The problem of tech comm WINOs

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion16 Comments

If you have worked in or around technical communication, you have probably met at least one WINO (Writer In Name Only).

Successful technical communicators need three major skill sets: writing ability, domain knowledge, and an understanding of publishing tools and technology. A lack of talent in one area leads to the basic categories of WINOs:

  • Font Fondlers (a term definitely not coined by me): Spend more time tweaking formatting and making things look pretty than on actual writing tasks. Status: Endangered by structured authoring and formatting automation.
  • SME Scribe: Tout ignorance of the product as an asset because it “helps with empathy for the user.” More transcriptionist than writer. Status: Common in all industries.
  • Illiterati: Cannot write. Don’t recognize the grammatical, mechanical, or logical errors in their content. Status: Endemic worldwide.

There are also delightful combinations, such as the Illiterati Scribes.

My rudimentary taxonomy of problem tech comm came about because of a different article. I wrote a guest post for Adobe about the intersection of content strategy and technical communication, in which I said:

[Content strategy] is not a good fit for the “You’ll pry Favorite Software from my cold, dead hands” contingent because if your favorite tool doesn’t meet the business’s goals, it is your job to identify a better alternative.

The Partisan Publishers are an interesting type of technical communicator. They are rarely WINOs; more often, they are talented technical communicators who have mastered a specific toolset. They are extremely productive in those tools and therefore opposed to any changes. What they sometimes fail to recognize is that efficiency is secondary to choosing the right thing. So, to take an extreme example, mastery of a tool that only produces WinHelp is not that…helpful.

Are there other categories of WINOs that I have missed?

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

16 Comments on “The problem of tech comm WINOs”

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Great post!

    I can probably think of another category of WINOs: Grammar Bullies.

    These people essentially have no skills apart from some grammar knowledge and they keep bullying people, mostly online, who make Grammar mistakes.

    Grammar bullies’ two-point thinking framework:
    1) Anyone who makes a mistake in grammar that I won’t is no good. Such a person with flawed grammar cannot possibly be productive in any way.
    2) My worth as a professional = my grammar skills. My grammar was sufficient for me to find my present job and it will see me through this life. I need to learn nothing else.

    Hate to run into one of these in an interview. 🙂


  2. Sarah,

    I think this is a brilliant dissection of the tech comm problem. When you have a profession that requires three distinct skill sets, it is going to be very difficult to find and recruit enough people who excel in all three. Of necessity, companies are sometimes going to have to be willing to settle for two out of three, and it is by no means easy to choose which one to leave out.

    A big part of why I am enthusiastic about structured writing is that I see the possibility of largely eliminating publishing skill from the requirements. We are not there yet, but we are making progress (the elimination of font fondling is a big step forward) , and I think it is a goal we should continue to strive towards.

    I also see structured writing as being able to lessen the requirement for writing skill for certain classes of content.

    If we can reduce the number of things that tech writers need to be masters of, I think we can hope to see a significant improvement in the quality of technical communications.

    1. Hi Mark,
      Interesting point. I’m not sure that the publishing skill requirement goes away entirely—it’s replaced by a need to understand how to use structured markup and attributes properly. I do think that “must use XML properly” is a lower bar than “must know how to make pages look good in a DTP tool.”

      1. I think this exchange has an underlying issue: who are we talking about? There’s a tendency even among the thought-leaders in this space to refer to ‘technical communicators’ as needing XYZ. I think “technical communicator” as a single job role is itself a legacy byproduct of the DTP world. One individual had one tool was an end-to-end authoring, layout, pagination, style management and rendering “solution” (I hate applying that word to software…). The user of said magic package was a technical communicator and they had to know and do it all. Many of us have delivered or listened to conference talks that itemised the laundry list of skills these do-it-all workers must *additionally* take on. I think that there’s no choice but to reach a logical conclusion with that line of reasoning and say: it’s not going to happen.

