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March 4, 2010

Technology matters

[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.

Diminishing returns for extra tools knowledge

Diminishing returns for extra tools knowledge

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.