What Does Professionalism Look Like, Revisited

Last week I took a preliminary look at what “professionalism” looks like. Most of my comments were on the negative side–a list of “Thou shalt nots.” Today I’ll share a few thoughts about the positive aspects of being a professional technical writer–the aspirational or “heroic” ones, if you like. Professionalism isn’t just a matter of what you refrain from doing, after all, but also what positive contributions you can bring to the workplace.

Think Like a Professional to Be Treated as One

I’ve retold the story of my tech writing path now and again on this blog (here is one example). Occasionally I’ve also talked about my approach or attitude toward my career as a “space writer” once I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Perhaps the most important attitude I’ve maintained is my belief that I can and do make a positive contribution to my industry of choice. This wasn’t (and isn’t) arrogance. It’s simply a firm belief that I have the abilities, education, and insight to add value to the programs or projects I’m supporting. I might not know all that much about engineering, science, or whatever the topic of the day is (automotive sales? professional cheerleading?), but I trust my ability to communicate about those topics with some degree of skill.

You should, too.

If your employer or customer didn’t believe that you had the ability to contribute to their success, they wouldn’t have hired you in the first place, right? This is not a license to go forth and be pushy about your writing. You might have an editor (or team of editors) who are more than aware of your flaws as a writer. But you have a right to be heard and respected when you suggest that content be presented in a particular way. You might be overruled by the culture or someone who outranks you, but again, you should get a say.

You Can Help the Subject Matter Expert(s) Without Being One Yourself

Most of the time, the first draft of the work I handle is at least drafted by an engineer or other subject matter expert (SME). My job, as I put, is to “translate Engineerish into English.” That means smoothing out the prose, of course, but it can also mean catching things such as inconsistent numbers, units, or equations. If you know enough basic science or engineering to be dangerous, you can ask the engineer if they really meant to say that their widget could defy the laws of physics or should be designed to crash into something on purpose. And if you’ve been doing your job long enough, you might even be so audacious as to suggest an engineering solution. Generally, however, I let the engineers engineer and presume they’ll be equally respectful of letting the writer write.

Your Time is Valuable and Should be Respected

Over the years I’ve heard comments about being the token English major in the room or being “the cheapest part of the contract.” Sometimes my self-deprecating sense of humor will make a comment along those lines to save me from hearing someone else say it and mean it. That doesn’t mean I don’t expect to be treated respectfully.

  • If someone schedules a meeting with me or vice versa, I expect both of us to show up on time and to use the time constructively.
  • If I’m asked to do a task for the job, I expect to be paid.
  • If a friend asks me for professional writing/editing help, I expect to be paid (unless I have a specific reason for charitably doing my work for free).
  • If my task, role, or employment status is going to change, I expect to be told formally, not second-hand or via voice mail.
  • If I am doing a work task and I request that the person(s) around me keep the chatter to a minimum, I expect that they will be polite enough to do so or to take any conversation elsewhere until I’m finished.
  • I expect to be treated politely in the workspace. If someone has a criticism of my work or behavior, I expect that they will have the courtesy to express it to me personally, not to berate or insult me in a public forum (I had a customer do that on more than one occasion and had to be talked out of quitting).

Again, you are a professional. You might not make as much money as the SMEs around you or contribute as directly to the company’s products or services; that does not mean you should be treated as a second-class citizen or disregarded based on the work you do. Your time is valuable and should be respected. That shouldn’t even require “heroic” efforts on your part or others…just a little common courtesy.

About Bart Leahy

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