also feel that if I’m going to learn coding languages, then I’ll become an engineer and 1) make more money, 2) have more career advancement opportunities, 3) be seen within the company as a higher value employee, and 4) have a higher place in the engineering hierarchy. However, my experience with all the various companies I’ve worked for is that they want a tech writer to have a coding background but not pay for that skill set.

    I’m also trained in usability testing. I often use the argument with engineering and product management teams, when writing for a non-technical audience, that if the engineer is having difficulty explaining to me how this widget works so that I can comprehend it well enough to write about it………then Houston, we have a problem.

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