64.3, August 2017

Articulating Value Amid Persistent Misconceptions About Technical and Professional Communication in the Workplace

By Emily January Petersen, Weber State University


Purpose: The current conditions of technical and professional communication (TPC) practice reveal that the field has work left to accomplish in terms of proving value across disciplines. This article suggests that articulating the value of TPC is an ongoing process, particularly for practitioners, who have found ways to combat stereotypes.

Method: Findings are based on 39 qualitative, semistructured interviews with female practitioners of TPC. Participants were solicited across the United States and varied in age, class, industry, organization, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, and marital/family status. This article uses feminist research methodologies, with data from semistructured interviews analyzed through feminist content analysis.

Results: The data suggests that TPC is still considered to be expendable in workplaces. Participants highlighted the misconceptions and mischaracterizations of their work, including the myths that TPC work is cosmetic, secretarial, unarticulated, unnecessary, invisible, and unquantifiable. However, practitioners are moving forward despite these misconceptions. They face a host of pressures, but these conflicts are opportunities to prove value and change misconceptions.

Conclusion: Devaluation continues to permeate the profession, but practitioners have become skilled at combatting it. They know that educating others on the value of TPC is an ongoing project, highlighting the ability of practitioners to be an integral part of an expanding knowledge economy, all-edge adhocracies, and unique and networked organizations. Practitioners and scholars must continue to challenge and change stereotypes about TPC.

Keywords: Value, Stereotypes, Practitioners, Workplaces

Practitioner’s Takeaways

  • Practitioners must advocate by explaining, performing, and making visible the innovative and important work of TPC. Educating managers and colleagues about the value of TPC continues to be a critical part of the workplace experience.
  • Practitioners may perpetuate instrumental characterizations of TPC by acting as proofreaders. Practitioners must engage in complex documentation and collaborative tasks and avoid contributing to commodity writing by anticipating and driving change (Ames, 2003).
  • Practitioners should claim authority over their work and articulate its impact on many stakeholders and organizational processes.
  • Practitioners must use interpretive conventions and rhetorical analyses to determine ways of speaking about accomplishments that mirror the expectations of the organization.


Research often emerges from personal places, and this article draws on research I conducted because of my experiences as a technical writer and editor. As a 21-year-old college graduate with an English degree that emphasized editing and technical writing, I searched for jobs with confidence. However, after a week of temp work as a typist at a law firm, another week as a temp proofreader for a direct mail company, and an interview that ended with the declaration that I was not even qualified to be a secretary, I found myself discouraged. I eventually found a permanent position as a secretary for a large nonprofit corporation’s security department, where they needed somebody who was good with language to proofread and distribute a daily document. While this job eventually led to a promotion to associate editor (the main writer of that document and other reports), the road there was not easy. I graduated from college with what I thought were important skills, and I had purposefully chosen the technical and professional communication (TPC) track in order to be employable. Yet I faced skepticism and devaluation. It seemed that I had earned a degree in order to become an administrative assistant without a future in TPC. I learned that my education and skills were not valued.

Practitioners face continued stereotyping, according to the data I collected from 39 interviews with female practitioners. We know this stereotyping must be combatted, and scholars have consistently argued that we must move away from low-status characterizations by situating our work as symbolic-analytic (Johnson-Eilola, 1996) and rearticulating value away from service and support roles (Johnson-Eilola, Selber, & Selfe, 1999). This rearticulation is happening, and it occurred individually among the practitioners I interviewed. For example, Jane surprised an engineer by adding code to his documentation. Jane said, “[H]e had a new respect. Not just for me, but for the field.” Through the stereotypes recounted in this article, we see continued opportunities for practitioners to rearticulate their work within specific contexts.

