Technical Writers are Communicators
by Randy Duermyer
Over many years, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the professional organization for technical writers, has been actively involved in a movement to re-classify technical writers as technical communicators. A similar effort is also underway in the United Kingdom.
To some technical writers, this movement seemed a bit contrary to their self-image as professional writers, while others welcomed the change and agree that technical writers are increasingly tasked with creating technical communications in a growing variety of mediums beyond the written word. In fact, many technical writers see themselves more as information designers in today’s environment.
Technical Writers Before the Emergence of the PC
Before the emergence of the personal computer, primary documentation deliverables were operating manuals and instructional guides prepared for print publication. However, an argument can easily be made that even in pre-PC times tech writers were still more than writers – they were communicators. Even during the days when nearly 100% of technical communications were delivered for print publication, printed manuals and instruction guides included drawings and photographs in order to communicate meaning clearly. In those times, however, it was probably more common to have dedicated illustrators and artists to handle the visual aspects of communication.
Technical Writers After the Emergence of the PC
After the personal computer became a mainstay of life, the tech writer’s audience became increasingly reliant on the visual. Not at first perhaps, as the early DOS-drive computers were still focused on textual content, but certainly as the PC matured and the World Wide Web was introduced as an important communications medium. Even before the Web became the preferred communications medium for the masses, the number of tech writers charged with developing software documentation grew exponentially, with a resulting need for screen captures.
Technical Communications and the World Wide Web
The growth of the Internet meant not only an increased reliance on the visual aspects of communication, it also resulted in creating global audiences for documentation with a resulting growth in the need for localization services in order to create technical publications that could be understood by diverse populations in this new worldwide market.
With an increasingly mobile world population, graphic standards were adopted for visual communications. Examples are the universally recognized symbols for no smoking areas and the growth in the use of symbols that represent males and females on restroom doors. Such universally recognized symbols can serve to reduce the importance of text and increase understanding without the need to translate information into another language.
As bandwidth increased across the Internet, additional forms of communication gained wide acceptance, including audio podcasts and videos.
It doesn’t seem much of a stretch then, to understand why the STC and others now believe that the term “technical communicators” is more appropriate than the term “technical writers” since it more accurately represents the tasks that technical writers perform in their daily activities and it expands the skill set that’s expected of today’s tech writer.
Conclusion: Today’s Technical Writers Communicate in Various Ways
Clearly, regardless of the format of the output, technical writers have always been communicators. The technical writing profession has provided an outlet for budding writers with an appreciation of things technical to make a good living, whereas the image in the minds of many remains that a writer is someone who is probably starving.
As the technical writer’s career path has matured over time, and as the number of organizations that require technical writers to assume additional responsibilities – including information design, quality assurance, support and user advocacy – has grown, there seems to be no question that a broader view of the profession is appropriate for today’s world.
Some technical writers will always consider themselves first and foremost to be professional writers. For them, the love of the written word and communicating information through words were part of what made the technical writing profession attractive to them in the first place. However, with an increasingly global audience, the growing need to break down language barriers and the maturing of the Internet as a delivery medium for a wide variety of communication, it certainly seems appropriate that they be recognized on a broader basis as technical communicators.