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?


10 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ashish Gupta, cfidurauk and Kai Weber, Technical Comms. Technical Comms said: kaiweber: How a degree helps a technical writer […]

  2. Kai,

    I wrote nothing to devalue the worth of a college education to tech writing. My critique was of a program that promised to deliver a very specific thing and failed to do so. Further, it’s basically a given that one can hardly do a thing at all in the world without a degree. As someone who holds a BA in Philosophy and an MFA in Creative Writing (which is a terminal studio writing degree, and, arguably, worthless in terms of Human Resources), obviously, I believe in education for the sake of being an educated person. HOWEVER, when a graduate degree program promises to equip you with a very specific skill set and fails to do so (which, again, is my sole complaint), it becomes a worthy focus of critique. Think of it this way, if you were to pursue a master’s in accounting (regardless of your prior education), wouldn’t you expect a few accounting classes? A bachelor’s degree in the humanities (or whatever field–all require some stripe of gen. ed.) should equip you with the skills necessary to critical thinking, but a grad degree that bills itself so as to equip you with the (practical) skills necessary to technical communication should in fact deliver on that narrow promise, aside from any theoretical component. A person who registers for an MS tech comm program should already have gotten beyond the point of basic education.

    • Ryan, thanks for clarifying your position. I apologize that I obviously misconstrued your point. I must admit it actually didn’t occur to me that a Master’s program would aim and claim to teach you a specific set of practical skills…

      I also edited the post above to make it clear that your criticism concerned a specific program.

  3. Hi Kai,
    I have a bachelor degree in German literature and a master in tech writing. When I started working I actually found out that I aquired some key skills for tech writing during the German studies:
    * gathering information (which can sometime be pretty hard for certain pieces of literature…)
    * analyzing the information
    * structuring the information to make it avaliable for others

    You have to do all of this to write a good essay and you have to do the same to write good manuals / help – only that it’s not about mediaeval lyric but a mail application 😉

    For me this is the creative part of my work ( The writing itself can be pretty boring from time to time but the process until you get to the point where you really write something -> this is challenging and this is what I like!

    • Thanks for your comment, Marijana!

      I can identify with that process until you write which you describe in your last paragraph. In fact, in smaller, more mundane tasks, tech writing loses most of its fascination once I’ve figured out how the product works and how I will structure my documentation.

      Sort of like a movie that turns boring once you totally know how it will end… 🙂

  4. […] – Previously in these pages, I’ve covered a how a (non-tech comm) degree can help a tech writer. […]

  5. Kai, I discovered your website today. Well done blog. I agree with your points in this post. I am from Canada and from a tech oriented university – the University of Waterloo in Ontario. My university has a professional communication track in the English department and many of the courses were useful to understand such concepts as usability, human factors, document analysis, and so forth. Surprisingly, however, it was my History major (I majored in both English Lit and History) that gave me my best background for my technical writing profession. Writing history essays require synthesizing a vast amount of facts into something reasonable and coherent, and that has a point to it. Documenting complex products is not all that different. It requires understanding a vast number of facts about the product, and then organizing that information into something reasonable and coherent.

    This is why I am not a fan of the view that best technical writers have engineering or technology backgrounds. Engineers are great at what they do – solving problems. But once the problem has been solved, it needs to be explained. And this is a different skill set, something a humanities degree such as History teaches you.

    • Thanks, Glenn! Sounds like your experience is quite similar to my own, especially when it comes to making sense of something where no check list or no 12 steps necessarily help you to understand it. Considering common wisdom, it seems that our experience cannot be reproduced reliably, unfortunately…

    • A good technical document is a partnership between technical skills and commucation skills, which can often require teamwork to achieve. I agree that engineers don’t always write well, particularly when English (in this case) isn’t their mother tongue. I rewrite manuals written by Chinese engineers and get to see some wonderfully broken English. I tell people that I enable English natively (my own background is science).

      However, over the years of managing localisation projects where I’ve received manuals from many different technical writers, I admit that on several occasions I’ve had problems with the quality of docs I’ve received from writers. English has been fine but content inadequate, incomplete, fluffy, in worst cases even useless. They crafted the English but not the content. And they expect me to spend a small fortune getting this translated?? Apparently yes. When I complained to the tech pubs manager, I would be told that the writer couldn’t get hold of the SME. Period.

      Technical writers need to have a good knowledge of the subject matter they are documenting. This isn’t always the case unfortunately. Getting that balance between technical and communications skills (whether by one person or a team) isn’t always easy.

      • Thanks, Jennifer, for your comment. I agree on your point about teamwork to negotiate technical and communication skills. In the company I work for, I’ve recently had the pleasure to team up with a financial expert to collaborate on manuals about financial instruments such as bonds, swaptions and the like. It was a very fruitful partnership as he ensured the technical accuracy in the text to which I could bring structure and clarity.

        Useless fluff in fine English, as in your example, can definitely occur, but I would consider that as dysfunctional as a web site in a clickable Powerpoint mockup. I can only speculate that writers who would deliver something like this are either part of a broken doc process as a content review should really prevent such results and/or incentivized improperly (coverage or number of words before usefulness).

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