Technical writers: artists or language engineers?

In the past, technical writing was classified as 'Artistic and literary creation' according to the UK Standard Industrial Classification of Economic Activities (www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/classifications/current-standard-classifications/standard-industrial-classification/index.html).

New SIC codes (SIC 2007) take effect in January 2008, and technical writing is still considered 'artistic creation'. Class 90.03 (Artistic creation) includes:

Technical writing as engineering

To categorize technical writing as 'artistic creation' is strange. Ideally, technical writing is engineering.

Fictional writing and technical writing are opposite ends of a scale. At one end, we have the writings of people like Joyce who wrote rambling 'stream-of-consciousness' text. At the other end, we have structured documentation in which we use controlled language, and specifications such as ASD-STE100. The only similarity is that they both use words.

Why isn't technical writing classified under one of these major sections in SIC 2007?

Technical writing as art

Why are technical writers classed with artists? Tom Cuffe from the Office for National Statistics (www.statistics.gov.uk) explained that:

SIC 2007 is legally required to correspond to NACE Revision 2down to and including the 4 digit class level. NACE Revision 2 is derived from the UN's classification International Standard Industrial Classification of all Economic Activities, Revision 4 (ISIC Rev. 4, http://unstats.un.org/unsd/cr/registry/isic-4.asp). Categories at all levels of NACE are defined to be either identical to, or to form subsets of, single ISIC categories.

The international group who prepared ISIC Rev. 4 agreed to put technical writers in the 'artistic creation' category. The EU statistical office (Eurostat, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat) coordinated the EU's contribution to the work on ISIC Rev. 4. Eurostat explained that there was a deep discussion at UN level, and the argument for putting technical writers in NACE Rev. 2 class 90.03 is that their primary skill is the skill of the author, and not the technical aspect. To write a manual, you need the skills of the author to present the topic, whether technical or fictional, to a reader. Without those skills, it does not matter how much of a technical expert you are.

An image problem

Eurostat is correct. The skills needed to present information are very important. (Technical writers are likely to use terms such as 'instructional design' and 'information design', but that does not matter.) However, to put technical writers into the same employment category as cartoonists and writers of fiction is not satisfactory.

By definition, technical writers work in the technology sector. The major section in SIC 2007 into which class 90.03 comes is 'Arts, entertainment and recreation'. According to the document, this "includes a wide range of activities catering for various cultural, entertainment and recreational interests of the general public, including live performances, operation of museum sites, gambling, sports and recreation activities."

A conflict exists between the reality of our work and the SIC class. Does that matter? I think it does; I want my customers to perceive me as a technical person, not as an artistic person (leave that to the marketers, brochure designers, and jingle writers).

See also

Describing our activities

Copywriting and technical writing compared

International English pages on the TechScribe website

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