I belong to a technical writing listserv (I know, I'm a wild and crazy girl!), and someone recently posted frustration that some technical writers just aren't interested in furthering their technical knowledge and don't want to take classes to become certified in the newest B+FusionCSD.01*blahblah version 4.285x networking application. Why wouldn't a technical writer be interested in becoming more TECHNICAL?
This question made me gag. I mean, it made me think. It seems that, in my tech writing experience, I have encountered three primary types of technical writers (TWs):
1) TECHNICAL writers: These folks began as programmers or developers but found that they liked and were good at the "writing" end of the spectrum—requirements specifications, user guides, training guides, etc. So they sort of morphed into technical writers. These people have the strong technical background, and many of them are very good writers, particularly when writing for a technical audience.
2) technical WRITERS: These are the English majors and creative writing students who either (a) haven't written their Great Work of Literature yet, or (b) wanted to be college professors but dropped out of the Ph.D. program after becoming disillusioned with the rather twisted world of academia. These folks had the options of teaching school, maybe waiting tables or doing some other non-writing job ... or “selling out” and becoming technical writers. Some of them are horrible TWs and get out of the field as quickly as they got in. Others are able to adjust to the corporate environment; some even move from technical writing to management, training, or marketing. I also think this group of TWs has an edge in writing for a non-technical audience since they are, well, non-technical.
3) Technical Writers: Mostly a new breed of writers, these are the ones who actually decided in college that they wanted to be technical writers and majored in Technical Writing or at least in English with a Technical Writing emphasis. The ones I've met are technically inclined but also love English and writing, and so decided to combine and balance their two interests into a career. A good approach, although I cannot imagine choosing a TW focus as part of an English degree. My whole reason for majoring in English was so I could bury myself in Great Literature Written by Dead People for four glorious years!
Like I said, this crude division of TW "types" is based on my experience--not on research, which may totally disagree with me.
Anyway, in case you haven't already figured it out, I fit squarely into the second type of TWs: technical WRITERS. I'm sure the other "types" probably have some disdain for us; we're often non-technical, humanities-oriented types that never planned to become TWs and don't particularly care to further our technical knowledge any more than necessary to get the job done. Which isn't to say that we don't learn a lot, because we do; you have to become a bit of an expert at something if you're going to write competently about it. But as a tech WRITER, I also depend, first and foremost, on my "non-technical” arsenal: my knowledge of voice, tone, compositional development, organization, audience awareness, effective sentence structuring, etc, etc. And yes, I care about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but that just goes with the territory. At the same time, I recognize that content is most important, and that a misplaced comma or misspelled word isn't (usually) going to make the ship go down.
As a technical WRITER, I see tech writing more as a job than a career. I like the job; I work hard, and I think I’m pretty good at it, but my "career," if you can call it that—writing books and symphonies, being the best pianist I can be, hiking thousands of miles, etc.—hasn't happened yet, at least not on the scale I'd like. My life dreams are something wholly outside of my “day job” of tech writing.
Maybe I'm being unrealistic. Maybe I've "sold out." Maybe I’m lying to myself in saying that tech writing, which I've done for six years now, isn’t my life path. Or maybe I’m just navel-gazing.
But it’s an interesting navel to gaze at, don't ya think? (Don't answer that!)