The Romance of Technical Communication

Summary: There is a romance to technical communication, because there is a romance to all useful things. But don’t expect the romance of technical communication to be apparent to everyone.

Technical communication is a romantic profession. No, really. There is a romance to any profession if you love it. But why would anyone love a utilitarian profession like technical communication? Because there is a romance to useful things.

This thought is prompted by Tom Johnson’s recent post on trying (and failing) to interest students at his daughters school in a career in technical communication. Tom made the best possible case for tech comm as a compelling career (my book was on the table), and yet none of the students stopped by. Why?

I think the reason is that the students are too young to grasp the romance of technical communication. Romance is key to career choices, especially the speculative ones we make while still in school. Life’s course may force us into unromantic occupations (unromantic to us, at least) but ask a child about their career choices and their answer will always be romantic.

My granddaughter told me the other day that she is going to be a teacher. She has an aunt that she loves who is a teacher, and hopefully teachers of her own that she likes. It is a romantic choice. But as a student, she is also in a position to see the usefulness of teaching. I’m completely sure she would be unable to see the usefulness of what I do for a living. But she can see the usefulness of teaching. It is romantic to her, and romantic because it is useful.

Tom paints a very utilitarian picture of his career progression into technical writing, choosing it because it was more lucrative than his earlier writing and teaching jobs. And yet it is very clear to anyone who reads his blog that Tom Johnson is in love with technical writing — and not in love in the sense of he enjoys doing it, but in love in the much broader sense that he cares about it as a profession and as a useful contribution to society — that he devotes much time and thought to it outside of the hours he is paid to practice it.

We have been taught that romantic things are non-utilitarian. I suspect deBeers is at the root of it, with their masterful promotion of the idea of the diamond engagement ring. The diamond ring becomes a way for a young man to express his devotion to a young woman by blowing two months salary on a chunk of crystallized carbon.

Actually, it is probably more pervasive than that, an underlying countercurrent to the materialism of the present age that associates all utility with commerce and all commerce with degradation. In this there is the idea that a romantic profession must involve direct service to people, a low salary, and, ideally, uncomfortable working conditions.

But such service is really only romantic because it is useful. If the service offered is not actually useful to those who receive it, there is no romance in the act. (The world has little patience for disaster tourists — those well-meaning but clueless people who flock to disaster zones with no relevant skills or equipment, only a vague idea of doing good, and who simply get in the way of people who could actually be useful.)

But if such service is romantic because it is useful, why should other useful things be less romantic? They may be less virtuous, but that is another question. Being useful to the poor and to those in distress may be a more morally worthy use of our time than being useful to the comfortable and well off. And such service may be romantic because it is virtuous as well as because it is useful. (It can only really be virtuous if it is useful. Doing good isn’t doing good unless it is doing good.)

But the question here is not whether technical communication is virtuous, but whether it is romantic, and whether, more generally, there is a romance to useful things.

If you doubt the romance of useful things, try hanging out with engineers. Engineering is all about useful things. But the logic of mere utility should be that they are only interested in useful things that are immediately useful to themselves. But engineers are interested in all kinds of useful things, in tools, techniques, and machines that are not useful to them in their life or work, but which are clearly of use to someone. Rube Goldberg machines and pointless mechanical trinkets may evoke brief interest, but for the most part, “not useful” is the ultimate engineering put down.  Engineers are in love with usefulness.

And, in fact, we are all in love with usefulness to one extent or another. Usefulness is what makes any job bearable and a good job wonderful. The loss of usefulness is what often makes retirement unbearable.

Technical communication is a romantic profession because it is a useful profession. But don’t expect a school child to see the romance in it. They are too young to see the utility. For so many of us, tech comm is a second career. In part that may be because we had never heard of it before our careers started. But I think the real reason is that until one has done real work, it is hard to appreciate the utility of good technical communication, and therefore impossible to capture its romance.

So perhaps we should worry less about attracting students to the profession, and accept technical communication for what it is, the romantic choice of a mature working mind.

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22 Responses to The Romance of Technical Communication

  1. Marcia Riefer Johnston 2015/06/01 at 12:19 #

    Applause!

