How a degree helps a technical writer

A college degree can help you in technical writing, though maybe not in the ways you expect.

How relevant is a college education for the field of technical communication? A couple of very good and influential tech writing blogs have recently discussed this issue:

The question is both pertinent and impertinent, because Tom and Ryan frame it in a way that devalues college education [… at least in the specific program they are criticizing, see Ryan’s comment below. 18 Nov 2010]. Tom says tech comm “should not be taught in the context of an English department, because [it] is not understood or encouraged in traditional English curricula.” Ryan says he’s gained more useful knowledge in 5 months in the job than in his entire time in the tech comm MS program. I cannot argue with their experiences, and I cannot hope to convince them otherwise.

To help anyone with similar questions who’s in college now or has recently graduated, I can offer my own alternative assessment: How a college degree helped me become a passionate and, I dare say, good technical writer.

What I sought

Computer Science and Business as a combined major was how I started college. I sought to learn how to build software and how to run a business. What I got was learning by rote, too much how it’s done and not enough why and how it could be done better. I dropped the major after a semester.

I had embarked on rational and reasonable education and found that my heart wasn’t in it. I just couldn’t see myself spending several years getting a degree as a means to an end. I expected college to teach me something that was interesting in its own right, not a promise that I could apply it in a future job, or maybe not.

American Studies is what I declared as my major after two weeks of soul searching. That’s where I found my academic home. The curriculum was heavy on literature, social history and culture. The emphasis was on understanding what holds the USA and its culture together, to come to terms with its cultural and artistic developments, and to use whatever academic theories could be made useful.

Over ten years ago, I’ve received my M.A. in American Studies. I’m a technical writer by choice and practice, with the heart and the outlook of an Americanist.

What I learned

In American Studies, I learned a lot of things. Almost all of them do not directly relate to technical writing. Here are some things that I’ve found useful and applicable as a technical writer:

  • How to write long, coherently argued, understandable papers in correct English. It took me a long time to get it right. It took me longer yet to realize the importance of tailoring my message and language to my audience. And it took me even longer to realize that all this combined is a rare and marketable skill.
  • How to explain something that defies explanation to people who think they already know how it works. After you’ve ever tried to explain America to Germans who have it all figured out from movies and news media, writing user manuals is actually pretty easy. Most products I’ve dealt with are less complex than a country of 310 million people, even if you only regard the most recent 400 years.
  • How to cope with complexity. Literary studies can appear pretty neat, especially when you deal with only one author or one book. Studying a country and its culture is a more daunting task, not least because the people carry on so, with no regard for your studies. Trying to keep your insights reconciled with an ever-changing reality is a good preparation for your survival in large corporate environments and their organisational quirks.
  • How to organize to finish. Formulating a thesis and then framing and arguing it was part of my later assignments. That was a good preparation for writing user manuals from scratch. The “thesis” in that case is the easy part. The customer wants to do stuff with the product and look cool while doing it. But the rest is again up to the writer: Framing the text in a context of use, consulting all available sources, explaining it in the most understandable and most efficient way.
  • A turn of phrase occasionally: That a question can be both pertinent and impertinent (see above) is something that I learned from Thoreau’s Walden, the second paragraph of the “Economy” chapter to be precise.

What I know now

A college education can work very well for you, if you take it for what it is and don’t expect something that it isn’t. Stanley Fish makes a very astute argument for what a university can be and do:

When it comes to justifying the humanities, the wrong questions are what benefits do you provide for society (I’m not denying there are some) and are you cost-effective. The right question is how do … your program of research and teaching fit into what we are supposed to be doing as a university.

It’s important to realize that this kind of education comes with no guarantee: It guarantees you neither a job, nor happiness, nor that you’ll always be right or make the right decisions.

But it gives you the tools to gather information, take responsibility and make the decisions that affect your life. In short, such an education can give you hope. In the words of Václav Havel, writer, dramatist, and the first President of the Czech Republic:

Hope … is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Your turn

What did you get out of a college education? Was it useful for immediately applicable skills? Was it instrumental to become who you are? Or was it a waste of time?