Do we understand ourselves?

People don’t understand us. From the first time I met a technical writer, I’ve heard them — I’ve heard us — say that.

Our bosses don’t understand us. Subject-matter experts don’t understand us. Our audiences don’t understand us.

So, at long last, we have a chance to change that. A few days ago on Twitter, an app designer named Louie Mantia put this out to the world:

As Louie’s tweet kept popping up in my timeline — with answers from journalists, lexicographers, and historians — I pondered how a technical writer might answer.

It was harder than I expected.

First take

First I thought of answering Louie’s question like this: Our top priority is writing directly to the people who use the instructions.

Then, in my imaginary dialog, I heard a resounding yawn from the general public: Of course you write for the people who use the instructions. For us. Who else would you write for?

Writing for the audience. While we technical writers trumpet it as a big deal, to our audience it’s so blindingly obvious that it goes without saying.

Second take

So I tried a different approach. Technical writers think in terms of how to use a product, not how the product works.

General public: We know that! It’s common sense, right? I don’t need to know how an internal-combustion engine works. I just want to change the oil.

Third take

crowd of people

Might the people understand us better than we think?

My third try: We work hard to tailor our information to our audience — in terms of both content and media.

GP: Hmm. The tailoring part, again, should go without saying. Maybe we don’t understand why you have to work so hard.

After all, when we get it right, it looks effortless. And when we get it wrong, it looks like we haven’t tried at all.

I began to realize that the skills we technical writers prize the most and discuss the most among ourselves, like audience analysis and media expertise, are things that — in the minds of our customers — ought to be second nature.

When we say that people don’t understand us, it’s not because they don’t grasp our skill set. It’s because they don’t realize how much energy we devote to honing those skills and to reminding each other how important they are.

Why do we need to remind each other of things that are so fundamental? Is it because our perspective is skewed from spending too much time with our work colleagues (especially Development) and not enough time with our customers?

Maybe it’s not that people understand us. Maybe we don’t understand ourselves.


I finally did answer Louie’s question about what seems obvious to us but is misunderstood by the general public.

What do you think of my answer? How would you have answered?

Do you think our customers would be surprised to learn how much time we spend talking about things that, to them, ought to be second nature?








3 thoughts on “Do we understand ourselves?

  1. Mark Baker

    The purpose of a profession is to encapsulate complexity. Any profession that is not misunderstood by the general public is therefore not doing its job. Indeed, this is about the only argument I can think of for calling technical communication a profession. If the public understood it, it would be a job not a profession.

    But my answer to Louis’ question would be:

    “The curse of knowledge — the inability to explain things once you understand them yourself.”

    Writing good documentation is hard because we all suffer from the curse of knowledge, a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for us to imagin people not knowing what we know, not understanding what we understand, and not using words the way we use words.

    Problem is, that is not a good answer. Why not? Because the question asks what seems obvious in your profession, and the sad fact is that most technical writers have no idea about the curse of knowledge and take no step to overcome it, which is why so much documentation sucks despite being neat, grammatical, and correctly spelled. The fact is, you can study your subject matter and your audience all day, but if you are not conscious of the curse of knowledge as you do this, you will fall into it just like everyone else.

    And maybe that is why I have trouble calling technical communication a profession, because it so often fails to encapsulate the complexity it should. The problem then is not that the public does not understand, but that it understands and is not impressed.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. I think you’re onto something. Perhaps the curse of knowledge is the blind spot that keeps so many technical writers from serving their customers effectively, and from understanding our craft. I’d like to hear what other readers think.

  2. Nina

    Hello Larry and Mark, I think it’s only part of the problem… because, IMHO, you both still think inside your circle(s). But if you move outside of it, which means think what non-technical writers think or see, you will come to realize that it is about the basics, really: “Only a (technical) writer can understand what a (technical) writer’s pain is…”
    The problem with any writing profession is that people who don’t write on a regular basis only see writing ones moving fast on their keyboards, words being churned out – and at the end of the day, i.e. project, a nice new page appears, images included perhaps, a few diagrams, some nice wording (more or less).
    But especially technical writing to me is a kind of ‘translation’ process: you take the technical background information and the usage information of the application (device), you talk to SMEs and you also try it out yourself to find out what is working, what is not – and why.
    Then you take all this information, make a concept (if you haven’t already) of ordering the information, plan when and where to take screenshots or include diagrams. And only after that the writing starts. And then you have to go through it yourself again and again to check if wording and structure are easy to understand, yet not too simple. Then the review process starts. And you go through it again… and so on. THIS is what most people don’t know about. And even those who do, don’t often realize, how much time, effort and emotion as well as (language) skills are required.
    Thanks for the thoughts above! Like to share with others.


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