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Fie on You, Toilet-Writer

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Don’t Be This Writer


At least try your recommendation before declaring so boldly.


Written by kirkistan

April 2, 2015 at 9:19 am

Why I Want To Do What Others Don’t (Shop Talk #6)

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Guest Post from Kayla Schwartz

From The conchological illustrations, by George Brettingham Sowerby, London, 1832.

From The conchological illustrations, by George Brettingham Sowerby, London, 1832.

[A few of us have been discussing what fulfillment looks like for a professional writer. The entire discussion was in a response to a question from Kayla Schwartz, a professional writing student at Northwestern College. Check out these six essays filed under Shop Talk: The Collision of Craft, Faith and Service for more on that. Kayla’s back with this guest post that contains a few of her thoughts and conclusions.]

“Technical writing? That’s so…interesting.”

This is the response I usually get when I tell people what I’m studying. As a professional writing major, I’ve done journalism and PR writing, but I’ve been most drawn to technical writing.

Why? I had not given it much thought. Most people think of technical writing as boring or tedious. So why pursue it? What really drives technical writers?

As I’ve thought about these questions and talked to technical and other professional writers who’ve been at it much longer than I, I’ve gleaned a few potential answers.

  1. It’s useful. Some people find a lot of satisfaction in their ability to help others understand things. They feel they are making a difference.
  2. It’s necessary. Technical manuals may not always be read by customers, but they are a necessary step in the process of distributing the product. There is satisfaction in contributing to a company’s success.
  3. It’s interesting. For people who are naturally curious, technical writing offers an ideal situation: learn about new ideas and products, and get paid for writing about them.
  4. It’s lucrative. Yes, some people are just looking for something that pays the bills.

All of these are valid reasons to do technical writing. However, none of them really expresses my motivation (although the last one is starting to look pretty good when I think about my student loans).

I’m pursuing technical writing because I genuinely enjoy it. I like creating an organized, easy-to-follow document. I like figuring out how to use words effectively and concisely. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and don’t mind spending time on “minor” details. I suppose I enjoy learning about new things or knowing that I’m helping others, but ultimately, it’s a way to do what I love.

Maybe this makes me the exception among technical writers, but I hope not. Technical writing isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who enjoy it, it can be just as satisfying as any other career.


Image credit: George Brettingham Sowerby via OBI Scrapbook Blog

Written by kirkistan

March 20, 2013 at 8:31 am

Taking Technical Communication Personally (Shop Talk #5)

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Guest Post from Rich Bosshardt

[I invited Rich Bosshardt to respond to the question of what fulfillment looks like for a professional writer. Rich has talked about technical writing in a few of my classes and intrigued us with a note about the psychology of technical writing. He’s writing from the perspective of a working technical writer, and this is his second response.]

People who aren’t familiar with technical communication may be surprised to learn what it really takes to be a good technical writer. Having product knowledge, authoring and illustration skills, some mechanical and/or technical inclination, and a command of (simplified and instructional) language are all necessary. But there is one key ingredient without which one cannot experience ongoing motivation, success, and fulfillment in this field: the personal touch.

There is a psychology to technical writing. Anticipating and appropriately responding to the (rational and irrational) thoughts and behaviors of people is a vital skill in the toolkit of a good technical writer. One might initially think that the technical writer spends hour upon hour in isolation while hunched over a computer monitor in a corporate cubicle farm or a spare bedroom (i. e., the home office). But in reality, a technical writer must keep in mind those who use the product or service (external customers) and regularly interact with those who help create the product (internal customers).

My external customers are the end users who purchase, assemble, operate, maintain, and store the products about which I write. My internal customers are team members, including subject matter experts, who are typically engineers and designers; and reviewers, who represent the engineering, customer service, legal, safety, test, and marketing departments.

External Customers

As an advocate for my external customer, I try to keep these two primary questions in mind as I go about my work: (1) How will the reader use (or misuse) the product about which I am writing? (2) How will the reader interact with the instructions and illustrations that I create?

But there are more questions that help put me in the position of my readers: What educational background and reading ability do my readers have? Are they mechanical? Do they have the proper tools to perform the procedure? When do they do the work themselves and when do they call a dealer for help?

