Why Academics Make Good Tech Writers

Higher education gets ever more expensive and academic jobs ever scarcer, and this year there’s a new crop of essays instructing people who might not have noticed that a Ph.D in the humanities is a very expensive amusement. It is not, however, as described, a life sentence to professional irrelevance. It’s even possible to gain skills there that are highly transferable to the World Outside.

Having become a technical writer 12-odd years ago straight out of a Ph.D program in Victorian literature, I now hire and manage writers for a software company, and while I haven’t yet hired someone who is a direct escapee of the ivory tower, an awful lot of the best tech writers have a Masters or better in something that isn’t a STEM field.

Lots of people assume the best tech writer hire is someone who is a technical person who has learned to write. I’m sympathetic to the idea that the best writers are also tinkerers, but the converse is not always true. The problem here is NOT that engineers can’t write grammatically. The problem is that most engineers are not trained to understand documentation as a set of choices.  Anyone who’s worked on an engineering floor has encountered the bizarre idea that code is an inspiring creative medium that can spawn innumerable variations and effects, but that there is only one accurate way to write a sentence and the main job of writers is to clean up commas in the accurate sentences, possibly adding an adjective or two for color. This outlook is not conducive to producing coherent, readable docs, and it is evident in many of the resumes I’ve received from would-be career-changing programmers.

Academics in the humanities, on the other hand, have a lot of experience with information. Here are a number of things to be said for recovering academics as technical communicators:

1. Academia gives you expert training in unpacking the minds of eccentric monomaniacs. Tech writers who are any good have to be advanced geek whisperers. Interviewing someone obsessed with the obscurities of packet loss is not terribly dissimilar from picking the brain of someone who expects you to understand and care whether those curly bits in Blake’s prints were accidental by-products of acid engraving, or intentional punctuation.

2. Having stuck it out in the academy even long enough to get an M.A., most academics enjoy the company of geeks, even if they are not themselves geeks. (I am. Not all academics are.)

3. Academics have learned to do research. This is rarer than you think in business circles. Presenting multiple sides of a question, documenting what was already discovered and dismissed, providing contextual framework: these are all skills you have if you got anywhere with your humanities work. Does that qualify you to write crisp, relevant instructions? Very possibly not. You may have to unlearn some habits of obsessive completism and smack down your tendency to nest information in dependent clauses, but that’s easier than learning how to notice what information you’re missing and go track it down.

4. Academics are information specialists. Take that 20-page term paper, repackage it as a journal article, turn it into a 20-minute conference presentation, pitch it to the Journal of the Victorian Botanical Novel, rework it as part of a lecture for your survey class: we’ve all done it. We’re used to editing our stuff down and viciously redlining it.

5. (Most) academics are humble about what they don’t know. A Ph.D. is often an apprenticeship in learning about your own ignorance.

6. Most of us have been teachers. If you’ve taught, you have thought about audiences, attention spans, vocabulary level, and how to write headings that will PLEASE GOD MAKE SOME KID NOTICE THE ATTENDANCE POLICY in that sea of text.

7. We pretty much know you can learn anything, if you really have to.  We all had to learn Milton or Linear B or Latin for Reading Knowledge or something else we cared vanishingly little about for a degree requirement. Once, I read Beowulf in Anglo Saxon. And once, I knew all about the TCP/IP stack. I could know about them again and teach other people if you paid me to do that.

Will every academic from the humanities be a great tech writer? No. Some don’t have any technical interests, a few are pompous asses who like sneering at other people’s grammar*, and some are just not interested in being practical. But it’s a lot more likely than the idea that the skills that make you a success at academics are completely non-transferable.

*Their composition students hated them too.