The purpose of this article is to reflect some of the current conditions of TPC practice and recognize that we are still working on issues of value across disciplines. My data shows that the field has work left to accomplish in terms of proving value, as the myth that TPC is expendable, perhaps because it is a luxury, continues to thrive in the organizations for which participants worked. Participants highlighted several of the misconceptions and mischaracterizations of their work, including the myth that TPC work is cosmetic and therefore unskilled and comparable to the work of administrative assistants. Despite these characterizations from colleagues, practitioners are dedicated to proving their value, as they see these conflicts as opportunities to change misconceptions. Practitioners know that TPC crosses boundaries and is therefore networked in a way that no other profession currently is. TPC resists siloing, builds teams and relationships, and promotes human-to-human and human-to-object interaction. TPC must continue to make visible its value, or problems of misconceptions, stereotypes, and devaluation will persist.

TPC flexibly fits into new types of workplaces and platforms, demonstrated by embracing new media and taking forms that are digital (websites and social media), aural (podcasts), and extrainstitutional (hobby communities and freelancing) and making them part of the TPC landscape. Specifically, one participant used podcasting as a way of informing users of the technological processes of knitting (see Petersen, 2016). Increased visibility of symbolic-analytic work within the economy gives practitioners the environment they need for engaging in meaningful work that can be highlighted as innovative within organizations. Practitioners and scholars alike must continue to contribute to the conversation about how TPC fits into these emerging situations and how TPC can bolster changing organizations.

The type of work that many practitioners do is connected to what Spinuzzi (2015) defined as all-edge adhocracies, a result of the metamorphosis of the workplace from bureaucracy to adhocracy. All-edge adhocracies are agile and reliant on “always-on, all-channel connections among specialists in open networks” (p. 28). Knowledge work is central to this new way of organizing workplaces:

Knowledge work is, simply put, work that involves thinking about, analyzing, and communicating things rather than growing or manufacturing things. It includes occupations such as graphic design, web development, and copywriting. It involves specialist work, it tends to be project oriented, and its products tend to be symbolic (designs, working websites, text) and thus electronically transportable, circulable through information and communication technologies. (p. 60)

In other words, TPC is knowledge work, and what it contributes to organizations is invaluable within a new economy that is transforming from bureaucracies to adhocracies. According to a U.S. Department of Labor report, “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created” (qtd. in Wolfe, 2013). While particular organizations may not yet understand the value of TPC, the economy does, as it is moving toward digital and distributed knowledge work (Ferro & Zachry, 2014; Spinuzzi, 2007). Therefore, TPC practitioners are already engaged in the type of work that has become most valuable to many types of organizations. Practitioners are poised to continue to dominate in the skills necessary for networking across and in-between fields and organizations (Slattery 2007). The data in this study reveals persistent misconceptions, but the purpose is to highlight how practitioners have combatted such perceptions through the articulation of the importance of knowledge work.

This article will first outline the method I used for gathering and analyzing data, which comes from a larger project on women’s experiences in the TPC workplace. Next, I will share the misconceptions that persist through practitioners’ stories, which highlight how to solve, manage, or temper many of the problems presented. Lastly, I conclude with specific suggestions for practitioners and academics for combatting the persistent problem of the devaluation of the profession.


Findings are based on 39 qualitative semistructured interviews with self-identified female practitioners of TPC. This article presents a portion of a research project about how women in TPC experience work and the workplace. The following research questions guided the larger study:

  • How do female practitioners define the field and the work they do as technical and professional communicators?
  • What elements of the workplace are relevant to the experience of women as practitioners?
  • How do women enact change on the workplace via genres, practices, tools, and texts?
  • What are the constraints and affordances of their rhetorical situations (Grant-Davie, 1997) as female workers?
  • In what ways are female practitioners engaged in their own problem solving?

The findings that make up this article surprised me, as I expected the women I interviewed to express mostly gender-related problems at work, although I had experienced the devaluation of TPC over a decade ago. The work of TPC as a whole continues to be misunderstood by others, as these stories reveal, despite the fact that scholars have discussed the urgency of articulating value previously and thoroughly (Carliner, 1997; Johnson-Eilola, 1996; Redish, 1995).

The following interview questions from the larger study of women’s experiences in the workplace led to data about the devaluing of TPC for all practitioners, male or female.

