[Long] Teaching Engineers to Write vs. Teaching Writers to Engineer

Subject: [Long] Teaching Engineers to Write vs. Teaching Writers to Engineer
From: John Gear <catalyst -at- PACIFIER -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 26 Apr 1995 11:14:00 PDT

Someone wrote:

>I realize there are exceptions to this rule, and
>that it is a generalization, but if there weren't some truth to it, we
>wouldn't have jobs; the manuals would be written by the engineers.

This seems predicated on the belief that technical writers have jobs because
they do those jobs better than engineers. No doubt they *do* the job better
in most cases. But, it may have nothing to do with why they get the jobs.
Is it not plausible that, in many firms, the technical writers have the job
because they do it for less than the engineers could?

I've not seen or heard of many managers who, when comtemplating hiring out a
task, use a writer if having writers do it will cost more than having the
subject experts do it. They're happy to have the better product and all--for
less. But the baseline comparison cost usually seems to be that of having
the subject experts do it. Approach that cost and suddenly the calculus

Assume that the average loaded rate for staff technical folks is $75-100/hr
and for staff technical writers $40-50/hr. Under these circumstances, if
there's any choice about it, the technical writers will get the work. But
how many places are there where the technical writers would get the work if
the differential were reversed? That is, if the average technical writer
commanded $25-50/hr more than the average subject expert, would we not see a
lot more things written by engineers?

On the same subject, Carla Lotito wrote:

>Technical writing is more than just writing clearly and concisely. It is
>being aware of your user and his level of knowledge, thinking of ways to
>present your information (graphically and textually) to improve and speed up
>understanding, and making the user's task of finding and using information
>as easy and painless as possible.

>Technical writers are not just writers, they are teachers. They teach the
>reader about the information.

That's a *great* summary of the task of technical writing and I have filed
it away under "Best Short Answer for 'What is Technical Writing?'" Thank you.

And it certainly sounds like the graduate-level course. However, the maxim
cited was something like it's easier to teach a writer to "be technical"
than it is to teach a technical person to be a writer. It's not possible to
teach either one "overnight." But I would much rather have two days (or two
weeks, or two months, or two years) to teach engineers to write than I would
to have an equivalent time in which to teach writers to engineer. The
students in the former group would be much further along towards your
definition of competence than those in the latter would be towards their
professional engineer certificates.

Technical writing has a fairly short learning curve--coupled, of course,
with a practice curve that extends for a lifetime. (There also seems to be
a fair amount of chasing technology, but, as evident in your definition,
that doesn't affect the fundamentals much.) It doesn't take too long before
a technical writer is in a position to learn more about the craft
independently, the hallmark of basic competence. After an equivalent period
of study the average engineering student is still incapable of tying her
metaphorical shoes.

>Writing is not as easy as many people think. And it can't be learnt
>overnight. An engineer may learn to write at an acceptable level in a clear
>and concise manner, but he may never be able to write like a technical
>writer if he doesn't have the talent for it.

And if she doesn't have perfect pitch she won't play Carnegie Hall. So?
Doesn't mean she can't sing pretty well. I don't know of anyone who claims
writing is easy, or that it can be learned overnight. But while it may be
good for us professionally to emphasize the difficulty of technical writing
and the devotion and intrinsic talent required, it's *not* rocket science or
even beyond the grasp of the average person. Pretending it is only helps
create a justification for the widespread incompetence in technical

Perhaps instead of competing with engineers in the "my profession's harder
than your's" contest we should take a reverse tack and compete on the basis
of being one of the few that every person--even engineers!--should have a
basic competence in--and set about providing that competence.

There's probably a better living for more of us if we act as evangelists for
clear communication about things technical than if we act as the monks in
our castles pursuing the arduous rites of technical writing. And it would
certainly benefit more people outside the profession.
John Gear (catalyst -at- pacifier -dot- com)

The trouble about fighting for human freedom is that you have
to spend so much of your life defending sons of bitches; for
oppressive laws are always aimed at them originally, and
oppression must be stopped in the beginning if it is to be
stopped at all.
-- H.L. Menken

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