        I think this is part of what Mark is getting at, or Mark’s point is a part of what I’m getting at, or whatever, but long story short: the role has no choice but to fragment into specialisms of people who *do* do publishing, people who *are* specialised in information and modelling, people who are great at requirements analysis and teasing out needs, innovators in interaction models, and so forth. They’re all, for the short-to-medium future, going to be on the same technical communication team, but talking about them as all the same kind of “technical communicator” I think puts undo and unresolvable stress on the tcs of today.

        The role of the technical communicator isn’t just changing, it’s falling apart, and that’s a good thing. Like DTP tools are being replaced by specialised structured tool + management system + publishing channel(s), so must the users fragment and specialise and stop being referred to as a single profile.

  3. Sarah,

    how about those document mechanics that always need the fastest PCs and the most expensive tools because their software and hardware makes the techcomm. They know everything better than the user and those red-nosed engineers that created the darn product. They are the centers of their universe. Nothing ever reaches them.
    Can be found sometimes.

  4. Sarah–

    With each job hunt I go on, I seem to hear more stories about WINOs from hiring managers and prospective clients. It’s a continuing disappointment to me as a technical writer. I myself have been chided in the past because I say that “ignorance as an asset for technical writers” is a myth.

    WINOs haven’t gone away yet and I’m not sure structured writing is going to thin their herd either. I’ve come to see the existence of WINOs coming from a range of factors on both the hiring side and the technical writing profession as a whole.

    The writers who’ve done it right are medical writers. There is an expectation on both the writer and hiring organization side that a medical writer must have some specialized domain knowledge.



  5. I’d like to add to your required skills, writing ability, domain knowledge, and an understanding of publishing tools and technology.

    You can have all of these but lack what I consider the key skills.

    To get the information you need, you must first be a good interviewer and researcher. You don’t start with the information — you must dig it out of the documents and minds where it resides.

    Second, you must be able to understand complex information and organize it in your own mind. If you find holes or inconsistencies, you’re back to step one.

    Finally, you need a knack for organizing and presenting the material in a way that resonates with the way your audience thinks. Empathy with your audience is hard to develop, because most writers have little contact with actual readers. This is slowly changing as documentation becomes less formal and more interactive.

    1. Hi Richard,

      I thought about adding interviewing skills and/or research, but decided to subsume those under general writing ability to keep my basic requirements down to three. There are other issues I haven’t addressed; for example, “soft” skills are critical for a lot of technical writers–I’ve seen some sad cases where the writer was quite talented but couldn’t get along with the rest of the team and therefore couldn’t do the job.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with Richard’s points about interviewing and research skills, plus the ability to do an analysis on the existing content to determine what needs to be filled in. If there is a problem that I’ve seen most in other writers’ work, it’s incompleteness, not really digging enough to fill in the gaps of what the audience needs to know. It’s not something a SME will tell you right off the bat. You have to figure it out and then confirm with your sources.

    But I am a little dismayed at these stereotypes and the acronym for writers in name only. I feel like everyone is good at something, and weaker in other areas. These weak points are how these stereotypes come about. Even the best of writers know there’s always room for improvement. Writers should look at their weak points as learning opportunities!

    1. There’s weaknesses, and then there’s willful lack of interest in improvement. I’m more concerned about the second category—people who don’t have the right skills and just don’t care. They make everyone else look really bad.

  7. I’m with Mark on structured authoring and Richard on his list of skills! What I see lacking is the practice of approaching each document as a mystery to be solved–that is, how best can I organize this content to help my users get right to their business tasks?

    Because there is no formula for solving the aforementioned mystery, a writer’s most difficult task is doing the analysis and devising a creative solution that gets directly to the heart of the problem.

    It takes imagination. Try walking in the user’s shoes (WUS). WINOs need to WUS before they write!

  8. What a creative piece of work it is, Sarah!
    I am surrounded by a lot of “Illiteratis”, but – sadly – in most cases, they do not qualify for just one title – they are a combination.

  9. I see WINOs. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re WINOs.

    I used to be able to have a larger permanent team where people’s varying strengths and weaknesses smoothed out the finished product, much like a blend of varietals.

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