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Technical Writer or Technical Communicator?

The United States Department of Labor recognizes the profession of technical writer. Many technical communicators regard themselves as technical writers. Many others, however, incorporate, or concentrate on communication techniques other than writing, including editing, indexing, graphic design, video scripting and production, and instructional design.

Proposed Definition of a Technical Communicator

STC’s proposed definition of a technical communicator includes those who:
  • develop and design instructional and informational tools needed to assure safe, easy, proper, and complete use of technical goods.
  • combine multi-media knowledge and strong communication skills with technical expertise to educate across the entire spectrum of users’ abilities, technical experience, and visual and auditory capabilities.
A proposed revision by the initial TCBOK task force recommends to define technical communicators as those who:
  • develop and design instructional and informational tools needed to assure safe, easy, proper, and complete use of technical goods.
  • contribute to business goals by designing and enhancing internal communications and by reusing content in cost-effective ways.
  • combine multi-media knowledge and strong communication skills with technical expertise to educate across the entire spectrum of users’ abilities, technical experience, and visual and auditory capabilities.
Technical communication began in the modern era as technical writing and has transformed to include many types of media and communication. This transition has required the field to redefine technical communication.
  • In his book Technical Communication, Mike Markel notes that technical communication is a form of composition and the foundation of all composition is rhetoric, “Technical communication is not a strange and exotic form of encryption; it is simply another kind of composition. It follows, then, that technical communication and composition share the same foundation: rhetoric” (Markel 2007).
  • In a November 1995 Technical Communication article, Pamela S. Ecker argues against definition. “Rather than expending additional energies in tedious debates about definitions, current practicing professionals of technical communication (whatever we think it is) in both academe and industry should simply acknowledge that all communication – whether it is primarily ‘technical’ or whether it better fits another genre – is multidisciplinary and constantly evolving. Then we should simply get on with our work” (Ecker 1995).
  • In a 1990 Journal of Advanced Composition article that was reprinted in the 2004 text Central Works in Technical Communication, Dale Sullivan underscores the political and ethical implications of defining technical communication solely as a “practice” and not including the humanistic aspects of rhetorical discourse.
Although these references are older, the topic of defining technical communication is regularly revisited in current technical communication publications.

Some Ideas from an STC Summit

The following comments are from an STC Summit session that asked participants to provide a brief definition of a technical communicator:
  • A person who receives complicated information and interprets it into easily understood language for people to use.
  • We communicate specialized information in a wide variety of formats to a wide variety of audiences.
  • Technical communicators explain specialized information about subjects such as technology, regulations, and procedures in a very simple manner.
  • Technical communicators can organize and explain complex concepts in medicine, business, technology, and other fields so that ordinary people can understand and use the information.
  • Technical communicators do a lot more than write. There used to be a multitude of specialists, like production specialists and typographers. Now, we do it all.
  • Writer is a limited term that assumes a single channel. Communicator is a much broader term that includes visual and other channels.