Saturday, January 12, 2008

A rose by any other name might have more syllables--
Two blogs in one day! But my last blog was 14 hours and another Board of Directors meeting day, so that's got to be 3 dog days at least.

I annoyed some folks today by referring to what we do as technical writing and by referring to myself as a technical writer. Then I totally blew it by referring to the people who consume what I produce as readers. Seriously, I could tell that I was a major disappoint to them, so it made me pause and think. I have noticed lately that I have been referring to myself that way, not necessarily consciously, but purposely enough to notice that I was doing it. Now that I know I'm disappointing and alarming some folks by doing it, I've decided to reflect and try to understand why I have reverted to these somewhat retro terms.

I think there are a couple of things going on. For one, I'm a little embarrassed by the sometimes pretentious sounding titles we use. My current job title is user assistance architect. I just feel less pretentious telling folks I'm a technical writer. I'm not particularly embarrassed by its more blue collar appeal.

But mainly, I think I am rebelling somewhat against the idea that people didn't respect the job we did because we were called technical writers, and somehow changing it to technical communicators will get us the respect we deserve. It just seems to take our eye off the real ball: When we truly add value and articulate it in real terms, people notice. It has nothing to do with what we call ourselves.

For example, I am aware that businesses need a lot of advanced products and services to support their analysis of data that goes well beyond the need for calculators. But it doesn't bother me that the company I work for that provides all of those advanced needs is called International Business Machine. Nor am I concerned when using an ATM that it was made by a company called National Cash Register. I know their names are somewhat steeped in the technology of their origins, not in their technology or business practices of today. Granted, their names have morphed into acronyms, but they serve as examples (along with the NAACP) that if your actions and results clearly communicate your value, out-of-date names don't seem to be so problematic.

So in the close circle of associates who know my body of work and who see me in my professional environment, I'm going to keep calling myself a technical writer; it's clear, and "writer" is only 2 syllables whereas "communicator" is 5. Plus it's a designation my dog can understand--I think "communicator" throws her. And in my case, it's what I do: I write about technical stuff. I further suspect it's what a LOT of us do.

But I also realize the benefit a name change can have in supporting a changing vision, so I will use technical communication in my public communications--if for no other reason so it quits being an irritant to my professional colleagues.

I'm also going to keep pushing that we focus on defining how we can add real value and quit worrying so much about what we call ourselves.

1 comment:

Miranda said...

Great post Mike! I’ve had this thought before and I’m so glad to see I’m not alone here.

It seems ironic to me that my career is to facilitate understanding, yet I have a title that obfuscates my purpose. "Information Developer" requires explanation, while "Technical Writer" almost always communicates just enough information.

For example, in a casual conversation, my audience only cares that I'm a writer. In a work situation, my audience only cares to distinguish me from other writers and even then, they need more information that my current title provides. Further, every time I tell someone my degree is in "Technical Communication," they think that I work in the telecom industry or that I'm in marketing. Calling myself a "technical writer" actually communicates what I do faster and more effectively - isn’t that the whole point?

My point is that these titles seem counter to the very principles of technical communication. And, I worry that all they make us appear that we’re trying to make a silk purse out of pig’s ear, which does more to damage our credibility that build it up.