Marginalizing tech comm with four little words

Alan Pringle / Opinion12 Comments

“I’m just the writer.”

For your 2014 New Year’s resolution, please stop yourself from verbalizing those words if they pop into your head. I ask this as someone who has both thought and said (doh!) those very words, especially during my early tech writing career.

Many companies are grappling with a common problem in their technical content. The content covers the what but it is light on the why and how. As a result, frustrated customers call support and create a financial double-whammy: a great deal of money is wasted on shallow, unhelpful technical content, and that costly failure is compounded by the additional support costs.

One way to deepen the context in your content is by providing rich, real-world examples that illustrate the why and how. Unfortunately, the only way you can develop those examples is by truly understanding the products you’re documenting.

Does this mean you need to become a product developer? Nope. But you do need to communicate and collaborate with product developers/SMEs more on their level. These days, a lot of SMEs are being asked to contribute content, so it’s not unreasonable for you to contribute your brainpower to a deeper understanding of your employer’s products.

So, next time you feel yourself flailing in a mire of technical detail about the product you’re documenting, take a deep breath and fight the temptation to fall into the trap of “I’m just a writer.” You must be more more than a stenographer and desktop publisher for product developers. Don’t let anyone—particularly yourself—marginalize tech writing in such a manner. If we act (or are merely viewed) as stenographers, there is little value placed on the content we create.

And that is when tech comm becomes expendable.

Cover from record for practicing stenography. Shows record player, typewriter, and rotary phone.

Stenography in tech comm is as forward-thinking as record players, typewriters, and rotary phones (flickr: epiclectic).


About the Author

Alan Pringle


Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

12 Comments on “Marginalizing tech comm with four little words”

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Alan. When we verbalize those words, not only will others fail to recognize the value of our work – as you say – but we’re admitting that we ourselves don’t recognize that value.

    I love the picture. I’m sure they told the stenographer to focus her attention on the record player. Instead, though, she seems to be daydreaming. I wonder if she’s thinking ahead to the day when her job becomes irrelevant.

    1. Indeed, when we devalue our own work, we are our own worst enemies.

      And I think the stenographer may be thinking about getting a cameo on an episode of Mad Men.

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  4. I love it when people ask, “Who wrote the technical parts for you?”
    They’re so cute when they get all goggle-eyed as I tell them I wrote it myself, and my SMEs only checked it for accuracy and intelligibility.
    I especially love their darling little faces when they think through the implications and I say, “Of COURSE I understand it on a technical level. I wrote the book!”

    Say it with me: I am the writer. There’s no “just” about it.

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  6. I agree with Karen. I (and have encouraged my Team) to say “I AM the writer. Let me write it.” It can be difficult to convince SMEs that they are just that though, not necessarily the best writers. Our SMEs are always amazed when we understand a concept just as well or better than they do. Many do think we are nothing more than glorified secretaries (which there is absolutely nothing wrong with, if that had been what I was hired to do).

    1. I was searching for the word that describes what I’ve been doing for the last year or so, stenographer fits. There are meetings that affect the content of the manual but I’m not invited. I have asked to be invited or a least told about the meetings, but was politely turned down for my offer “to help”. If I know when and where the meetings are I plan on just showing up. But if the company wants to pay me my senior tech wrtiter salary to scan douments, fine by me, but it seems to be a waste of my talent and skill sets.

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