  • Do you feel valued at work?
  • What are some of the conflicts you have faced at work, and how do you handle conflict?
  • What are some misconceptions about your work?
  • Have you been treated differently than your colleagues?
  • What kind of work do you perform that is not compensated or part of your job description?
  • What kinds of stress do you experience at work?

The data from these questions revealed that the devaluation of TPC deserves highlighting once again, especially given that the practitioners had ideas about how to challenge the myths. The stereotypes are not new; however, the fact that practitioners continue to face devaluation is an urgent problem that should concern us. While I focused on female practitioners as part of a larger project, the misconceptions they described are likely familiar to all practitioners.

After receiving approval from my Institutional Review Board (IRB), I solicited participants in various U.S. locations; respondents lived and worked in Washington state; Washington, D.C.; California; Texas; Utah; Florida; Virginia; Maryland; Arizona; Massachusetts; Illinois; Idaho; and Colorado. They varied in age, class, industry, organization, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, and marital/family status. I conducted 31 of the interviews by phone, 7 of them face-to-face because of geographic proximity, and 1 via email due to the respondent’s hearing impairment. Participants included 6 women in their 20s, 10 women in their 30s, 13 women in their 40s, 5 women in their 50s, and 4 women in their 60s. They represented organizations in publishing, software (with the most participants at 14), oil and energy, education, manufacturing, science, and the non-profit sector. Four of the participants were self-employed. Twenty of the women had the title of technical writer, while others were called editors, analysts, developers, and copywriters. A majority of the interviewees were Caucasian, while there was one person in each of the following categories: African American, Hispanic, Persian, and biracial. One participant did not disclose her ethnicity. Most of the women identified as heterosexuals, while four disclosed being lesbians and three did not disclose. All names used in this article are pseudonyms.

I layered various feminist methodologies to design this study. First, I used a feminist standpoint perspective—that “knowledge is situated and perspectival and . . . there are multiple standpoints from which knowledge is produced” (Hekman, 2004, p. 226)—to gather interview data. I used feminist standpoint theory because practitioners’ experiences and innovations are a form of knowledge the field can and should tap into. Second, I analyzed data through qualitative feminist content analysis, which Leavy (2000) described as “the systematic study of texts and other cultural products or nonliving data forms” from a feminist perspective (p. 227). Such analysis is used to “see not only what is there but also what is missing, silenced, or absent. The goal of this kind of research is . . . to deconstruct the text to see what is revealed, what emerges, what juxtapositions develop” (p. 228). Feminist content analysis and grounded theory are similar, and Portewig (2011) explained grounded theory as “a methodological approach adopted from sociology . . . . [which] focuses on generating a theory from data rather than verifying theory” (p. 150). I used these forms of content analysis in order to understand women’s experiences from a feminist perspective and in order to allow themes to emerge from the semistructured interviews, rather than proving a hypothesis.

I transcribed all interviews and observations, looking for themes and categories as I engaged with the data. I also asked and developed questions about the data while reading and transcribing. While this method revealed much about women’s experiences in the TPC workplace, data also emerged about the misconceptions of TPC practice. The data in this article represents that piece of the larger study: specifically, how the field is perceived by others and experienced by practitioners.

My analysis resulted in research notes made in the margins (both handwritten and electronic) on the transcribed interviews, with emerging themes represented. I used the following words and phrases from the specific list of interview questions (bulleted above) to identify misconceptions about TPC work: “treated differently,” “valued,” “uncompensated,” “stress,” “misconceptions,” and “conflict.” Because the data is qualitative, these key terms directed me to various explanations and stories about the topic, and after compiling that data into a new document and analyzing it for themes, the descriptive categories represented in the analysis of this article emerged.

