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Term talk.

Profession(al,ism): Terms for Technical Communicators?

Wanting to be known as professionals, to belong to a profession, seems to be a major preoccupation with us. The academics want the prestige of teaching in a recognized discipline and want their work accorded the same respect as those who study and research, say, classical literature. The practitioners want to be known as professionals because of the prestige implied by the word and because of the hope for greater respect (and perhaps better pay and job security).

Technical Communication is full of this chase. Going back only six issues, there are articles dealing with

* Professionally oriented master's degree programs (Carliner 1992)

* That crucial component of professionalism, research, in a special issue of nine articles devoted to the topic (Pinelli and Barclay, Eds. 1992)

* Professional recognition and respect through quality (Reilly 1993)

We have a regular column by Charles Beck on "Theory and the Profession" and another by Davida Charney on "Current Research in Technical Communication." "Recent and Relevant" has a section for summarizing articles about "The Profession," and the letters in the Correspondence column regularly bring up the idea of profession and professionalism.

Professional Criteria

The traditional criteria defining a profession include the following:

* Mastery of a specialized body of intellectual knowledge

* Performance of a highly useful social function

* Altruistic behavior; concern with matters vital to clients and putting clients' interests first

* Social sanction as a profession, shown in society's trust of the professionals by allowing self-regulation of the field

All occupations have gradations of these professional attributes; for instance, all occupations have some social utility and entail some level of knowledge that an outsider won't have. Technical communicators are no exception: We meet some of these criteria in part, but we certainly don't meet most.

We don't have common training or education that would allow us to claim a specialized body of knowledge that we all apply in our work. Although there's a lot of Literature being accumulated in the various communication journals, I haven't yet seen much in the way of principles coming out of this research that joins the diverse studies into a "body of knowledge" to be mastered. Much of what is good communication practice is based on hoary rules that have been known for decades.

I certainly think we do perform a socially useful function in facilitating and improving technical communication, but it's tough to have the value of our work recognized--is it because everyone writes and speaks every day, but not everyone performs surgery or represents a client in court? Our altruistic outlook might also seem lacking: Our concern with being professionals seems to be far too much concerned with the status of the communications practitioner than with the interests of our clients.

Finally, we certainly aren't self-regulating. There have been calls for certification from various organizations, and one testing program is underway. But overall, one has to wonder, given the current climate of litigation over everything, whether any program that does more than the most minimalist type of testing will be successful over time.

What's Professional?

Marty Shelton (1993) in the correspondence section of this journal, decried the state of the communication profession, noting that the letters to Technical Communication seem to be overconcerned with typos and minutiae. He stated that the only thing that is of concern is, Did the message get across?

I agree that the number of typos in Technical Communication is well within bounds for a high-quality publication, but I'm not sure that the message getting across is the sole point of importance in our field. Excellence is one of the hallmarks of a professional. That is, not only is the message there, but you aren't distracted by the typography, language, or page layout. The message is there, and it isn't necessary to search through verbosity, redundancy, or opaque prose to find it. The message is there, and you don't have to read and reread and puzzle until your head hurts to understand it.

Somewhere you have to draw a line and say that, despite the message coming across, this isn't professional communication. For example, when I evaluate letters from persons seeking jobs as editors, the letter itself--its form, tone, language, and freedom from errors--is an important factor in whether I will consider the applicant further. The message--I want a job--is invariably clear, but the quality leads me to conclude that this is not a suitable candidate. The lack of quality overwhelms the message.

More Professional?

If we want to be considered more professional, we need to work hard at it. Perhaps the easiest and most visible way to start is to consistently show that we have command of the skills that we claim are the basis of our work. I've read articles on the topic of how to write that were the antithesis of concise, clear, forceful prose. Worse, several of these were published in the technical, not the communications, journals. Some of the technical folks who read these articles may not have even noticed their quality, given their similarity to the technical literature itself. But others, I'm certain, wondered if these authors (and, by extension, the rest of us in the field) knew what good communication is.

When verbose, or confusing, or poorly considered articles are published, we should complain. Scientists and engineers are always chary of criticizing each other's communication skills because, they often say, those skills have nothing to do with the quality of the research. Surely professional communicators cannot legitimately make a similar claim about our writing skills?

Two letters to Technical Communication last year criticized published articles (Petry 1992 and Allen 1992). Those letters drew criticism in turn as "author-bashing" (Duprey 1993) and replies from the authors concerned (VanDeWeghe 1993 and Smudde 1993) that their articles were considered good enough by the editors and peer reviewers to be published. If we're going to be professionals, we will have to be able to give and accept critiques in order to raise the standards against which "good" work is measured. That people take the time to write is commendable, but publication always leaves you open to critique. The fact that an article is peer-reviewed before publication is no defense against criticism that the prose is tough to read or that the author failed to consider the background and knowledge of the readership. The fact that an article is published carries with it no imprimatur that the ideas the author puts forward are correct or well expressed. Professionals should certainly recognize this.

Neither should we ignore oral presentations. Too often, our conferences, like most others, present talks that fail to address what the title advertises, talks that are illustrated with invisible visual aids, and speakers who seemingly can't plan their talk to fit the time allotted.

Wouldn't it be a good idea to show that we can communicate with each other at a level of consistently high (i.e., professional) quality, in print and in writing? We should certainly be able to do this before we set out trying to convince others, who will surely be a tougher sell, of our professionalism.

Finally, an increased focus on our clients' interests might also help us move closer to realizing the definition of a professional. If you want a recipe for how to improve your image and utility as a technical communicator, see the article by Grove, Lundgren, and Hays (1992) in the August 1992 issue. To my mind, it's an ideal prescription for improving our value to our employers--and if we can do that, perhaps it won't be as important whether we're known as professionals or simply as experts.


Allen, J.H. 1992. "Good example of bad writing" (letter), Technical Communication 39, no. 2: 165.

Carliner, S. 1992. "What you should get from a professionally oriented master's degree program in technical communication." Technical Communication 39, no. 2: 189-199.

Duprey, S.F. 1993. "Author bashing decried" (letter), Technical Communication 40, no. 1: 10.

Grove, L.K., R.E. Lundgren, and P.C. Hayes. 1992. "Winning respect throughout the organization." Technical Communication 39, no. 3: 384-393.

Petry, D. 1992. "Guest editorial disputed" (letter), Technical Communication 39, no. 2: 163-164.

Pinelli, T.E. and R.O. Barclay, eds. 1992. "Special issue: Research in technical communication." Technical Communication 39, no. 4: 524-638.

Reilly, A.D. 1993. "Professional recognition and respect through quality." Technical Communication 40, no. 2: 231-233.

Shelton, S.M. 1993. "It's communication, stupid," (letter), Technical Communication 40, no. 3: 367.

Smudde, P.M. 1993. "Authors respond" (letter), Technical Communication 40, no. 1: 10-11.

VanDeWeghe, R. 1993. "Authors respond" (letter), Technical Communication 40, no. 1: 10.
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Title Annotation:technical documentation standards
Author:Nadziejka, David
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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