Prettifying typist or information creator?

A guest post by one of our members, Frik de Beer, about how working as a technical communicator has changed…

“So, you’re a technical writer…Sounds interesting. I hear you can do courses to become one. What’s your work day like?”

“Well, I mainly take the technical write-up or mark-up of earlier documents from the engineers and fix up their language a bit and check for typos and numbering and so on.  Then I use Snagit and Photoshop to reformat the diagrams they give me, take some more screen shots and do some labelling. Next I transfer all the text and images to Flare or Author-it, and do some fine-tuning to get it to look OK when I publish it in Word, Acrobat, or on-line. If I’m lucky I may get to do it all in sturdy FrameMaker. I often have to check that trademarking is being done in line with legal’s requirements and make sure that I have stuck to the format and style templates. Ah yes, I almost forgot: I spend quite a bit of time updating the work-tracking database, and do quotes and account management – maybe I should call that marketing and engineer nagging. And then checking translations can take up quite a bit of my day too.”

Exciting stuff!  Maybe the listener has stuck around through this monologue.

So what has happened to original text generation with engineers in the field, and the design aspects of technical communication?

I happily remember heading up teams of technical writers and training material developers in the aerospace world. Almost all the text we developed was based on a review of previous documents, first-person engineer interviews, specification analysis, working with product prototypes, and spending time with field users.

Planning and work contracting was important, as was satisfying external writing quality specifications and standards.  And we had editors – tough ones who made our outputs better.  We had access to a wonderful graphics group who made our diagrams and photos simple, clear, and beautiful. Then we assembled complete typed drafts that we tested in the field with key users.

After a further round of corrections by the writers the Compugraphics typesetter lady worked her magic. Then graphics people prepared screen prints of images, pasted up print masters, took camera copies, and then it was off to the photo-litho printers, who often printed on special waterproof papers.

Our tech docs team did a lot of investigation and writing because engineer time was too costly.  We all had to have practical technical knowledge that was put to good use. The support people we relied on in our product generation process were specialists in their areas.

It all worked pretty well. People focused on what they were best at and the result was export-quality documentation. Even though it sounds more costly, I don’t think our way of working was relatively much more expensive than it is now.

Makes me wonder: have too many of us become typists who just pretty it all up?  Reasonably good at using a range of tools to make low-quality writing look OK, but not really doing what we had hoped for when we signed up to the job: creating  technical communications that are valued because they help make products a delight to use.

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