Responding to Misconceptions

Many organizations where practitioners work are bureaucracies, which rely on a division of labor, narrow specializations, hierarchy, and control (Spinuzzi, 2015, p. 22). Bureaucracies are “not so good for innovation and adaptation” (p. 23). When we look at TPC in the atmosphere of the traditional workplace, it is easy to view it as cosmetic, superfluous, reducible, menial, incapable, and service-oriented because it is in a supportive role for other fields and types of work: science, engineering, computer programming, and so forth. However, when we broaden our scope and definition of the workplace to include emerging technological trends and nontraditional workplaces like the home, the freelancer’s space, project teams across companies, and the contractor’s workspace—these in-between adhocracy spaces—the knowledge work of TPC becomes central. When characterizing TPC, looking at the fringes along with traditional workplaces gives us a broader sense of how workers are exploding TPC work, participating in knowledge work, and networking beyond the confines of bureaucracies.

As Ames (2003) outlined, practitioners should anticipate and react to changes in order to lead the industry and contribute to driving the changes. Extrainstitutional spaces where TPC flourishes are also representative of how organizations might continue to evolve. In my larger study, I found women in TPC using extrainstitutional workspaces to balance work and family life, innovating in ways that connected TPC skills with what they were passionate about, and networking within bureaucracies to overcome siloing. As bureaucracies continue to change and adjust to new types of knowledge work and collaboration, practitioners will be poised to continue to articulate their value in such circumstances and drive changes. Ames (2003) argued that an individual practitioner should be a strategic contributor who “understands business, customers, and competition; contributes to strategy and business process improvement; ensures customers/users are successful; can demonstrate financial impact of information and usability on bottom line; can make business cases for new initiatives; [is] visionary; [and] leads multidisciplinary teams to improve customer/user experience” (p. 10). Such work demonstrates the complexity and strengths of TPC and will allow practitioners to become an integrated part of larger teams.

Previous research has outlined the challenges facing practitioners. Giammona (2004) surveyed and interviewed practitioners and found, “people drawn to this field are often introverted, smart, artistic, creative, perfectionistic, rigid, and fascinated with details of writing and technology” (p. 351). One of Giammona’s participants argued that TPC practitioners “have to do it all,” such as writing, editing, visual design, user experience design, online publishing, web page development and languages, interactions with users, networking, interviewing, translating, and distributing (qtd. in Giammona, 2004, p. 358). This language closely resembles the language used to describe women’s lives as mothers and workers (Slaughter, 2012). Women often juggle both careers and families, and while my larger study focused on how female practitioners did so, my data about misconceptions suggests that organizations and colleagues do not understand the similarly varied roles of practitioners because of skill with technology, writing, rhetoric, and users. Practitioners’ work involves multiple roles, and TPC as a field may highlight the complicated and messy nature of contemporary life for both men and women.

Despite this complexity, employers often misuse practitioners or underappreciate them, according to Hart and Conklin (2011). They suggested empowering the workforce through “effective relationships, clear communication, a spirit of initiative, and a willingness to engage in respectful conflict” (p. 114). They saw two-way communication as important in work environments (p. 115). Their findings show that practitioners spend a lot of time working in teams, and I suggest that Hart and Conklin’s characterization of communication (both intercultural and cross-gender) might be useful in overcoming some of the lingering misconceptions presented in this article.

Participants’ experiences with misconceptions highlight the invisible nature of knowledge work, because practitioners understand what they do as complex, but it may not be as obvious to outsiders. I specifically asked all 39 participants about the misconceptions of TPC and their work with the following question: What are some misconceptions about your work? Nearly every interviewee had an immediate answer to that question, and other misconceptions emerged throughout the stories they told during interviews. Overall, according to the interview data, TPC is misconceived as cosmetic, secretarial, unarticulated across disciplines, unnecessary, invisible, and unquantifiable, which means such workers often feel expendable. However, practitioners know and can articulate the value of their work, revealing that this articulation is and must be a continued concern of the field as a whole.


That TPC work is cosmetic and not technical or professional is a misconception that emerged 23 times in interview data. Jodi shared, “One of my co-workers was once told to make the documentation look pretty.” Alice experienced this daily, with engineers trying to avoid her and her coworkers and assuming that she “only change[d] the format of the document.” Catherine laughed about this misconception, and described it as “the make-it-pretty philosophy, and we do so much more than that, but that’s still the way it’s seen by a lot of people.” The philosophy leads to the belief that practitioners are not skilled. Maya explained, “I think that people feel like as long as you have a checklist, anyone can run spell check. Anyone can make sure things are capitalized.” Because of these misconceptions, practitioners are devalued or get lumped in with other, less skilled workers.

