Online groups, summer 2010
A question about who can become a corporate member of the ISTC became a discussion about what technical communication is.
Most members think that restricting new members is not good. ISTC members can include all people with whom we have something to share. To increase the number of members, we must sell the benefits of the ISTC to people who are interested. We must not have a restricted definition of technical communication.
Because a simple definition of technical communication is not available, some people who are outside our profession do not understand what we do.
Some people who do technical communication work do not call themselves technical communicators. A list of job titles that specifies what technical communicators do is not practical, because a list cannot include all the possible job titles that technical communicators have. The National Occupational Standards for Technical Communicators shows the roles of technical communicators (www.istc.org.uk/professional-resources/national-occupational-standards/).
For one member's comments about the discussion, see www.simple-talk.com/community/blogs/roger/archive/2010/02/02/89303.aspx.
A question about the benefits of the ISTC to members caused much discussion. Some frequently mentioned benefits are as follows:
- Membership helps to show a professional status.
- You can put MISTC or FISTC after your name, which can help you when you apply for a job. Other members did not agree, and wrote that employers value only qualifications from universities and memberships of chartered institutes.
- Professional contacts can be useful if you become self-employed, search for new work, or want to get a professional opinion.
- Communicator, the online groups, and the conference give you industry knowledge.
Volunteering has helped one member to develop her knowledge, skills, contacts and client base. Some clients know nothing about the ISTC but they benefit from her knowledge. When a client asks about things that she does not know, she answers, "I don't know, but I know someone who does."
An important role for the ISTC is to show the 'public face' of the technical communication profession.
A member discussed plain English with his new manager. To edit documents, the manager used an organization that sells plain-English services. The manager did not know about the ISTC. What are the similarities between plain-English organizations and the ISTC? Why do people use plain-English organizations instead of technical communicators?
In the UK, three commercial organizations sell an approval service for plain English:
- Plain English Campaign (www.plainenglish.co.uk)
- Plain Language Commission (www.clearest.co.uk)
- The Word Centre (www.wordcentre.co.uk).
One member wrote that a particular plain-English organization is "just another company trying to sell writing and editing services (as far as I can tell), but it seems to have positioned itself as some sort of national guardian of the language."
Another member wrote that a particular plain-English organization has a simple message: business documents are more effective if you use well-known words, short sentences and correct punctuation. However, technical communication is about much more than only words. For example, technical communication can include information design and the use of graphics. [Editor's note. For the review in Communicator, I incorrectly changed the member's comment to become a comment about all plain-English organizations.]
Plain English does not solve all documentation problems. Long, unclear documents that have a bad structure can be written with simple sentences that use the active voice.
Plain English is not always applicable in formal documents such as international standards. Sometimes, changing a word to a 'simpler' word is not correct. In a training course, a plain-English organization suggested changing 'dwelling house' to 'home'. However, in fire safety legislation, the term 'individual dwelling house' has a particular meaning. Only experts know when to use plain English, and when to keep the technical language.
The ISTC must accept that people will compare plain English and technical communication. Therefore, the ISTC must clearly explain the difference between technical communication and the services that the plain-English organizations offer.