  2. David Worsick 2015/06/01 at 12:22 #

    I think it partly depends on what you’re writing about. If you’re just telling users which icon to click for this or that, then it’s not all that romantic or intriguing. If you’re explaining to users something that you had to work hard at to understand yourself, and then explain it so they don’t have to work anywhere near that hard to fully understand it, then your work is much more interesting.
    I’ve done work writing about basic procedures for basic functions and I’m currently writing about advanced azimuthal modeling for seismic interpretation: how the rocks deep in the ground affect sound signals so that we can figure out why a layer hundreds of meters deep has different petrophysical properties toward the north than toward the east, and what that means for finding oil. I have to work hard on understanding this and then make it easy for others, and that’s way better than just listing icons.

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/01 at 13:21 #

      Thanks for the comment, David.

      You raise an interesting angle. Does work have to be interesting to be romantic? I’m not sure that it does. Or maybe it is the case that if it is romantic it will also be interesting — perhaps not in the sense of intellectually challenging, but in the sense of engaging your attention because of its usefulness to someone. In other words, things may be interesting simply because they are useful.

      That said, telling users which icon to click does not strike me as romantic either. Maybe that is because it is hardly ever useful. If a job is romantic because it is useful, then it follows that when it is not useful, it will cease to be romantic.

      All too often, of course, technical communication isn’t useful. It is done proforma or according to an outdated dogma that no longer matches how people consume information. Perhaps if we started to accept that technical communication is supposed to be romantic, we would more easily discern than when the romance has died, usefulness has probably died too.

  3. Mylène Goupil 2015/06/01 at 12:26 #

    Funny! We wrote a humourous article (http://www.lios.ca/en/article/good-documentation-what-a-flirt/) last February (of course!) likening technical communication to romance. Communication is definitely romantic, and while it may not be obvious at first, we definitely agree that technical communication is too.

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/01 at 13:30 #

      Thanks for the comment, Mylène. Your post raises a different angle on the romance of technical communication: whether tech comm should attempt to romance the reader. An interesting question. When it tries, tech comm often makes a clumsy suitor. Perhaps the key to romancing the user is to remember that this is the romance of useful things, and the romance lies in the usefulness.

      That said, we do strive to make useful things beautiful, and not, I think, as mere window dressing. Rather, I think it is a sign of our deeper romance with useful thinks. We want them to be beautiful because they are useful and we love them for their utility.

  4. Patrick Gribben 2015/06/01 at 12:31 #

    “A dung-basket is fine, and a golden shield contemptible, if the one is finely and the other badly constructed for carrying out its function.” Xenophon

    Thought-provoking as ever. Thank you. So we should be looking for finely constructed dung baskets then? Or even romantic finely constructed dung-baskets?

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/01 at 13:35 #

      Thanks for the comment, Patrick. Love the quote. We should definitely be looking for finely constructed dung baskets, at least when we have need to transport dung. Dung basket failure strikes me as a particularly unpleasant problem to have to deal with.

  5. Larry Kunz 2015/06/01 at 12:50 #

    Yes. It’s a maturing process that starts with finding romance in usefulness — in answering questions like “how does it work?” and “how can I put it to use?”

    After that, some of us — the budding technical communicators — find romance in the process of explaining to others the answers we found to “how does it work?” and “how can it be put to use?” Others — the engineers — find romance in the process of discovering new ways of putting things to use.

    All of this assumes a level of maturity that’s usually beyond high-school age. When I was in my teens I scoffed when my father suggested that I might become a technical writer. It was only much later that I realized he was a good deal smarter than I’d given him credit for being.

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/01 at 13:39 #

      Thanks for the comment, Larry. Yes, I would have scoffed at it in my teens. In most of my twenties too, I think. I only discovered the romance of technical communication when I was working in a desktop publishing shop and realized that we were reinventing the wheel over and over again. We were finding new ways to solve problems, but we needed to record them clearly so we could remember and reproduce them. Before that, I never thought about instruction manuals or where they came from. But once I saw the utility, the romance began.

