Even after four years of studying professional and technical communication, I dread answering one question: what does a technical communicator do? I could give someone a bulleted list of all the things my technical communication classes have trained me to do, but that’s not an option when you’re just having a casual conversation. One of the roles of a technical communicator is our ability to adapt and communicate to an audience through various outlets, which means, yes, you need to learn how to explain what you actually do as a technical communicator.
This is easier when you have a job with set roles, but as a technical communication student, you’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Trying to pin down what you do into a simple description can be pretty tough, and oftentimes, I fall back on the biggest faux-pas in the industry, telling people, “I write manuals and stuff.”
Unless you actually want to make a career out of “writing manuals and stuff”, this isn’t exactly the best response. While writing and user guides are major components of the field, the “and stuff” part of the technical communicator’s job is more broad than “and stuff” would make it seem.
So What Falls Under “And Stuff”?
The oh-so-vague “and stuff” depends on the field you want to work in. Since technical writers tend to be jacks-of-all-trades, there are many shoes they can fill. Some tech comm jobs are easier to explain. Medical writers develop a wide range of content for health businesses. Grant and proposal writers primarily write grants and proposals (duh) for a variety of businesses. And social media writers engage a business’s audience through online and social media outlets.
But what about the technical communicator that isn’t fully defined or doesn’t know what field to go into? Are these the foretold manual writers who do other stuff on the side? Kind of, but not really. While some may primarily write user guides, many technical communicators have jobs that involve more than writing manuals. Many even have job responsibilities that aren’t limited to writing. Let’s look at two jobs that aren’t so easy to explain: the technical writer/editor and the content manager.
There’s the classic technical writer and editor category of writers. While, yeah, they tend to mostly write user guides, they may also develop presentations, write reports, or create web content. Contrary to the job title though, you’re not just writing and editing. You’re expected to familiarize yourself with the content, plan projects, and explain content to an audience through not only written communication, but also verbal and media communication.
There’s also the content developer and manager category of technical writers whose “and stuff” is more along the lines of developing web content and marketing materials. They primarily plan, develop, and manage content. They’re similar to social media writers, but with more managing and fewer cat videos.
So how exactly do you answer someone when they ask what you do as a technical communicator? You can look at the type of job you’re aiming for and give them a specific answer, or if you’re not sure what category you’re interested in, you can simply say, “Technical communicators develop content for audiences, whether it’s through social media or more technical documents.”
By understanding what the different categories of technical communicators do, you can articulate your career’s purpose and fix the mistake early technical communicators have made by telling people, “I write manuals and stuff.”
Brumberger and Lauer. The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Postings. Technical Communication. 62(4). November 2015.