Technical Writers in the 1990s

by Susan Bullowa

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While I was a candidate in Northeastern University's Master of Technical and Professional Writing Program, I began working as a technical writer. I wanted to know how I should proceed with developing my professional skills. In particular, I found myself thinking about how technical writers and their departments must change to face the challenges of the 1990s. I decided to read what insiders had to say in the proceedings of the five most recent International Technical Communication Conferences. Below is a summary of the skills and experience that will be valuable to technical communicators in this decade.

What do technical writing departments need to do in the 1990s?

Many speakers at previous ITCCs outline specific steps that technical writing departments must take to prepare themselves for the 1990s. They suggest that the areas of expertise and skills beyond writing and editing needed today are:

Chiricosta and Fisher (1991) admit that these skills may be too much for each individual on a team to learn. The documentation team may see a realignment of tasks among its members to produce quality products more quickly. On the other hand, Chapman (1989) warns us not to expect much productivity gains from certain documentation processes. Within the framework of product development teams, he notes that the writing processes by writers (the old fashioned technique of creating usable text) and diagnostics by engineers are two areas that cannot be speeded up beyond a certain point.

What do technical writers need to do in the 1990s?

The era described by Lillies (1990) when writers worked at a leisurely pace and in ignorance of their subject matter has passed. The domain of technical communications has expanded dramatically. Technical writers must focus on retooling their skills and learning to be fast on their feet.

Some skills and abilities that a technical writer must acquire, whether he or she is a seasoned professional or is in a technical writing program, include the following:

Moore (1991) advises the technical communicator who works in the corporate arena to learn the skills listed above, in addition to leadership skills. Knapp (1988) lists personal qualities that a professional writer should have: patience, determination, ability to maintain good working relationships, coping with change and tracking one's work.

The workplace of the 1990s is evolving into a different one than that visualized by the utopians of the 1960s. The keyword seems to be personal responsibility. An understanding of the technological and marketing forces operating on the modern workplace enables technical writers to adapt to their expanded role and gain professional satisfaction in these turbulent times.

References

Chapman, V.W. (1989). "High-Tech Wreck: An Information Management Crisis in Today's Manufacturing Environment." Proceedings of the 36th International Technical Communication Conference. May 14-17, 1989 -- Chicago, Ill. (pp. MG-118-MG-120). Washington, D.C.: Society of Technical Communication.

Chiricosta, T.C. and Fischer, C.D. Jr. (1991). "Planning for the 1990's: Managing the Expanding Role of the Technical Communicator in the Software Development Environment." Proceedings of the 38th International Technical Communication Conference. April 14-17, 1991 -- New York, N.Y. (pp. WE-60-WE-62). Washington, D.C.: Society of Technical Communication.

Knapp, J.T. (1988). "Writing for Programmers -- A New Opportunity for Writers." Proceedings of the 35th International Technical Communication Conference. May 10-13, 1988 -- Philadelphia, Penn. (pp. MPD-124-MPD-127). Washington, D.C.: Society of Technical Communication.

Lillies, P.(1990). "The Changing Role of the Technical Writer in the Computer Industry." Proceedings of the 37th lnternational Technical Communication Conference. May 20-23, 1990 -- Santa Clara, Calif. pp. RT-8-RT-11). Washington, D.C.: Society of Technical Communication.

Moore, C.B. (1991). "Developing the Technical Communicator's Role in the Corporate Arena." Proceedings of the 38th International Technical Communication Conference. April 14-17, 1991 -- New York, N.Y. (pp. ET-49-ET-51). Washington, D.C.: Society of Technical Communication.


© 2002 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published July/August 1994 in the Boston Broadside