To answer these questions, we rely in part on user testing and feedback from our end users. In user testing, we have had fellow employees from other departments who are unfamiliar with a product perform procedures by following a set of instructions that I prepared. The results of those tests have led to new insights as to how one might approach and engage the product, which enables me to write a more effective set of instructions. But busy schedules and workloads often prohibit us from conducting more than an occasional user test. Feedback from real end users is valuable, but it is rare as well.

Internal Customers

Though the technical writer is an advocate for the end user, the final product serves many more masters than merely the end user. The publication that results is a compromise of multiple interests. The subject matter expert wants to showcase the product  features or have the writer  insert an instruction to cover for a minor design flaw that is otherwise too costly to change; the market manager wants to sell the reader accessories for the product; the legal and safety representatives want to protect the company from liability by inserting page after page of safety admonitions; and the customer care representative wants a rewritten procedure because his or her department has received more than the usual number of customer complaints.

Being the writer but not the owner of the publication, how do I then chart a course for completing the project through the cacophony of the differing requirements of my external customers? And how do I produce an intelligible and helpful work that ultimately meets the needs of my internal customers?

Satisfaction by Means of Service

Serving my internal and external customers well brings satisfaction, and serving both types of customers simultaneously requires that I keep both my goal and the manner in which I achieve that goal in mind. The goal of my work requires that I continually keep my external customers in mind; it guides me in what I should be doing in my work: to serve valued end users by helping them understand the product and have a safe and positive experience whenever they interact with it. The manner by which I achieve that goal requires that I continually keep my internal customers in mind; it guides me in how I should be doing my work: to serve and show respect to valued team members who create the product (the subject of my writing). It may include serving and showing respect to those who may neither respect me nor my profession.

I serve my external customers best by making their needs the goal of my work; I serve my internal customers best by addressing their needs in the manner in which I work to achieve my goal. How I perform my work, no matter what it is, makes all the difference. It is when I serve in the spirit of Christ, the Servant of Servants, that I find satisfaction in my work, whatever and wherever that may be.


Written by kirkistan

February 12, 2013 at 11:50 am

When do Technical Details Need a Public Face?

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A sharp friend and colleague asked my opinion on what blogging has to do with technical writing. Both of us teach professional writing classes to upper-level college English majors. Her technical writing students recently opted to deliver assignments as single files rather than modifying them to fit a blog format. I see why: blogging requires a further step of engagement with a wider set of audiences. Blogging has a public face that is wide of the mark for writers who usually compose directly for audiences with specific technical motivations.

Blogging Is The Nonchalant Public Face

In some ways, blogging is a perfect venue for technical communication: the communicator can be as specific as she desires without worrying about capturing audience attention because the audience will find the information. Or not. While blogging must never be boring, the right audience will find details and specifics as scintillating as any steamy romance novel. But I applaud the instincts of my friend’s students. In true college student fashion, why do more work when less will suffice?

Blogging is the more spontaneous and casual cousin of technical writing that allows for quick and specific responses to real questions. Blogging allows more free-form communication about timely issues and provides room, resources and the expectation of responses from an engaged audience—all of which scares lawyers and regulators in a regulated industry. Blogging also makes information and specific insights searchable by a wide variety of people. In a college writing assignment, that public face is not needed and simply represents another process for the writer.

But there may be good reason for writing teachers to find ways to make blogging a more attractive part of the technical writing assignment.

Detail-Delivery Is Changing

For a long time the forms of technical communication have been stable: manuals, instruction sheets, assembly instructions, monographs and the like. We wrote these forms for the reading pleasure of the poor soul faced with a bag of parts or the new customer opening a new piece of software. But today audiences are using technical details in all sorts of new settings. Plus: my technical clients want very much to join the social media frenzy. They just don’t see how they can, given the narrow technical audience they cater to. What they don’t notice is that the very technical resources in their company that have focused on the traditional forms of communication could actually be repurposed for delivery of technical information outside the usual forms. This information could be loaded into a blog-type form that has the advantage of being searchable. The point: let customers find you.

Why go to this extra effort? Simple: no one likes being sold. Finding new forms for communicating technical detail may well be the best marketing investment your company can make. That’s why I think academics and industry, English professors, communication managers and marketers all need to open fresh ways for technical communicators to speak to wider audiences. The future I see has technical and promotional walking hand in hand to satisfy the human need for specificity.


Written by kirkistan

August 26, 2010 at 7:52 am

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