Re: Subject matter experience

Subject: Re: Subject matter experience
From: Yvonne DeGraw <yvonne -at- SILCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 22 May 1996 10:35:06 -0700

Faith Weber <weber -at- easi -dot- com> asked:
>Let me open another can of worms. What degree of subject
>matter experience do you think is needed for a writer on a
>particular job?

Actually, I'd like to see this one discussed on the list. I think it goes
to some important questions about "core competencies" for technical
writers, an issue STC is in the process of examining.

It depends on the audience. With a more advanced or technical audience, the
writer needs more subject matter experience. With a "general consumer"
audience, the writer needs less subject matter experience.

For example, if you are writing for programmers, you should know enough
about programming so you don't sound stupid. If you are writing about a
word processor, you need to use word processors yourself. For
database-driven software, it depends on whether the audience will be using
the database or creating and maintaining it.

The underlying technology used to create the software is often different
from the application of that technology. Documenting a database application
for accounting requires more knowledge about accounting than about
databases. Understanding the underlying technology is good--but mainly
because it makes it easier to communicate with developers and to have input
into product design.

I'm not saying this type of knowledge can't be gained "on-the-job".
Companies that want specific subject matter expertise can either pay more
for someone with that experience or hire someone who can learn it.

>A related question: do you think the best tech writers specialize
>in a subject matter area, or diversify? Is that even a factor
>in determining who "the best" are?

It's hard to judge what is "best". I've always enjoyed the process of
gaining "deep" knowledge about some area. But, sticking to a single area
would get dull. I've gained subject matter experience in one area at a
time. Eventually, that adds up to a lot of loosely related areas. Since I
became a contractor, I've diversified somewhat -- but currently most of my
work is related to the Web.

I'll be interested to hear others' opinions on this question.

Yvonne DeGraw, Technical Services o Web Authoring
yvonne -at- silcom -dot- com o Technical Writing o Database Design and Publishing
Tel: 805/683-5784 o User-Interface Design
(Check out my latest project--the NanoTheater at

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