Where have all the writers gone, long time passing?

Posted 4 March 2010 by

For those of us of a certain age, we remember the Kingston Trio singing this song:

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Today I am not concerned with disappearing flowers. For that matter, the disappearing boys lost in war, which was the original subject of the song.

Military cemetery at the Little Big Horn

Let me clarify, please. I really am concerned about war, but something has been catching my attention lately: where have all the technical writers gone?

“Technical writing is the art, craft, practice, or problem of translating that which is logical into that which is grammatical” (“Technical Writing,” H2G2 on the BBC website, retrieved 4 March 2010). What happens when you skip hiring the writers to do what they have traditionally done?

In some cases, things crash.

NASA had been on a “Faster, Better, Cheaper” drive when the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed. The direct reason for the crash was the spacecraft coming in at the wrong altitude and speed because of a confusing metric and English units when doing the engineering. One of the contributing causes was as “Inadequate operations Navigation Team staffing.” (“Part IV: Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation,” Lost in Space: A Case Study in Engineering Problem-Solving, retrieved 4 March 2010.)

Presentation at the 2003 Writer's UA Conference

There were many articles at the time saying one of the professions not hired for the project were technical communicators. They were not present to catch errors when documenting the details of the flight.

Engineers are smart enough to know the difference between a foot and a meter. Still, engineers are still human. That act of translation by writers to a document, followed by a release approval process, caught confused units. Many times an alert writer asks an engineer about discrepancies before a document even went into its release process.

I know there have been many times when preparing instillation documentation that I asked the right question to save a problem later on.

While there are still writing jobs out there today, they are getting fewer and fewer. Instead, the subject matter experts get the task of preparing the documentation. Some experts are good writers. Yet, even the good ones do not do that translation skill constantly.

When you need heart surgery, would you choose the freshest cardiac surgeon on staff in order to get the most recent training? In most cases, most of us would want to find a surgeon that has the balance between keeping current while being able to mine experience in heart surgery.

Technical communications is not heart surgery. However, who wrote the manuals for the equipment being used during heart surgery? For that matter, who wrote the specifications for the airplanes you are flying? Who documented the code your bank uses in its computers? Who communicated the formulas used to operate hardware on a space flight?

These are technical communicators at the 2003 Writer's UA Conference who also attended the annual Australian Cultural Event on the second evening.

I must not be the only person asking that question.

It seems to me—without benefit of well-crafted polling—that there is many more editor positions open today. Are these editors supposed to make up for the lack of writers? Do project planners think that an editor will finish a document prepared by a non-writer in the same time as one prepared by a writer?

Good editing is not simply about finding misspelled words and misplaced commas. There are many legal considerations—trademarks, fact checking, product claims—that need handling. Is there too much or too little in the documentation? Are all the necessary subjects covered? Is each subject in the document in the most effective order? This should all take place long before you check for spelling and punctuation.

In many cases, there is some overlap between the editors and writers—even though both look those overlapping issues from a different angle. What is being lost when you drop the writer?

You lose the translator of the logical into the grammatical.

Subject matter experts do not need translators. Editors do not translate, as they get translated material. In theory, the technical writers translate.

On a recent gig when I was editing material supplied by a subject matter experts. When I finished editing, the sentences all made sense. In addition, the sentences were all wrong.

Fortunately, a developer caught the problem before publication. That developer was very kind about it, saying normally there would have been a writer in the process to write the words for editing. He knew I did not have the advantage of interviewing the subject matter experts before working on it.

That developer and a subject matter took what I had edited as a starting point for a quick rewrite. This time there was no problem.

So, where have all the writers gone?

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