[Update, March 5: corrected the graphic. It now shows that increased expertise does not produce increased value on the limited curve and does produce increased value on the unlimited curve.]
It’s the third rail of technical writing debates: writing ability or technical expertise? And this week, I ran across two articles that argue that good writing is the key to successful technical writing.
I agree that good writing is important. It’s just that I think that domain expertise and tools expertise are also important. To succeed as a technical communicator, you need all three of these qualifications. (A healthy sense of skepticism about any information that you are given is also helpful. Trust, but verify.)
Here, we have Sandhya, the outgoing President of STC’s India chapter:
If I’ve managed to make a minor dent in a paradigm shift away from the importance of tools and years of experience to the importance of basic technical communication and leadership skills, I’d be thrilled. (Sandhya, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Technical Communicators, INDUS)
These skills are not mutually exclusive, and technical writers need all of them. An excellent writer with more experience is better than an excellent writer with less experience. An average writer with great tools knowledge is better than an average writer with average tools knowledge.
That said, I think there’s a point of diminishing returns.
The value curve for writing ability follows the “unlimited” line. But the value curve for tools expertise is different. Once a writer exceeds the baseline required tools knowledge, there’s not much additional value in additional tools expertise. That’s the limited curve. (The curve for domain expertise depends on the topic, I think. If you write about consumer software, you’re probably on the limited curve. If you write about highly specialized topics (biochemistry, semiconductors, nuclear medicine), domain expertise is probably on the unlimited curve.
Here is another perspective from Ramana Murthy:
A good product documentation is one that helps users achieve their goals easily, irrespective of the tool it has been authored with – be it RoboHelp, Author-it or the unglamorous Microsoft Word. Product documentation does not arrive with a label like “Developed with the best documentation tools”; nor are there instances of customers preferring product documentation authored with a particular tool. (Ramana Murthy, Technical Communication: Content is the key, tcworld)
True , but it’s also irrelevant. The corporation who is paying for content to be created may care a great deal if option A allows you to create content better, faster, or (especially) cheaper than option B.
The tools and technologies you choose for your content-creation efforts matter because they affect the quality and the development cost of your final deliverables. And therefore, in addition to writing ability, technical communicators must master the required tools, technologies, and templates at the appropriate level.
I suspect you are correct about diminishing returns for tools knowledge, based on the principles of division of labor and opportunity cost. There’s only so much time in the day, and spending too much time away from the primary revenue generating activity reduces income unless substantial productivity gains result from the tools investment.
However, I’m curious to know if the chart was generated from data, or is merely to illustrate the point.
Also, what if the expert writer were to shift domains, and become a dedicated tools expert? While that former writer would now be overhead, if the tools investment increases the productivity of the other writers in the group, does that raise the bar on the point of diminishing returns?
Oh no. The chart has zero underlying data other than my opinion.
For a tools expert or a
consultant (like Glenn and me), the value curve for tools expertise is unlimited. I think.
Stimulating graph. I struggled with it, though, until I realized it was the line labels that were throwing me off. If you were to change “Limited” to “Tools” and “Unlimited” to “Writing ability,” then your visual would serve as a more clear support of your points.
Thanks for a great blog.
I think the graph has proved beyond a doubt that graphics are not my strong suit.
Interesting post. I was somewhat confused initially by your statment that “For a tools expert or a consultant … the value curve for tools expertise is unlimited.” It seemed contradictory until I made the distinction between a technical writer and the tools expert or consultant. Another distinction to make is the one between tools and technology. A writer needs a certain level of tools expertise, regardless of how well the understand the underlying technology. But the more technical the solution (i.e. DITA and/or XML), the more I believe they need either the skills or the support of a technical savvy team member who does understand the underlying technology, to enable them to get the most benefit from the tools – whether those benefits come from productivity gains or new product deliverables.
Having had my technical writing and editing skills bounced around several industries (R&D, computers, telecommunications, home safety products, healthcare/medical services and products, and now banking automation products, I think intelligent, experienced technical writers/editors need a certain level of education or technical background to understand the concepts and terminology in different industries. For instance,
o Engineering R&D requires knowledge of basic physics, enough math to recognize integral and differential equations, and some knowledge of materials, and static and dynamic stesses and forces;
o Medicine, biological R&D, or phareceuticals require knowledge of basic biology, chemistry, and Latin;
o Computers and telecommunications, which are becoming more integrated all the time, require a basic understanding of hardware, networks, and programming.
We don’t have to know as much or more than the SMEs in these fields, we just have to have the basics to understand what they are saying, so we can interpret it for the users of their products.
Many writers with journalism degrees and few science or math courses may not find technical communication a good fit, but other writers who started out with a technical bent, and other majors (like me, who aspired to be an architect), but sort of fell into tech comm, will do well. My one-year contract at Bell Labs made my skills attractive to several telecom companies, but the skill I had was an understanding of the technology and terminology, not deep telecom skills.
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