This spring I had a student who asked me flat out, “So what makes you different from a graphic designer?” I wish I’d had this article from writer Dan Goldstein titled “Drawing a Wall: Where ‘Technical Communication’ Ends and Graphic Design Begins”.
Hard walls and soft walls
I really enjoy how Goldstein outlines the differences between graphic designers and technical writers, between our “soft walls” and our “hard walls”. Soft walls would be those you could easily overcome as a talented and flexible technical writer, maybe learning new software, expanding abilities, etc. Hard walls are those you wouldn’t be able to really overcome, even with determination. In my and Goldstein’s case, illustrations.
The important point, here, though that I think needs more attention is our ability to market ourselves to get beyond those soft walls. Technical writers, you know you do more than write content, but does your boss or, better yet, your company?
As technical writers, we are those infamous “Jacks of all trades”. We write words, yes, but we also write code, analyze data, create visuals, consider design, manage projects, manipulate software, conduct user testing, shall I go on? We do all of this under the guise of just being a “writer”. Sure, we switch out the term “communicator” for writer, but that still doesn’t really define us. Tech writer, consider all your talents and start creating your narrative. You are valuable to any team because you do so much more than write, and you need to be able to sell yourself as such.
“I’m a damn good writer.”
So, at the risk of upsetting many graphic designers, I said to my student, “I’m a damn good writer.” This was not to imply that graphic designers aren’t also good writers, but we have each been trained in our fields, right? I know where my hard wall limits are in terms of graphic design. Sure, I can manipulate Illustrator and Photoshop, and if you give me the data, I can churn out a graphic. But I know if someone came to me and said, “I would like a draft of this manual accompanied by cartoon sketches and 3D illustrations by next week,” I would run as fast as I could to my graphic designer.
I’d also like to think that if a graphic designer were approached and asked to draft the content for the turbofan engine procedures training manual, he or she would jog rather than walk over to my area. I know my limits, yes, but I also know all the skill and talent soft walls I have to climb over to get there.
Chances are, though, a graphic designer wouldn’t be asked to do this. Why? Because graphic designers’ jobs are clear. They design. So, writers we need to be diligent as a profession about defining and selling what we do. Simply saying we’re damn good writers who can design too, probably won’t work. Let’s get creative and start talking it out. I’ll start the storyboard…yeah, we do that,too.
So, be confident all you tech writers. We are hard walls, yes, but we crush soft walls all over the place and bring great value to our teams and employers, and we need to be sure everyone knows it.