You were hired because ‘[a] writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’ (Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1942). If it was easy, there’d be little call to pay for it.
That said, writing for money (aka wordsmithing) is not currently on firm professional ground. Of course wordsmithing has never really been on firm professional ground. Writing for pay has always been either a trade or (and only very recently) a very suspect profession.
So, if we’re not on a solid professional platform, how do we do our job, especially in a white-collar environment? Like every other tradesperson: by plying our trade competently and acquiring authority as a direct result.
NYU Professor of Journalism, Jay Rosen, recently noted that, ‘the most reliable source of authority for a professional journalist will continue to be what James W Carey called “the idea of a report.” That’s when you can truthfully say to the users, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”’ (Jay Rosen, ‘The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation’ 2010/09/06).
Rosen’s succinct, one-sentence definition of journalism requires only minor tweaking to be a succinct, one-sentence definition of technical writing:
I understand this, you don’t, let me explain it to you.
Let’s unpack this Rosen paraphrase to ram home Mann’s point about this not being an easy trade.
I understand this
Do you? Really?
You’re writing a procedure to setup environment variables for a Java Application Server. And you’re writing a how-to on Linux kernel tuning. And you are explaining a display bug that only presents when using an iBus-based input method and an alpha-syllabic alphabet.
Do you understand Java? Application Servers? Environment variables? Operating system kernels? The Linux kernel? iBus? Input methods? Abugida script systems?
Do you? Really?
If you don’t understand, you won’t know if the right information is being sent across.
Do you know what your audience does and does not know?
Your audience will say they don’t want to understand. They just want to accomplish their task (ie set the optimum Environment variable values; tune the kernel to perform as they want; or install the patch because they now know it addresses the bug their users are complaining about).
I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here: I’ll allow that you realise your audience’s claim means they do want to understand, they just don’t want to work hard (or at all) to achieve that understanding. I’ll even allow that you’ve a notion (however ill-formed) of your audience’s knowledge, experience and ignorance.
So, can you pitch your procedure or your how-to or your explanation just right? Can you make it clear and understandable without making it hard to parse. Can you filter in the necessary details and filter out the un-necessary details?
If you don’t get the pitch right, you won’t get the information across.
let me explain it to you
Understanding something does not mean you can explain it to others. Knowing your audience doesn’t mean you can get them to listen to you.
Explanation, like all communication, means engaging someone else’s attention. If you can’t engage the audience (which, in this case, means write engaging prose), your understanding and knowledge count for nothing.
If you don’t engage the audience, you can’t get the information across.
Put it all together and it means technical writers need to understand the material, know their audience, and write engaging prose.
Aside from making Mann’s point for him (albeit less succinctly and less elegantly) some other consequences flow from this.
A technical writer’s skill set is identical to that of any competent writer. So let’s lose the adjective and go back to ‘writer’ from here on.
A writer’s skill set explains why most people aren’t competent writers. There are plenty of experts but most have no interest in, let alone awareness of, their potential audience (read developer comments in any bug-tracking database for half-an-hour to have this point hammered home hard). The occasional expert who is interested in their audience is still unlikely to have an engaging turn of phrase.
And, while there are plenty of people interested in engaging an audience, they are routinely expert in nothing but their own narcissism.
This skill set also explains why most people don’t think being a writer is difficult. Most people think communication is easy, since the people around them appear to understand them easily and automatically.
If you can’t imagine why something is difficult to do, you aren’t going to understand why others think mastering it is worthy of time, respect and a decent salary.
This last point brings us back to writing as a trade: you won’t be respected by dint of having Writer as your job title. You might be respected for writing well. More important than the respect of strangers, however, is money.
And you were hired to write.
Which means you’re expected to understand the material, because you’re being paid to understand the material. And you’re expected to know your audience, because you’re being paid to know your audience. And you’re expected to engage your audience, because you’re being paid to engage your audience.
And you were hired to write because you write better than all those other people who don’t think writing is all that difficult.
So, when you’re writing about Java we assume you know Java, and you know Java users and you can engage them. And when you’re writing about the kernel, we assume you know the kernel, and you know kernel users and you can engage them. And when you’re writing about iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabets, we assume you know about iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabets and you know iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabet users and you can engage them.
Moreover, if you don’t know about Java or the kernel or iBus when you’re assigned a Java or kernel or iBus project, we also assume you will learn. You’ll learn the subject and you’ll learn the audience and you’ll engage with both effectively and well.
Because that’s why you were hired.