The discussion around Larry Kunz recent blog post The Salt of the Earth raises some interesting questions about the part that those of us who call ourselves “Technical Writers” (or some cognate thereof) can and should play in the wider world of technical communication.
In the comments, Larry says:
As technical communicators, we need to ask ourselves whether we’re content with a narrow role — merely producing end-user instructions — or whether we ought to become contributors, and even leaders, in the work of producing documentation in the broader sense.
It’s a very good question. Almost everyone engages in technical communication, from the parent teaching their 4 year old how to tie a shoe, to an aid worker showing third-world farmers how to irrigate their land, to an engineer telling a nuclear plant operator how to perform a safe shutdown after an accident. Every time someone tells someone else how to perform some technical task, technical communication is taking place. In this sense, everyone is a technical communicator.
The wide world of technical communication looks something like this (though not to scale):
Its spheres are:
- Technical communication: Every time someone tells someone else how to do something.
- Technical writing: Every time someone writes down (or otherwise records) how to do something.
- Technical publications: Every time someone publishes information on how to do something.
- User manuals: The technical publications that ship with a product (or are made available online).
The profession we call Technical Communication is traditionally concerned almost exclusively with this innermost sphere: User Manuals.
In Larry’s blog post, he quotes from “the introduction to an HTML5 Handbook, written by Stefan Münz on the German-language “web competence” site.”
On the Internet, technical documentation is the salt of the earth. Without documentation there is no Internet – because the techniques and technologies would remain isolated, bound in people’s heads, never shared and quickly forgotten. Documentation is therefore the written culture of the Internet and the basis for the Internet’s stability. (Larry’s translation.)
It’s a great quote, but the technical documentation it refers to is not confined to the user manuals sphere. Much of it, such as the RFCs that define Internet protocols, belongs to the technical writing or, depending on how you define “publishing”, the technical publications sphere. Most of it was not done by people who consider themselves technical writers, but by engineers.
The Web has profoundly changed how technical communication, in the broadest sense, happens. In the time of paper, the user manual loomed large for the user, as access to the other spheres was limited. In the time of the web, the other spheres are much more readily available. Indeed, if the user put the manual on the shelf or in a drawer when they unwrapped the product, there is a good chance that the user manual sphere is now the most difficult for the user to access.
- Do we need to move outside the user manual sphere in order to continue to serve our customers?
- Do we have something to contribute to the wider world of technical communication? (Carping at its grammar does not count.)
- Do we have something to learn from the wider world of technical communication?
- Can we, and should we, be seeking career opportunities outside of the user manual sphere?