Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"technical writer"

Google Ngram for Technical Writer

Since the prevailing opinion in the #techcomm blogosphere seems to be that those of us who have been called technical writers for the past 35 years or so will not be called technical writers in 10 years, I got to wondering how far back the term goes, when usage peaked, and when the current decline began. Therefore, I ran a Google Ngram search on the term "technical writer". The Google Books corpus only includes works up to the year 2008, so the recent changes in terminology aren't captured, but we can get a little insight from past usage.

The little blip in 1806 is a bunch of references in various articles to the same passage in Knight's Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste about Homer's Iliad. While not strictly about a technical writer in the modern sense, the list of subjects for such a writer does sort of overlap with what we think of as technical.

The author of the Iliad has described every thing, in which error or inaccuracy might be detected, either by experience, or demonstration. The structure of the human body ; the effects of wounds ; the symptoms of death ; the actions and manners of wild beasts ; the relative situations of cities and countries ; and the influence of winds and tempests upon the waters of the sea, are all described with a precision, which, not only no other poet, but scarcely any technical writer upon the the respective subjects of anatomy, hunting, geography and navigation has ever attained.
The earliest use I could find of the term in the sense of writing about technology is from a brief book review in The British Architect from 1882. I like that the reviewer comments on how clear and precise it is. Clarity and precision are still good things to have in content.

No engineering draughtsman or foreman should be without a little work entitled "Details of Machinery" (Crosby Lockwood & Co., 3s.), which Mr. Francis Campin has just written, and which forms an entirely new addition to Weale's Series. It is a wonder a work exactly of this kind has not appeared before; it is here now, however, from a careful technical writer, and will much enrich the invaluable series amongst which it is published. The intelligent appreciation of what is required from the details of machinery is a most important matter, and it is only by the acquirement of sound knowledge of this kind that the able draughtsman or machinist is made. Mr. Campin's writing is clear and precise, and the engravings well chosen; throughout the author has adhered strictly to simple arithmetic, not having used even a plus or minus sign, or any of the calculations, which are illustrated by examples worked out in full.

As you can see from the graph, use of the term technical writer peaked in 1961, declined a bit, then started to rise again in the mid-1970s, continuing to rise with ups and downs to a new peak in 2000, though slightly lower than the 1961 peak. Interestingly,  a 1958 article in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication asks the question "What Can the Technical Writer of the Past Teach the Technical Writer of Today?" The same article also makes a distinction between the role of technical writer and technical editor. A 1957 issue of The Writer, a journal for writers mentions "a comparatively new job category, this profession of technical writer. The greatest boost came during the war..."  Ads for technical writer as a job category seem to have begun to appear between 1953 and 1958 in such magazines as New Scientist and The Manager.

The peak in 1961 marks the appearance of handbooks for technical writers, books about technical writing, and style manuals.  There are lots of journal articles with "technical writer" in the title or abstract, many bunched up between the beginning of 1960 and the end of 1962. (I could spend days going through them all, but I'm doing a blog post here, not a PhD dissertation.) Handbooks, style guides, and "how to become a technical writer" books continue to be common in the corpus well into the 1990s. References to technical writing for the computer industry start showing up in the mid-1970s. 

The end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century seem to have pretty much the same kinds of books and articles, with the addition of books about how to turn your creative writing expertise into money as a technical writer and referring to technical writing as a prospective career for teens in the arts . One book, How to Become a Technical Writer: You Can Earn a Great Living as a Writer Now!  from 2001 tells us "If you can write clear, concise instructions, then you can be a technical writer."  Hmm, that was pretty much still true in 2001.

The slope of the decline after the peak in 2000 starts to get steeper around 2006.  My scan of the literature didn't turn up much change in the types of books and articles except that novels start to appear in the mix, most notably R.J.R. Rockwood's The Last Ant: Elegy for a Technical Writer in 2007. Other novels have technical writers as characters but don't deal directly with the decline of the American computer/software industry. Even Rockwood's novel seems to deal more with the place of the individual in the corporation than with the end of technical writing as a such.

I can't find any pointers to what was going on in the literature between 2008 and 2011 because the data ends in 2008.  It will be interesting to see what the literature about technical writing looks like in 2021, assuming Google continues to add new data to the corpus.

It's hard to conclude anything about the future of techncial writing from this stroll through the past. However, I will continue to call myself a technical writer.

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