I recently wrote the following in a comment on Tom Johnson’s blog post What Tools Do Technical Writers Use:
That writers are still expected to do their own publishing strikes me as one of the tragedies of the profession, and a major part of why tech pubs does not get the respect it thinks it deserves in organizations. It is a big part of the reason that so many people still dismiss what tech pubs does as “making it pretty”.
It was not the most deeply considered statement I have ever written, and when I read it over after having posted it, I rather wondered at the sentiment it expressed. Why exactly should engaging in publishing lose you respect? It’s not as if people universally lack respect for publishing. It’s not as if publishing is something akin to pyromania or politics, rightly despised by all. Yes, there is the “making it pretty” thing, but why exactly should the ability to make content pretty lose you respect? People are not generally opposed to pretty. They like pretty. They pay a lot of money for pretty.
So was my intuition correct that tech pub’s association with publishing is to blame for the lack of respect that so many technical writers complain of? I’ve thought about it a lot, and my conclusion is that my first intuition is correct: if you want respect as a technical communicator, you need to get out of publishing.
Here’s why. It’s not that people don’t respect publishing skill. It is that there are two different kinds of respect that skills in any field will get you: one-of-us respect, and one-of-them respect. I respect all kinds of professions: mechanics, accountants, landscape painters, particle physicists, custom tailors, airline pilots, comedians, acrobats, and concert pianists, to name but a few. I respect these professions because I can see that they are difficult to do, and that they have social value. I can’t do any of these things, and I don’t know nearly enough about them to make specific judgments about how these people do their jobs. I respect them from the outside. I give them one-of-them respect.
I also respect many writers and many structured writing practitioners and consultants. But I give them a different kind of respect. These are my fields, the things I know well, the ways I make my living. I am qualified (I flatter myself to believe) to make specific judgments about how individual people in these fields do their jobs. My respect is based very much on the details of how individuals perform. My respect is not given universally or uncritically, but individually and on merit. I respect these folks from the inside. I give them one-of-us respect.
Here is where the respect problem comes from for technical writers. Most engineers, software developers, and other technology folk respect publishing skills, but they give them one-of-them respect, not one-of-us respect. The problem this creates for technical writers is that while they may get one-of-them respect from their technical colleagues, it is one-of-us respect that they need to get their job done, and to feel valued and appreciated by their colleagues.
Writing well about technical subjects is, however, something that technical folk do respect as a one-of-us skill. Some engineers write well and some write poorly, but all engineers have to read technical material to do their jobs, and they can tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. Much of what they read is written by other engineers, and they know this and recognize effective communication on technical subjects as a technical skill, the kind of skill that gets you one-of-us respect.
So why can’t we have both one-of-us respect for our technical writing skills and one-of-them respect for our publishing skills? I suppose we can, if we are good enough, and work hard enough. But I think there is an inherent human bias that says, if I am giving you one-of-them respect, then you are one of them, and therefore not one of us. If you were really one of us, your whole focus would be on our set of skills. If you show mastery of another field, then clearly you cannot be focusing sufficiently on our field to deserve one-of-us respect.
Many writers do this to engineers. They respect their engineering prowess, they give it one-of-them respect, and they tell themselves, by way of compensation, that engineers can’t write. They deny them one-of-us respect, even in the face of clear evidence that many engineers actually write well, and that some really good engineers can also write really well about technical subjects, both for other engineers and for lay people. Once we give one-of-them respect, we shut to door on one-of-us respect.
This is not entirely unreasonable. We don’t have to subscribe to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour thesis to acknowledge that mastery of any craft requires dedication of time and mental energy. It follows that it is comparatively rare for a person to be a true master, a person deserving of respect, in multiple disparate fields. Nature does not produce DaVincis in abundance. The prejudice that if one is a good mechanic then one is not going to be a great concert pianist as well is a reasonable one on which to make daily judgments about life (like deciding not to hire Glenn Gould to replace my clutch). It may not be truly just in every case, but it works pretty well most of the time, and that is how we make most of our daily decisions.
So yes, I think for tech writers to have, to cultivate, and to display publishing skills saddles them with one-of-them respect in the technical community, and that makes it very hard for them to win one-of-us respect for their ability to write about technology. So if you want respect, a good first step would be to get out of the publishing end of the business.