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October 6, 2011

Banishing our black berets

In my junk mail, the capital letters were screaming in bright red: WE’RE NOT ARTISANS.

We're not artisans

Seems I can’t escape talk of  “artisans” these days. Sarah O’Keefe and I had a recent conversation about how technical communication’s shift from an artisan to engineering model was making it hard for us to find employees. And now a pizza chain was using the word “artisan” in an ad campaign to sell a new line of pizzas.

Slightly Overfelted Scottish Tweed 4ply Felted Beret

The ad copy then proceeded to annoy me with a snide bit about “We don’t wear black berets.” I wasn’t aware that being artistic required someone to wear a beret. But bad stereotypes are nothing new. That got me to thinking about the stereotypes that often hold back tech writers.

When I first started out in tech comm, it’s fair to say my work was more focused on picking the right words and ensuring consistency in their use. I will admit to a borderline obsession with the craft of writing (yep, symptoms of my days as an English major).

Just as the ad made a swipe at an artisan approach with the line about berets, I suspect many outside of tech comm may view our high levels of concern over wordsmithing with disdain: “You call yourself a tech writer, but I’m seeing a lot writing and not a lot of tech.”

Developing experience with the technology and tools you’re documenting will earn you credibility (and can even elevate your standing among developers). And now, content strategy offers those in tech comm additional opportunities to contribute more than just well-written content.

My career path—particularly the past 14 years at Scriptorium as a consultant—forced an evolution in my approach to tech comm: a lesser focus on the writing and a greater attention to the efficiencies of developing and distributing content. Even if you’re not a consultant working with a lot of different clients, you can still contribute to your employer’s bottom line by investigating and implementing strategies to more efficiently share content, distribute it, and so on. You add quantifiable business value with process improvements—and simultaneously diminish stereotypes about “temperamental writer types.”

Am I saying that we don’t need to pay attention to quality writing? Not at all: it’s still a fundamental part of tech comm.  But if we can maintain our firm grasp of good writing and augment it with some bona fides in technology and in the business of content, we can banish the black berets others unkindly assign to our profession.

P.S. Full disclosure: for my high school French class, I had to buy and occasionally wear a beret. An electric blue beret. I had the sense not to be photographed wearing it.

P.P.S. It was not a raspberry beret. (The kind you find in a secondhand store.)