  6. Rick Broquet 2015/06/01 at 17:38 #

    Romance or Philosophy? Looking for meaning in what we do boarders on the age old questions: What is my purpose in life? Does my life have value to anyone? It is a rare individual to know the answers to these questions as an adult let alone as a child in the K-12 grades.

    Career choices are just as elusive. Whether they are romantic notions or adventurous notions could be debated. Young kids often say they want to be a Policeman, Fireman or Doctors because of the actions and adventures they see on TV. Then they turn into teenagers and the choices take on a different path, followed by High School Graduation then . . .

    “There is romance in any profession if you love it.” That statement is all that needs to be said. Stay true to yourself and pursue your passions (within the boundary of the law and civil courtesy); your value will be found and appreciated. Including Technical Communications.

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/06 at 09:44 #

      Thanks for the comment, Rick.

      Not sure about meaning. I think there is a romance in utility, but utility is quite a few steps below meaning. It is pretty plain when one is being of use to someone else, and pretty common to feel pleasure and satisfaction in that. Start bringing meaning into it, though, and you run into hard problems like, what do you mean by “meaning”?

  7. Ray Gallon 2015/06/02 at 04:17 #

    Mark, thank you for this post, which rings many resonant bells for me.

    First, however, I need to say that it is a very North American post. When you say, for example, “We have been taught that romantic things are non-utilitarian,” that is true for North America. It is not necessarily true for Europe, nor for Asia.

    I’ve read a lot of material recently, for example, about the education of the “New Engineer” – meaning someone who is trained not only in engineering, but with a solid base of general culture, humanities, perhaps ecological considerations. This is presented (in the US) as something new and wondrous, but it’s been the way European engineers have been educated forever. Most of the engineers I’ve worked with on this side of the pond have an enourmous sense of culture, and a clear set of values related to the ramifications of their solutions. A Frenchman certainly values utility, but as just one of many important values in life – including culture, food, sport, etc. Utility (or pragmatism, if you prefer) counts, but does not trump all others.

    In Asia, the predominant philosophies stress the unity of all things, so any activity is at one and the same time useful and and useless. Zen practitioners, for example, speak of “The purpose of purposelessness.”

    All of which is to say that yes, I think everywhere, there is romance in doing what we love, and we love it, because of that romance.

    In my own case, I spent the first half of my life in the media, art, and culture. I’ve always loved technology, and the technological arts always attracted me, as well. I started doing technical communication because it was fun, I didn’t have to take it home with me and worry over it at the end of the day (no existential questions), and it supported my art habit.

    Within a very short time, technical communication changed from being an agreeable way to support les lucrative things that I did to a true passion. Why?

    What I discovered, especially as the profession has evolved in the last decades, is that technical communication is every bit as creative an occupation as making art. It’s not art – but it is absolutely creative. It’s not literature – but it is creative. We need to be good writers, good journalists (ask the right question even if – or especially if – they seem stupid), good connectivists, good storytellers, good teachers. We face epistemological questions every day. Despite the fact that most of my colleagues laugh when I use that word (epistemological), we are epistemologists of the first degree, constantly investigating how we get to meaning, and by what path.

    I love this profession for the same reason I loved being a radio journalist – I don’t have to choose just one thing for the rest of my life! I can mess my hands in all kinds of technologies, I can mix with people in all walks of life, I can solve problems of information science and auto mechanics, X-Ray technology and fishing, and I can do it using words, images – still and moving, sounds, or a great mix of all the above.

    Yes, I’m a techno-romantic, and I love my work!

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/06 at 09:52 #

      Thanks for the comment, Ray, though I think you may be underestimating North American engineers. Nor do I think the contrasting of utility and romance is uniquely North American, indeed contempt for utility seems stronger in Europe. What I tend to see in Europe is a romance with formalism, with rules and regulations, often apart from their utility. In that sense, at least, the romance of utility is stronger in North America than elsewhere.

