Learning and Development

Technical Writer? Or Instructional Designer?

“You tidy words up, don’t you?”


Perhaps you’re curious. Perhaps you’d like to know what a technical writer really does?

Don’t they wall themselves off, hibernate from humanity and only emerge through a single person crevice?

Do they then re-emerge brandishing a finished, poetically written, exquisitely prosed work instructions? Or a golden policy or procedure?

Or is there more unwritten pages to the role?

“Are you a spy?”

Close but no unbuttoned trenchcoat. We do find out hidden secrets. We find out those closeted snippets of knowledge that enable an organisation to operate. That knowledge that lies between the known documents and the unknown expertise.

“So you ask questions then. Are you an interrogator?”

Only if your answers are monosyllabic. Only if your answers already are documented and you’re confirming known knowledge. Besides if you think I’m an interrogator, I’d be sitting back and telling you all my past secrets hoping you’d tell me yours.

“A historian?”

“Yes you are good. Close but not yet there.”

Technical writers are much like historians. We take the past and are able to interpolate it in the present. Much like the enquiring mind that can work out who really killed Arthur of Brittany!

“An archivist?”

” Only afterwards. Only after it’s determined what’s to be kept and what needs to be stored for history’s sake.”

“A spy, an interrogator, a historian and archivist rolled into one?”

All clues to the final answer.

A technical writer is an interpreter. He or she first takes the often unspeakable hieroglyphics that comprise business documents. Then he or she asks the missing questions.

With the answers found he or she structures, simplifies, summarises and sequences that documentation in the hope that it will be clear. As birdsong. A tune that only the right audience knows, lyrics that they can understand so they dance as they apply that knowledge to their working lives.

Unless I’m an instructional designer as well!

By Andrew Whalan

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