Technical Writer Defined: Redux?

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Have you thrown the term “technical writer” in the Google machine lately?  I did, and here’s what I got: a tremendously large, rather lengthy, and word-packed statement from The Great and Powerful Wikipedia.  It says, “A technical writer is a professional [already, not me] information communicator whose task is to transfer information between two or more parties, through any medium that best facilitates the transfer and comprehension of the information [phew].  Technical writers research and create information through a variety of delivery media.”  

After reading this definition, I find that an immediate comment is necessary; I know where Wikipedia’s information derives, and I am grateful to the person who takes time out of their day to edit, re-edit, and over-edit the life and times of the pop-rock duo of Hall and Oats.  However, my curiosity about the actual definition of the profession I genuinely love got the best of me.  Then, most importantly, how in the world am I supposed to remember all that the next time someone asks what I do for a living?  

 So, I said to myself, “Self, what exactly do I do?”  It dawned on me that this definition is far too broad and designed to fit the generic term “technical writer.”  It doesn’t define what I do or represent those technical writer friends I know.  In my opinion, a technical writer is more than just a transferer of information.  We are more than some thankless, underestimated, and underappreciated English major who makes words look pretty. It also ultimately leaves out anything remotely resembling a goal or result for the reader of said writing. We create from raw data, research it, interview countless others about the work, become a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on literally everything, and ultimately create a product that exceeds the needs of the initial “ask.”  The Wikipedia definition gulps up anyone who’s spent more than five minutes on a written work into this bulk term. 

Calling Oxford

Let’s use the blanket word “technical” as the trunk of a tree.  The trunk starts to grow branches, representing the need for employees or the job description for companies looking for an employee.  The requirements aren’t the same for each company’s needs, but the word choices are. 

A recruiter is looking for a “Technical Writer” when they ultimately need a “Specialized Writer.”  Enter the Oxford Dictionary.  Of course, this historic collection dating back to February 1884 will solve this mystery and provide all the answers.  Well, maybe not.  It doesn’t appear to matter all that much to them since the term “technical writer” isn’t in it anywhere. 

Wait, does this mean that the tree trunk has to support both “technical” and “specialized” needs?  So now it’s just a trunk with two major branches; Specialized and Technical. 

Think about the last job description for a “Technical Writer” that “pinged” you with an email.  About halfway through the main requirements, it says that the company wants someone with an engineering or programming degree, right?.  Talk about wasting your time and crushing those fifty-day dreams of that six-figure salary because the job isn’t “technical,” it’s “specialized.”  The company wants a specialized writer.  That’s a branch for the specialized side of the trunk.  Writers and engineers are vastly different people with entirely different skill sets, and unfortunately, most of the working world doesn’t understand that yet.   

These are branches for the “technical” side of the trunk, and they don’t show up often. In this writer’s experience, when a business goes looking for a traditional “technical writer,” they usually want to find someone to fill an entry-level position that pays entry-level wages, maybe.  So eventually, that trunk develops a serious specialized lean and topples over, becoming lumber for the specialized engineer with the $100,000 degree who loves run-on sentences and fragments, and doesn’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” 

So, It’s Special

As I always suspected, everything comes down to proper word choice!  Job descriptions do not have word count limits because they meander on and on when the first three lines of the position requirements are what the company is looking for.  Perhaps they should have limits? Maybe they need to be less than 500 words or even less than 200, so they get to the point already!  That’s going to force them to decide if they need a technical writer or a specialized one; I mean, it has to!  Which will ultimately define a Technical Writer.  Right? Or maybe what they really need is a unicorn that can write.

More to Explore

What is Technical Writing? Another of our takes on the evolving definitions of what we do. Let us know what you think.

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