Jane has developed what she called “an incremental approach,” a process that nicely combats the “make-it-pretty” philosophy that frustrated so many practitioners. Jane publishes documentation that is usable at a basic level and updates it over time. This is a way of managing expectations, particularly of her manager and of the lead developer of any given project. Such communication is a way of asserting her authority in the workplace, and making sure that those around her know what she is doing and how she is doing it. The approach seems to work, as it created a dialogue that requires subject matter experts (SMEs) to understand what practitioners do. They understand that the documentation is constantly updated and revised according to innovations and changes in conjunction with SMEs, not according to stylistic preferences or aesthetics. As Flannery said, “the last thing you ever want to do is advertise the fact or give any impression that checking grammar is your job!”

Catherine takes a deliberate approach in educating her colleagues. She is the first technical writer to work with a newly acquired team. She attempts to teach them the ways in which she will be an asset to them. To introduce herself, she reaches out to the engineers and tells them she can work with software, graphic design, and error messages. She tries to “keep it as positive as possible but also . . . [sends] them little reminders that ‘I’m here.’” Because of her experience, she knows they will have to adjust to the new workflow of having a writer on the team. She does all she can to make that a smooth process.


TPC may be conflated with administrative assistant or secretarial work, yet it is a varied field with communicators who know social media, search engine optimization, analytics, research, documentation, collaboration, networking, language, conventions, rhetoric, and user/audience needs and contexts. Jhumpa explained, “The big misconception is that we just describe the software. No. We tell the user how to do a job. And we tell them how the software can help them do that job.” Similarly, Corrie described TPC as a place where “people can be creative [and innovative] in the workplace. It’s a constantly evolving field, too.” In contrast, secretarial work often involves answering telephones, transcribing, making copies, distributing communication, taking notes, organizing and sending mail, and keeping track of another’s files or appointments. While there is certainly some complexity and skill involved in such work, it is very different from what TPC practitioners do.

Corrie, a technical writer with over 30 years of experience, explained that a new position at her company was described as an administrative assistant with 60 percent technical writing. They hired a woman for the job, and “so far she hasn’t done any tech writing because they keep giving her other tasks to do that are more admin oriented,” despite the fact that the woman who got the job is trained as a technical writer and has the title “Technical Writer.” Corrie sees a blatant connection to writing and secretarial work that creates this misconception:

[In] the old days, the women were the secretaries and they’d take the [notes], they’d do the typing, they’d make letters, they’d take shorthand. . . . So there is a tendency to try to turn a technical writer into something like that.

The comparison of technical writers to administrative assistants was common in my interviews, as participants discussed it 34 times. Characterizations (administrative or secretarial) make it difficult for many practitioners to feel valued or be taken seriously within organizations, especially if they are a lone writer or working in an industry that is not accustomed to employing a TPC practitioner. Hiring a practitioner is considered a luxury, and when new companies become successful enough to do so, they may not completely or immediately recognize the added value. Corrie has resisted the administrative characterization in many ways. She told her colleague who was hired as a technical writer with administrative duties: “I’m going to give [technical writing work] to you and we’ll just have to fight that battle. We kind of have to make our own job here.” She has also spoken up when SMEs have ignored her in meetings. She has said, “I’m sorry guys, but if you want me to work on this project, you’re going to have to talk to me.”

Conversely, women might see opportunity in entering a company in administrative assistant work that could lead to a promotion that involves TPC. I experienced this in my early career, as did Edna: “When I graduated from college with a fairly useless B.A. in English, I had taken professional typing in high school[,] . . . I had a brain in my head, and I could type 60 words a minute, so I got several different jobs as an administrative assistant.” On the flipside, Jean explained, “There are companies that will take secretarial people . . . and just turn them into a writer with no training or anything.” Organizations, hiring committees, managers, and colleagues tend to conflate what TPC practitioners do with what administrative assistants and secretaries do.

