Can we fill in the blank? “All technical communicators _______”

STC has the biggest membership “tent” of any association of technical communicators, both by size and variety. But we’re by no means the only show in town. There are associations of medical writers, FrameMaker users, proposal writers, marketing writers, editors, and more. What, if anything, is the common thread that binds us together, and is it stronger than the attractions of other organizations? This question goes to the issue of STC’s cohesiveness, but it also comes up when we discuss ideas like job descriptions and certification, for if there is no commonality, then there can be no universal job description, and no “core” certification. So: Can the sentence “All technical communicators _____” be completed?

Well, there is certainly a job title for “writer,” and you can complete the inarguable, if tautological, sentence “All writers write.” But since the establishment of its progenitors in the 1950s, STC has always been about technical writing. This has been such a constant that I think it’s now a universal description. This is a unique and valuable skill that has been key to our continued existence. In the trade of news reporting, there is a difference between a general-assignment reporter, who can and does write about anything, and a reporter with specialized knowledge, as of sports, finance, law, and science and technology. When a general-assignment reporter tackles specialized subjects, the results are often painful, because they don’t understand their subject and it shows. While I can’t say all technical communicators understand their subjects—I know too many who don’t!—I think it’s not a stretch to say that good technical communicators understand their subjects. In fact, employers routinely demand subject-matter knowledge. So let me go out slightly farther on the limb. I suggest that it’s fair and practical to say that all good technical communicators deal knowledgeably with technical subjects—or at least, they should.

Likewise, writers write, but here I’ve adopted the more recent and broad term communicate to acknowledge our growth. When I started in the field, for example, I was a writer in an environment that included data-entry operators, layout specialists, and illustrators. Writing was all I did, and I could literally do my job with pencil and paper. Today we all do much more than “just” write: we produce, and accept as technical communication, completely wordless items such as videos and installation instructions, because we recognize that all communication, whether we use words, images, audio, or video as our medium, has the same principles and the same ends.

I don’t think we’ve ever been defined by our tools, and given their rapid evolution, I think that’s a good thing. There are still jobs available for an excellent typist, but they are commodity positions and not well compensated. Perhaps all carpenters are good with hammers, but not all people who are good with hammers are carpenters. (I can hammer a nail straight; my grandfather was a master carpenter. I know the difference.) No one would suggest the sentence “all technical writers use Microsoft Word” much less “all technical communicators use Microsoft Word.” Fortunately, I think I can assert that technical communicators are flexible with tools; they can produce good work with a variety of tools, because, like carpenters, our skill set transcends our tools.

Another commonality, I think, is that all technical communicators think about and cater to their audience. This is not true of all writers. For example, it’s a common shortcoming attributed to engineers. As fluent as some of them are, they usually to think in terms of the things they create and how they work. It’s only natural for them, in the same way that we naturally think of how to work the things.

So I think we have a series of sentences that are universally true, or at least true for most and aspirational for all of us:

  • All technical communicators deal knowledgeably with technical subjects.
  • All technical communicators work in a variety of media.
  • All technical communicators can produce good work with a variety of tools.
  • All technical communicators think about their audience.
  • What do you think?

Published by Steven Jong

I am a retired technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

One thought on “Can we fill in the blank? “All technical communicators _______”

  1. Steve, this is good, foundational work, and a starting point for further discussion. Still, these things don’t speak to the products we create. They’re more about the processes we use. That troubles me a little bit.

    Also, none of these, by itself, differentiates us from people in other professions. Your example points this up: carpenters can produce good work with a variety of tools. (For that matter, standup comedians think about their audiences.) What’s in the DNA of technical communicators that makes us distinctive?

    Not coincidentally, I think it would be hard to construct a certification exam for this set of criteria. We need to find things that pertain to our work products, and things that describe us uniquely. Again, what you have here is a promising start. But we’re not there yet.


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