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Monday, February 9, 2009

Where the editorial grass is greener

Can a writer transition from technical communications to MarCom work mid-career? In the past few weeks several friends with extensive experience in technical writing and editing have voiced just such an ambition. One wrote:

"I want to shift away from computer-related content, but I'm finding it difficult to make the case that my experience in technical editing carries over to editing other types of material."

As someone who's played the role of a writer or editor in a wide range of areas over the past several years before settling in MarCom territory, I think I can shed some light on why technical writers and editors are rarely a good fit in marketing or corporate communications teams. The following remarks are in no way intended to disparage MarCom folks, or technical communications folks. But it's become clear to me that these are two quite different cultures, and a transition between them is far more drastic than most people realize.

These days I am blessed to work closely with an experienced technical editor (and procedures writer) who copy edits my work on websites and catalogs. However, on the occasions that I ask him to edit my writing for brochures, blogs, and sales letters, we both take a deep breath and know there are going to be some frustrations. Here's why:

• As a technical editor, he wants to correct everything; as a MarCom writer, I only want corrections done to a certain level. The document shouldn't embarrass anyone, but if two words are hyphenated in a footnote on page two, and don't have a hyphen in the index 70 pages later? Big deal.

• As a technical editor, he cringes at jargon, sentence fragments, hyperbole, and little gaps in logic. These are pretty much the hallmarks of MarCom writing.

• As a technical communicator, he'd like to see the style guide I'm using. Oh dear. Many of my clients don't have style guides, and, if they did, they probably wouldn't refer to them.

If things get a bit edgy when a technical editor and a MarCom writer collaborate, things can get even more stressful when a technical writer embarks on a MarCom writing assignment. Here are the areas where significant cultural disconnects tend to occur:

Balance. If a product has eight features, the technical writer wants to see each feature given equal space, or at least equal weight in the formatting. When I'm wearing my MarCom hat, I'm likely to go on at length about the hottest two features, mention a couple of others in the next paragraph, and completely ignore the rest; after all, they're covered in the attached specs. When I try to sell this approach to someone from a technical communications background, the reaction is either incredulity or contempt.

Time/money. I hesitate to describe actual incidents here, but my experience has been that technical writers are used to long timelines (measured in weeks) and a period at the beginning of the project in which many, detailed questions are discussed with the client. The technical writer often expects to be able to ask the client questions as they work.

By contrast, MacCom writers are used to getting a short, initial briefing and a 48-hour deadline for creating a strong document, or at least a sample section. When it comes to formatting and style, the writer is often expected to make independent decisions and recommendations to the client. Relying on the formatting or style of previous documents rarely works, because the client company is inevitably in the process of changing designs (or designers).

The MarCom team is also likely to change the scope of the project in mid-stream — dramatically, at times — and the writer dives in afresh. Technical writers tend to regard it as poor planning when what started as an eight-page brochure ends up as a two-page brochure with a sales letter attached. The MarCom writer accepts it as business as usual.

One technical writer was shocked to see a Marcom client of mine review something I'd spent several hours on, announce "We want something completely different," and send me off in a whole new direction — with a deadline in 24 hours. The technical writer viewed that at a scandalous waste of the client's money; I had to keep pointing out that the client was spending the money, not me, and my initial piece of writing may well have been an experiment the client needed to see as part of their process.

So, here's the bottom line, and my advice to technical communications folks who want to move into MarCom: If you can thrive in a fast-moving, free-form, sometimes dramatic environment, go for it. But if you love a good style guide, a detailed production schedule, and documents that emerge looking pretty much the way they were described in the initial assignment? Don't give up your technical communications job.


  1. This is a test of commenting for this blog using the Safari browser (Leopard).

  2. Thank you for describing the cultural differences so clearly. In my Technical Writing career I've had some decidedly MarCom flavored experiences -- and those have been my favorite times. Tech writing has been good for me, but I'd probably be happier flying with the MarCom flock.