Technical Writing Humor: The Sidelines on Tech Writer Job Titles

Editor’s Note: The following humor piece by Lisa Higgins is part of our collection of “classics”–technical writing articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.  Lisa wrote the “From the Sidelines” column back at the turn of the century, and her humorous take on all things technical writing rings true more than a decade later.

Job Titles: Some of My Best Friends are Hacks, Wannabes, and Newbies

It’s probably got something to do with the fact that we’re generally an isolated lot. Almost by definition, we tech writer like people work in environments where we perform a secondary or even tertiary function. We’re a minority. We’re not the primary line of business. We’re a cost center. So we like to think that we belong, at least, to some sort of global professional community. We look for some kind of solidarity among ourselves–some sort of agreement as to who we are and what we do. And when someone comes along who disagrees or doesn’t fit into our perceived tech writer demographic, we call them hacks, wannabes, and newbies.

It seems that roughly about half of technical writers seem to want to be called “technical writers.” Roughly about the other half prefer other titles, and the remainder don’t care what you call them. (OK. I’ll say it: “as long as you call them for dinner.”) And, of course, roughly about all of us believe that we are The True Technical Communicators, and that anyone who does/doesn’t take meeting minutes, do technical illustrations, or do web development is a poseur.

Job titles are often completely irrelevant until it’s time to put them on your resume. Of course, ideally, they can make a difference. An accurate, concise job title can help with the perceptions our coworkers have about us and give us leverage to work on different projects. An inaccurate one can limit what we do with our careers and abilities. This seems more significant with larger companies, where you regularly work with different people, and your job title may be all they know about you coming in. With small companies, it probably doesn’t matter. But they always matter on your resume.

There are very few tech writers who do nothing but write, but there’s a big spectrum out there. Most of us do some combination of writing, designing, structuring, illustrating, and coding; and the more accurate job titles are designed to reflect that. Tech writers who lean heavily toward the writing end tend to be called “technical writers” and “content developers.” Writers who lean toward the design and structure end tend to be called “information developers,” and those work with structure and design almost exclusively tend to be called “information architects.” Unfortunately, these labels aren’t applied consistently enough to be accurate in themselves, so they must all be backed up with experience and skills. But it’s definitely worthwhile to be able to describe what you do as clearly and succinctly as possible, and a good job title is a good start.

Personally, I don’t like being called a “technical writer” because I lean toward the structure and design side. Most people have an idea of what a technical writer is, and I often don’t fit that conception very well. I write, but less than 50 percent of the time, on average. I’ve also noticed that putting a more nebulous job title on my resume sort of forces people to read what’s below just to see what I’m getting at.

Job descriptions, in more dynamic workplaces, can be irrelevant, too. As a matter of fact, I generally forget to look at my own job description until I’m mad about something and trying to weasel my way out of doing something tedious.

Besides, our jobs are all different. We work in different industries, we use different tools, and we have different skill sets. Our job descriptions–our real ones, not the ones written down–are all different. The skills that are important to my job may be completely irrelevant to someone else’s. Basically, the only thing we can really assume we have in common is that we make technology easier to use for the people who want and need to use it. I’d like to have a job description that was something like that, and let everyone with that job interpret it best in light of their own strengths. In the long term, it’s much better for everyone if we accept the diversity within our field. And it’s just plain silly and divisive to argue over whether tech writers take minutes or format manuals or jump off cliffs. Some do. Some don’t. Those who judge us based on some sort of composite technical writer profile are just wrong.

I still consider myself a technical writer, but I don’t want to just write all the time. I like the fact that I have so many things to do at work. Mostly because so many of the things I do are boring after the novelty’s worn off. This is why I like working in smaller companies and in positions that are still fuzzily defined. And this is why I’m grateful that not everyone does exactly what I do. Less competition and all.

So I like the fact that there are such things as technical writers and that we can all get together and discuss the things we have in common–frustrating deadlines, audience analysis theories, irritating coworkers, document structures, buggy software, and all that–but I don’t have any desire to kick anyone out of the club. As a matter of fact, some of my best friends are hacks, wannabes, and newbies.

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