ASTC-NSW 2010 day 1: Towards a unified communication profession

Today I attended the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney. These are the notes that I took during a session by Dr Neil James. All the credit for the content and ideas goes to Neil. Any mistakes are mine!

Neil James is well known for his work with the Plain English Foundation. Today his presentation was entitled, “One profession, many practices – towards a unified communication profession”.

Neil started by explaining that our profession, technical communication, is divided into different roles that are doing more or less the same thing. He proposed the idea that we may at some time move towards a single, unified communication profession.

Problem: No single communication industry

Neil introduced an imaginary test subject. Let’s call him “Fred”. Fred has a number of problems, including illness, a big tax bill for which is about to be prosecuted, and a business report to write on a tight deadline.

For each of these problems except the last, everyone knows of the professional who can help: doctor, tax professional, lawyer. But what about the report writing: Who can help Fred with this task?

Fred does some research on the Internet, and becomes more confused than ever. He finds a number of practitioners, such as technical communicators, editors, information designers, Plain English practitioners, corporate communicators, and so on.

Neil tested his question out on the taxi driver on the way to the conference, with the same result:

“Who would you approach to help you write a report?”
“Oh, dunno mate.”

The relationship between the technical communication fields

In this session, Neil classified communication into four fields:

  • Technical writing
  • Plain language
  • Information design
  • Usability

He examined the relationship between these fields, and how we can move towards a single, unified profession.

He started by giving us examples of how people from the different, related fields tend to criticise each other. For example, technical writers may pull apart the Plain English discipline, simplifying it’s aims to make it seem silly. Neil then showed us some definitions of Plain English and proved that the aims are more or less the same as what technical writers strive for. He broadened this discussion, showing how different sub-disciplines may define a “rival” sub-discipline and then attempt to show that their own field encompasses the narrow aims of that discipline and a broader set of aims too.

Interesting fact: The first published job advertisement for a technical writer appeared in 1951.

Overcoming the rivalry and moving towards a unified discipline

How can we overcome the sibling rivalry in communications practices?

Robert Craig identified 7 traditions of communication theory:

  • Rhetorical
  • Semiotic
  • Phenomenlogical
  • Cybernetic
  • Sociopsychological
  • Sociocultural
  • Critical

Looking at the way Craig discusses these traditions, and then considering our own field, Neil says he realised how closely our sub-disciplines are related to each other. What’s more, he says we fall into the “rhetorical” tradition: Communication as practical discourse.

Neil took us through the history of rhetoric, starting with ancient Greece. He then examined the techniques that the rhetoric practitioners used, and mapped them to what we do in technical communication.

Neil explained that this intellectual tradition offers an underlying theory that we can all work from and has the potential to unite us.

The impact of technology

Technology is another factor that is overriding the split into different sub-disciplines.

Until recently, technology and tools tended to divide us into groups. Specialisations in technology and subject matter tended to separate us. Increasingly those barriers are dissolving. The tools and technology are bringing commonality to our disciplines. Technology makes it possible for a single person to find the information, write the document, design the output and publish it. The software that allows this is now much easier to use.

The technical communication practice of the future will need the strengths of all the sub-disciplines. We should and probably will merge into a single profession. He guesses it will be called information design, or perhaps technical communication.

In the end, it’s all about making the product work for the people. Our product is the technical communication.

Neil says that he has to admit there is also the possibility that we will split into even more, smaller units, confusing Fred even more, and never becoming a single profession. But he argues strongly that we should work towards becoming a single profession. He says that none of the disciplines at the moment has the level of professionalism required to call itself a profession.

Requirements for a profession

Neil has done some research and offers the following requirements for any discipline being able to call itself a profession:

  • Must offer full-time occupation.
  • Work must be based on an extensive theoretical framework. (This is why a mechanic is not a professional, but and engineer is.)
  • Field must have a presence in the universities.
  • Must require an extensive and specific education.
  • Must have a professional association or institute.
    Must test and certify the competence of its practitioners.
  • Must have a code of ethics or code of conduct.
  • Must offer paid work to individual clients.
  • Status of a practitioner must be recognised to improve with growing experience and learning.
  • Must be recognised for the social benefits of the occupation.
  • Must be recognised via governemet regulation and statute.

He then showed a table mapping four technical communication disciplines (technical writing, plain language, information design, usability) against the above criteria, showing that none of the disciplines could claim to satisfy all these requirements.

The final factor

In a world increasing dominated by information, there is a great social benefit in continuing to offer clear and quality communication.


During question time after the session, there was a good question from the audience: With so many different skills in the technical communication field, how can people know what to expect of us if we define ourselves as a uniform profession? Neil’s answer was to compare the legal profession. There are specialists within the field of law. We would be able to retain our specialisation, but also offer a unified framework through some kind of professionalisation process.

My conclusion

Neil is a good and engaging speaker. I enjoyed his presentation, which set me thinking about what we do and how we can work together. Thank you Neil!


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 29 October 2010, in ASTC, technical writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. > Work must be based on an extensive theoretical framework. (This is why a mechanic is not a professional, but and engineer is.)

    I would claim that some mechanics are professionals, some aren’t. The same with some engineers. Some people approach everything with a professional attitude, others don’t.

    • Hallo Matt

      Good point. Perhaps the term “professional” is ambiguous. It may mean that someone approaches their job with a professional attitude, or it may mean that someone belongs to a recognised profession.

      That does beg the question of whether technical communication is already a profession and whether there’s any need to be declared a recognised profession. That’s partly what Neil’s talk was about, though his main point was the unification of the different streams in our field.

      It’s an interesting discussion!


  2. There is a post here:

    that addresses just the same issue in IT teams.

    “Years ago I said that system administration would bifurcate into lower-level workers and higher-level workers, each group adopting different names, training regiments, and professional expectations. The analogy (which I first heard from Adam Moskowitz) was that in electrical work you have engineers that are highly educated and design complex systems; meanwhile you also have electricians who have less education but do their work by following the building codes written for them. System administration, I predicted, would make a similar split.”

    • Quite a coincidence, that the two posts came out within a couple of days of each other. The title, “DevOps ain’t nothing we haven’t been doing for a long, long time”, reminds me of what another speaker at ASTC was saying: Technical writers often hear sentiments like, “What’s the big deal, everyone can write can’t they?” 🙂

  3. Thanks, Sarah. This is fascinating and timely. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) has been seeking to define technical communication as a profession by focusing on three pillars: body of knowledge, code of ethics, and certification.

    After decades in which many of us simply said “Of course we’re a profession,” STC is now telling us, “No you’re not. At least not yet.” James seems to agree, and he’s added an important consideration that we dare not overlook: we have to make ourselves known to the people who’ll employ us. Maybe the taxi drivers won’t know what to call us, but we need to make absolutely certain that C-level executives know.

  1. Pingback: ASTC (NSW) 2010 wrapup « ffeathers — a technical writer’s blog

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