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Technical Writing Roles

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By Colin Ramsden, July 2006.

xyzTechnical writing as a profession has association with many fields and occupations. Not all technical writers perform only technical writing, and not all people that perform tech.writing as part of their daily working roles refer to themselves as being a tech.writer. So when discussing tech.writing and tech.writers, we need to be clear about who we mean and what they're doing.

For the purposes of this article, when I refer to a 'technical writer', I mean a person who performs technical writing as the major part of their working activities, and when I refer to 'technical writing', I mean the actual role of performing technical writing and associated activities, not some other writing role like promotional or copywriting. Conversely, those that perform technical writing as a minor or occasional part of their working roles, I refer to as 'tech.writers' doing 'tech.writing'. 

There are many accepted forms of writing, all of which can be simply divided into one of two major categories, either: fiction or non-fiction. Technical writing by definition is non-fiction. It is factual, or at the very least is as accurately factual as the technical writer can be, given the information they have acquired and were supplied with by subject matter experts (SME). Technical writers will not knowingly produce fiction. They will never invent details and present them as fact. Professional technical writers follow a code of ethical standards.

In theory at least, business and promotional writing should be classified as non-fiction too, and mostly is, however, a few marketing, copywriters, and sales people seem to place more emphasis on making sales (at any cost—including deception), than sticking wholly with the truth. These same people produce what could loosely be regarded as tech.writing and when they're writing it, be performing a tech.writer role. NOW PLEASE DON"T TAKE THIS OUT OF CONTEXT: I am not by any means stating that all occasional tech.writers are knowlingly deceptive; just some of them, and it's those few that spoil it for the rest of us in the professional technical writing business.

Unfortunately, it has been my experience that some full-time technical writers and most occasional tech.writers are not very technically minded. Now, that on its own is no real problem, until they think they can write technically, then attempt to do so and pass it off as valid 'technical writing'. It is not that these individuals cannot write about technical subjects (provided their writing is given suitable and adequate editing by a technical editor); it is that they cannot write technically because they do not adequately understand the technicalities of the subject matter being written about. Writers of this calibre can unknowingly and unwittingly place emphasis on the wrong detail, or misinterpret the importance or relevance of one technical detail over another. For example:

Technical writing by occasional 'tech.writer' Proper description written by technical writer
"The W100 supports an extremely high contrast ratio of 2500:1 for darker blacks and brighter whites, at the same time as maintaining colour saturation to deliver crystal clear images like they were right in front of your eyes." "The W100 exhibits an extremely high contrast ratio of 2500:1, reproducing darker blacks or brighter whites. Controlled colour intensity accurately reproduces vividly coloured images, providing image clarity just like viewing the original before your eyes."

For a detailed explanation of the misleading statements and the reasons for their corrections, see explanations.

I have also found that this type of occasional tech.writer does not proof-read their own work, nor have it proof-checked by others. I have seen some embarassing typos appear in documents and press-releases after they have been proof-read, simply because they were not proof-checked before publication.

When later queried about their mistakes, some 'tech.writers' do the right thing, apologise and promise to do better next time. I have no trouble with such individuals, and will do whatever I can to assist them with their writing. However, I have experienced at least one individual in each of the companies I've worked for, which unfortunately, when queried, has behaved unprofessionally and inappropriately for a person in their position.

In my experience, they have either been uncaring and dismissive about their own writing errors, or worse still, have felt threatened and reacted equally unprofessionally by "turning-on" irrational tactics, behind your back, like crying to their boss (usually not yours) and complaining loudly that you were rude and "personally insulted" them!

Incidentally, I've also observed that, it is this particular character type which tends to play office politics, and has already "brown-tongued" their supervisor, the office manager, or the CEO to be in the position they're in anyway.

Such people don't like to be questioned, or shown to be wrong or uncaring for fear of being revealed as the inadequate and insecure imposter that they think themselves to be. They don't have the aptitude or skillset, so resort to other means (personal antics) to climb the corporate ladder.

This character type is a blight on professional technical writers and technical writing. Unfortunately, although identified as such by a professional technical writer, this type of tech.writer has ingratiated themselves into their position in such a way that it is generally pointless to try and reveal them in their true light to their supervisors, because those are the same people that either put them there in the first place, or are currently keeping them there. Such blindness to genuine ability can show no rational bounds, and contains the same elements of short-sightedness which leads to the general thinking that "anyone can do technical writing".



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