(published in the ISTC newsletter, Oct 2012)
A great deal of the literature surrounding technical authorship makes the career path seem out of reach to those without a strong technical background or qualifications in science, engineering, or information technology . Even just a quick glance at job descriptions for the role will highlight this. As well as seeming unsuited academically for these professions, Arts students could be excused for assuming that there would be nothing of interest to them in such a role due to the emphasis on extensive industry knowledge and experience.
I write this article as someone who is more into Charlotte Bronte than Chemistry and Biology, who would prefer to read Phileas Fogg than a Physics Blog, who knows more about Alan Bennett than Alan Turing, who is more into Charles Dickens than Charles Darwin and who has read everything by Stephen Fry and not a word by Stephen Hawking.
I also write this article as a Technical Author in the Semiconductor field.
My pathway to Technical Authorship has not been conventional and I would like others to be able to see that it is not a career solely for engineers with an average of 15 years of industry knowledge.
My degree was in Italian, and I followed this with postgraduate study in Translation Studies during which time I avoided the Technical Translation options like the plague in favour of much more flowery literary translation. I then went into the Children’s Book Division in publishing.
It was a move home to Wales that resulted in me applying for a job as a Technical Author. The job description asked for a degree in engineering but I was fortunate to be offered the role based on previous experience in a publications department, good qualifications in English at ALevel, publishable English from the Translation Studies course, and my agreement and enthusiasm to study for a Diploma in Technical Authorship and to undergo product training.
Having been in the role for almost two years, upon reflection I can see how nearly all of the skills that I learned as a translator are utilised daily. My main area of postgraduate research was in the area of crossing cultural boundaries. In translation this means conveying the message from one culture to another and using appropriate language for the target audience in order to get the message from the source text across despite an assumed lack of understanding of the source culture. Transferring cultural references requires only some knowledge of the source culture, but extensive knowledge of the target culture and audience. Similarly, technical authoring requires the transference of the Subject Matter Expert’s knowledge to the target audience according to their knowledge and requirements. This also requires only some knowledge of the industry (source culture) and extensive knowledge of the target audience so as to make the end result comprehensible.
In translation, the target audience is the deciding factor in any choice of word that is translated, and we cannot simply choose the style of language that we like or think sounds nice. We as translators are the portal between the two sides. Instead of a foreign language, we are dealing with complex engineering procedures, and instead of literary English the target language is comprehensible instructions, tailored to the audience’s education and experience.
I am close to completing the second part of the Technical Authorship course and I have discovered that I enjoy many elements of commercial writing. It challenges me and I am always learning something new. My aim is to complete the course and do as much freelance commercial writing as possible. I find it varied and am enjoying the balance between creativity and fixed structure.
The specifics of the content required for technical authorship and commercial writing can be learned, and it is the communication skills, an aptitude for precision in document production, an eye for detail, and enjoyment of writing that will prove successful in this career. I am in no way disputing the fact that hands on experience in the desired field, combined with study of Technical Authorship or strong English skills, is a very appealing combination for an employer, but it is also very true and often overlooked that one can be taught how a piece of machinery is assembled but it is harder to impart an aptitude with language and experience in producing accurate publishable pieces of work.
In light of this, and my own experience, I would like Technical Authorship and Commercial Writing to be more accessible to those with an Arts background.