Why Isn’t It?

In 2009, I delivered a short, light-hearted keynote address to the STC France annual conference, entitled, It’s Not in the Job Description. This post answers that presentation with a question: Why isn’t it there? What is it that we really do, anyway?

Defining Our Profession

I’m indebted to Mark Baker for his post, The Web Does Minimalism, which I recommend to everyone, and for his response to my election post on STC’s business model. His remarks crystalized for me a number of things I’ve been reflecting about over the last few years.

We used to have a pretty straightforward idea of what we did. We were technical writers, and we wrote manuals. We provided the bridge between engineers and their world, and users. We were able to translate from the functionality-based thinking of a product’s creators, to the task-based mindset of the end users.

We were also at the end of the food chain. We had to wait until the product was done, then chase engineers around with our notepads to try and get an idea of how something was supposed to work (not necessarily how it actually did). And we always got blamed for release delays.

Today we do many things that have never been thought of in the context of technical “writing:”

  • Interface design – user assistance is embedded in the interface. How can we design it if we don’t get involved with interface design?
  • Software information content – software today is an information rich environment, and often has to talk to users in one or more clearly defined voices. We write a lot of this content, whether or not it concerns user guidance.
  • Content strategy – this is a new buzzword, more or less since 2009, but if anyone thinks we didn’t do this before, they’re nuts. We’ve always had to make our work fit into an existing strategy, when there was one, and we’ve often helped define one when there wasn’t – it just wasn’t formalized. Now it’s getting more so.
  • Information Architecture – most of us don’t like being told we’ve got to fill in all the lorum ipsum’s that some designer has created for us without ever asking us what we needed to write and what prominence it needed. But we also can’t really start writing if we don’t have an idea of the structure it’s going into. In truth, content and structure need to evolve together and in parallel. So we do a bit of IA as well, and work with designers and information architects to make sure our content has a place to go – the right place to go.
  • Localization – Most of us don’t do translation, even if we are able to. But localization is not just translation. All the activities above also need to take localization into account. You need a good 30% more screen space for material in French or German than you do in English, just take a mundane example. Then there is the HOW you write – there are ways to write that make translation easier – and less costly, too. We have to know about them. Fortunately, most of these techniques also make better source language content.

I’m sure we could find a few more, but you get the idea. The fact that we do all of the above does not necessarily make us experts in all the fields mentioned. We are technical communicators: jacks of all trades, masters of some. We work in teams with other content workers, engineers and developers, marketers and designers, to create content in a variety of environments and situations.

Our skill, today, is not knowledge of English grammar or good style – though these are tools we must have in our kits. It’s not our knowledge or this or that desktop publishing solution, DITA schemas, or CMS systems, though these are also important.

Our primary and most important skill in today’s market is the ability to find information quickly, synthesize it, and make connections where relationships don’t seem apparent.

To quote Mark Baker, knowledge is no longer a salable commodity. Instead, it is “the calling card of expertise.”

In this context, all the definitions of our profession in all the labour bureaus throughout the world are obsolete and out of date.

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About Ray

Ray Gallon is co-founder of The Transformation Society, a research and consulting company, and owner of Culturecom, a company that provides business process improvement through communication. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. He has been quoted as saying, “Since the beginning, I have been, paradoxically, communicating and shooting myself in the foot. I find that this combination leads to fascinating outcomes that have made me one of the most fortunate people I know.” Ray is a university lecturer and a speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).
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