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From Overlooked to Center Stage. STC Currents Conference. Tom Johnson • • @ tomjohnson. t he problem. “Just a Writer”. You’ll be “nothing but a writer.”.

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From Overlooked to Center Stage

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from overlooked to center stage

From Overlooked to Center Stage

STC Currents Conference

Tom Johnson • • @tomjohnson

you ll be nothing but a writer
You’ll be “nothing but a writer.”

“After 12 awful years of working [at a company], I can concur with everything said in this article. This is a horrible, horrible “profession” (if you call it that).… Employers expect you to know just as much as the engineers, but you get no time to finish your product (yours needs to be done tomorrow whereas the engineers get years to plan and develop it), you’re expected to know every graphics and new online tool out there, you’re paid half as much as the engineers, and you have no hope of promotion. Oh yeah…and you’re expendable when things get tight…because you’re ‘just a writer.’

“I finally got so angry and frustrated that I entered an AACSB-accredited MBA program. Much to the surprise of my fellow engineer co-workers in the same program, I’m kicking their butts in all of the classes (“Gee-wiz…you mean writers are smart?!? Go figure!”). Advice to young people reading this: They say that, in business, if you don’t make, sell, or finance a product, you’re nothing. This is true. DO NOT go into tech writing. You’ll be ‘nothing but a writer.’ – Been there, done that…never again.” Comment on the Raw, Unvarnished Truth

unimportant a pain totally forgotten
Unimportant, a pain, totally forgotten.

“I recently quit my job as a permanent technical writer at a software company because I was being worn down by a thankless and impossible job. Generally as a writer I was regarded as unimportant, a pain, or totally forgotten about, until someone screamed at me they needed a manual – tomorrow. We were seldom told what was being designed or developed until the very last minute, when it was assumed we could magically summon up the knowledge of the entire design/development/install team overnight, and produce a polished manual.

“At the same time, you are considered the lowest of the low – too dumb to be a developer or even a tester. I even sometimes experienced developers ‘baby talk’ to me when explaining how their code works!!!!! … Technical writing is not worth it unless you are being paid A LOT. You will waste all your good energy on a thankless, frustrating, difficult job. I am a much much happier person now." Comment on the Raw, Unvarnished Truth

simply not enough anymore
Simply not enough anymore

“Doing what you're told to do and what you're expected to do is nowadays simply not enough anymore. You always have to do something more than what you're basically supposed to be doing."


to become hyphenated
To become hyphenated

“To be successful over the next 10-15 years, tech comm people are going to have to become hyphenated. You can't just be a technical writer. You have to be a technical writer-usability expert. Or a technical writer-accessibility expert. Or a technical writer-project manager.”

—Jack Molisani

ways to get involved in design
Ways to get involved in design
  • “…Tech writers often complain that their jobs are made difficult by software interfaces that are poorly designed and that they wish they could have more input into the design process. One year I attended a session at the annual conference that focused on ways for tech writers to get involved in design. I included a description of this session in the trip report that I wrote up when I came back to the office. Trip reports were posted to the company intranet, where the Engineering Manager for a new product line happened to read it. The short version of the story is that this trip report led to the Pubs team being entirely responsible for organizing the interdisciplinary teams that would design the interfaces for the new product line.”
  • —Diane Feldman
i wrote a program to pull
I wrote a program to pull …
  • “I like programming as a hobby (but I’m definitely not a professional; my degree is in English), so I tend to apply it to documentation development whenever I can automate something. About 15 years ago, I wrote a program to pull the error messages out of the programming code, present an interface to the programmers so they could document the message, stored all the information in a database, then spit out a manual in FrameMaker by tagging the fields with MIF. About 3 years ago, I wrote a program in VBA to find the abbreviations in a Word document, linked them to a database so the user could choose the right expansion (or enter a new one), then generated the list in another Word document.” —FeiminLorente
i stepped out of my role many times
I stepped out of my role many times
  • “I was hired as a technical writer for a small software development group. They had a team of programmers and technical support staff, but no marketing department. They hired a consultant for any marketing materials they couldn't handle on their own…Being someone who quickly gets bored with the "same old" routine, I kept my eyes open for an opportunity to spread my wings. My chance came prior to an annual software industry conference….I designed an auto-running PowerPoint presentation… The presentation was a hit. After that time, I became their primary source for marketing copy and was included in marketing strategy meetings. …They found that my in-depth understanding of the software helped me write more convincingly than the consultant.” —Wendy Cunningham
the keyholder in a pipeline of data
The keyholder in a pipeline of data
  • “Now the technical communicator is in essence the keyholder on a pipeline in of customer data, which is essential to product development… . So now instead of just giving the manual which goes in the box because they have to, now tech comm has a conversation going with the client post-sale, to see where their problems are, to see how their customer experience has been with the product over time. And because that conversation is intimate about the details of the customer experience with the technology, then that becomes very valuable data.”
  • —Noz Urbina
this ui is really bad
This UI is really bad
  • "I was doing the technical writing.... I had been telling these guys, this UI is really bad. I don't even know how you could have thought of this. Of course I said it nicer than that. Like, this is a good first attempt, but if you really want to do it well this is how you can do it. So when they wanted to go prolog with requirements and usability, they didn't have anybody to do it, and I will do it. Because that's something I’m interested in. And since it was a small team, they said that's great. And I got along with everybody. So that's how I started doing the usability stuff. Started designing the UI and writing the specs for it. And then also doing the technical writing at the end.” —Theresa Putkey
i can help you with both
I can help you with both
  • “It's up to the technical communicator to market him or herself to the other individuals, the project managers, the appropriate departments within the company, saying hey, wait a minute, why do we have this separate entity of business analyst and technical communicator. I can help you with both. And we can provide deliverables that are faster, better, cheaper. And here's why. And then you go on to explain to them what you can bring to the table. It is up to us to recognize this opportunity and posture ourselves.” —Mark Hanigan
any hat not worn by someone else
Any hat not worn by someone else
  • Question: How many different hats do you wear at your company?
  • Answer: Pretty much any hat that's not being worn by somebody else the day we need something to happen. (Mike Hamilton)
small or medium sized companies
Small or medium-sized companies…
  • “I have been a technical writer for over 22 years. During the 1990s, at the time of the bubble, the field was exciting and challenging. Now, with the bust, technical writers often do nothing more than edit dreary procedures. I have found that working for small or medium-sized companies is much more exciting than working at a large corporation. ...”
  • — comment on The Raw, Unvarnished Truth
until you hear a story
Until you hear a story…
  • “Until you hear a story and you can understand that experience, you don’t know what you are talking about. There has to be a person’s story that you hear, where finally you get a picture in your head of what it would be like to be that person. Until that moment, you know nothing, and you deal with the information you are given in a flawed way.”
  • — Ira Glass, host of This American Life, quoted in Storytelling the User Experience, by Whitney Quesenbery
contact information
Contact Information

Tom Johnson

@tomjohnson (Twitter)