Bones, NASA, and Technical Writing

“I’m a doctor, not an engineer.” This is a famous catch phrase from Bones in the original Star Trek. I’m not sure the origin of it, but I always thought it had something to do with how NASA approached getting to the moon in the 1960s. When faced with the problem of communicating between scientists and with the public through the media, they decided to hire communicators and writers instead of forcing scientists to be writers. So this line from Bones seems to be a homage to that idea.

This approach allowed everyone to concentrate on their specialty—to focus on what they were good at. They didn’t call these people technical writers back then, that term wasn’t coined as a job title until about 1980, but this to me seems to be the origin of technical writing. I guess that’s why I always connected technical writing to science fiction, which somehow made it a palatable professional pursuit.

These days though, it seems the whole notion of what a technical writer does, the role they fill, has gotten lost. There are companies that don’t even have a technical communications division, and often when I speak to human resources people we talk in circles around the whole notion of what a technical writer does. I’m working for a company now where for the first time in a long time I found someone who speaks the same language when it comes to technical writing. The company has no technical communications division, and technical writing has been split among content writers (basically tech writing on their own stuff) and QC people who’ve created their templates. Meanwhile I work a temp job in QC, only using my writing skills on the side with promises that I’ll become a regular employee. It’s an uphill battle.

I imagine that people with MBAs are responsible for getting rid of technical communicators. I’m sure the mentality of ‘why hire a writer when you can force your scientists to do it’ is at work here. Except scientists don’t think like communicators and they often write shitty sentences. Of course, not wanting to appear the fool, most people will say ‘sure I get what you mean’ (when they don’t quite understand it). Then they wonder why the rocket blew up on the launch pad.

It’s gotten so bad that the Society for Technical Communicators is considering changing the definition of technical writing, and most of their definitions are already so general that they could mean almost anything. There’s this great void in communications, people misunderstanding people, and that creates a general angst in the society. Communication is a fundamental aspect of creating community, but most people today in America seem to equate it to communism. So we fly off to the right where whoever shouts the loudest gets to decide what’s what.

Working in the medical field I think the time might come soon where I will need to shout, “I’m a technical writer, not a doctor.” Probably get me fired lol.


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