  8. Bo Vandenberg 2015/06/02 at 12:34 #

    Thank you Mark,

    Like many people, my family was a primarily a moral framework not a financial one. Technical writing is about service. Tech Comm takes on a romance when we are older and recognize the need for instructions.
    When you have the responsibilities and distractions of adulthood, getting information straight, quickly is much more important. Who cares about instructions when you’re riding on the energy of a 15 year old? The right recipe for success has a new allure. I think you can believe in Tech Comm when you believe your efforts will turn chaos to success.

  9. Bo Vandenberg 2015/06/02 at 12:35 #

    Thank you Mark,

    Like many people, my family was primarily a moral framework not a financial one. To me, Technical writing is about service. I think it takes on a romance when we are older and recognize the need for clear advice.

    When you have the responsibilities and distractions of adulthood, getting information straight, quickly, is much more important. Who cares about instructions when you’re riding on the energy of a 15 year old? The right recipe for success has a new allure. I think you can believe in Tech Comm when you believe your efforts will turn chaos to success.

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/06 at 09:53 #

      Thanks for the comment, Bo.

      Yes, you can hardly expect interest in writing instructions from someone who has no interest in reading them.

  10. Keith 2015/06/02 at 15:52 #

    I wonder if there’s a different way to view the issue that answer’s David Worsick’s comment.

    First, from personal experience: I always loved buying new software and installing it, and part of that joy was reading the manual (remember when software came with real, printed manuals?). I knew that by reading the manual i would learn to do things, and I knew that I might very well learn things that weren’t intuitively revealed by the UI. Romantic and intriguing.

    A different view: If you’re at work, and it’s 5p, and your carpool is ready to leave, or you need to pick up a child, but you must complete a task you’ve never done before (or perhaps do only once a year), reading about which button to click and where to enter what is exceedingly useful!

    Just a thought. 🙂

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/06 at 10:00 #

      Thanks for the comment, Kieth.

      I suspect you are in a very small minority in finding joy in reading the manual. For most of us, it is at best a necessary evil when we can’t get the machine itself to work.

      Interestingly, John Carroll found that even people who say that they intend to read the manual from cover to cover before starting to use a product do not do so.

      And I have to say, that if it is 5pm and the carpool is ready to leave, very few people are going to react by opening a manual. But the wider issue is this: if the task is fully understood, then the UI should provide all the guidance you need to complete it (exceptions of command-line syntax, of course). Docs should not be making up for poor UI, but for incomplete understanding of the task.

  11. Deanna Mosler 2015/06/02 at 17:43 #

    Thank you Mark for this article. Your comments regarding our work as service also dovetails nicely with my faith and family values. This was not something I’d considered before and is certainly reassuring. With the common drawbacks to our profession (that is our work as being undervalued at times and the significant effort to provide much needed clear documentation being marginalized) I truly appreciate the perspective here. I’ve shared your article with my followers on Twitter as well.

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/06 at 10:01 #

      Thanks for the comment, Deanna. I appreciates the tweets.

  12. Alex Knappe 2015/06/05 at 09:35 #

    Hi Mark,
    this reminds me to a conversation I had not long ago at the tekom congress.
    I’ve been standing outside the building, having a smoke with some guys, when a young (hot) woman came out of the building with some other young guys – clearly some students attending the congress.
    The conversation went like this:
    Guy 1 (nodding in general direction of the hottie): “If I only would be some years younger…”
    Me: “You bet…”
    Guy 1: “When did the girls become hot in TechComm? Did I miss something? These were in marketing only, once.”
    Me: “Well, that’s because TechComm is sexy now.”
    Guy 1: “When the hell did TechComm become sexy?!?”
    Guy 2: “That’s been when they changed the college classes from ‘TechDoc’ to ‘TechComm’.”
    Me: “Right. Communication gets the hotties, while documentation gets nothing.”
    Guy 1: “I guess, I really missed that one.”

    So, at least in Germany, we’re seeing a lot more young people taking a career in TechComm lately.
    I think the emphasis put on communication and information management, that has been introduced in the past few years, made TechComm much more appealing to younger people.

    • Mark Baker 2015/06/06 at 09:34 #

      So clearly boorish behavior at conferences is not confined to engineers. Sigh.