“So, what do you do?”

Occasionally, someone asks me what I do, meaning, of course, what I do for money. Unless I’m feeling especially coy, I say that I’m a technical writer. I’m not sure I could come up with two other words that produce blank stares more reliably. People have no idea what I do.

Through their friends, neighbors, television and movies, I think people have a understanding of a wide variety of professions. Teachers, factory line workers, middle managers, police officers, computer programmers, soldiers, doctors, musicians, and lawyers have all made appearances in film, television, and our lives to the point that most people have at least an idea (however wrongly conceived) of what those people do to pay the bills. As a technical writer, I don’t have the benefit of media* (favorable or otherwise) to help people understand what I do. Superficially, people might think that since writer is in technical writer, what I do might be a bit like what Stephen King does. With the exception of a common tool of English prose, it isn’t.

The Much Unloved IKEA GuyTo break the uncomfortable silence, I usually follow “I’m a technical writer” with “I write directions for software” or “I write computer manuals.” Although this bears some resemblance to the truth, directions and manuals seem to conjure up some uncomfortable associations, namely: Mr. Frustrated IKEA Assembler. And while I’m sure the illustrator behind the IKEA guy can be considered a technical communicator of a sort, it’s not the association I want to make because a) it has very little whatsoever with what I do and b) people hate that guy. If I were to be honest, I would say that I:

  • write user guides for nerds people setting up websites,
  • write internal documentation for my coworkers,
  • record how-to videos,
  • write HTML and CSS to pretty up all that stuff,
  • program tools to make my work searchable and to analyze how it’s being used, and
  • analyze data and review my work to find areas for improvements.

Aside from a light protest of the “No, no, I write directions for computers” sort, I don’t go into that kind of detail. Primarily because most people don’t show an interest, but also because I’m not going to be able to give people a general sense of what a technical writer is by explaining my work.

What I do is divergent from many of my fellow technical writers (not just from apparently everyone else on the planet). In my cohort of English-major technical-writer-types from school, there are few who write documentation for software, fewer still who work with web-related software, and fewer still** who write documentation about web software for technical, non-layperson audiences.

I try to acknowledge the fact that there is a huge variety of work in the field of technical communication. To describe it in the most general terms, technical communication is about standing between technical, domain specific information and making it accessible to people outside of that domain. Frequently, that domain is something technological, such that I openly resent resent Steve Jobs for absconding with one of the best ways in which it’s possible to think of technical communication: it’s being “at the intersection of liberal arts and technology.”

Unfortunately, I can only provide a somewhat limited (and geeky) perspective on what technical writing and technical communication is all about. So I find myself stuck telling people I write software manuals. It’s an affront to my profession in a sense: technical writers add a lot of value in a lot of different and frequently unexpected ways, but I’m not making a case for it.

In an effort to make up for this affront to my profession, forthcoming posts to this blog will attempt to explore some of the nuances of my work. In the coming weeks, I’ve got a lot of posts planned that may give you a greater insight into what it is this particular technical writer does.

* The only exception I know of here is the main character in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. However fascinating and well written the book is, it’s not exactly a useful portrayal for the purposes of describing my job.

** Just one, actually: this guy.

4 thoughts on ““So, what do you do?”

  1. I’m pretty sure that the agoraphobic patient in episode 7, season 5 of House M.D. is a technical writer.

  2. Actually, I know I forgot “Tina the tech writer” from Dilbert. Paid by the page, if I remember correctly.

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