Of this problem, Anne argued:

I don’t see a lot of guys who get tech comm degrees come into tech comm as an administrative assistant. I’ve heard that story from women more than once: that that’s how they get into tech comm … [M]y husband is pretty much in tech comm. He was in the Navy, he taught on nuclear technology, and then he went out into the real world … He would never be [asked to be] an administrative assistant … [A]nd then most of the support staff was all female, and when they needed someone to cover reception for lunch for answering the phones, that would fall to us, always. The guys never had to answer it.

Women may enter the field by first doing administrative work, but they may also continue to experience being treated as secretaries once they move into TPC positions. Women in TPC tend to be treated as support staff, while men get more professional respect, according to the experiences of the participants in this study. Thirteen of the participants specifically mentioned being asked to perform secretarial work while the men in the office were not. This is tied to the emotional labor that women are often expected to perform. Guy and Newman (2004) argued that emotional labor fills the difference gap between men’s and women’s work, claiming that “[w]hen women work in ‘men’s’ jobs, they come close to earning equal pay, . . . [but] emotional labor is still expected of them there” (p. 291). In contrast, “sex-typed jobs . . . penalize women the most because these jobs require more ‘natural’ (that is, unpaid) tasks that are missing from the job description’s list of knowledge, skills, and abilities” (p. 292). This sort of labor is unpaid but valuable, as female employees are often tacitly expected to perform it, but it is not as valued as the education and skills learned formally and therefore not compensated through pay. It is intangible, much like the invisibility of women and the invisibility of TPC.

Other participants described doing work that was uncompensated or not part of their job description as a way of helping out where they could because they are salaried employees, and, according to Emmeline, it “falls under the umbrella of professionalism.” The practitioners I interviewed performed such work, including assembling paper copies, answering phones, taking meeting minutes/notes, shipping packages, creating posters, planning holiday parties, giving emotional support to coworkers, cutting and serving party cakes, taking email dictations, finding missing office supplies, entering data, organizing mail, sorting, and scanning. While some women told of these tasks in annoyance, especially if they were regularly asked to serve food, other participants characterized themselves as willing and able to help when and where needed. Practitioners have skills across disciplines that organizations often want to utilize and harness; practitioners might need to decide which of those skills are best suited for their particular goals within an organization.

Practitioners reported several ways of dealing with being asked to perform secretarial work. First, they spoke up about why they would not do the work. Lois explained, “When I was younger, they would try to talk me into doing meeting notes and minutes, and now I’m up front about it. I’m like, ‘You guys, I’m more knowledgeable than just a secretary.’” Second, they set boundaries. Sandra said, “I definitely don’t mind pitching in every now and then, but if it interferes with deadlines or something more important, … then I can’t do it.” She weighed the situation against other responsibilities and put TPC work first. Third, they recognized when performing such work was useful and proceeded as such. Josephine often took notes at meetings for her own records. She shared,

There have been lots of times when I have gone into a meeting and started taking notes and realized that people were going to want to have an accurate record of what happened. So I’ve gone into [many] meetings with that intention, that I would distribute my notes. That doesn’t bother me because I’m going to catch what’s significant in the meeting, which an executive assistant might or might not. I used to get flown up to the corporate headquarters of the company … specifically so I could take crazy notes on technical stuff and then turn it into something useful. Based on those notes, they developed a new process, and the new process made the company more successful than it had been. It was worth doing.

She also drew boundaries with her notes, but overall, she found a way to make such work applicable to TPC, and she used the results to improve company processes and therefore carve out a space of value for herself.

In contrast, some practitioners may perpetuate the mere scribe characterization by purposefully acting as administrative assistants or proofreaders, instead of engaging in the complex activities and networks of TPC. Rebecca described: “Basically the scientists write up the report and then I’ll edit it for grammar … and then I’ll format all their tables and data.” Iris said, “I really like grammar and making things clear and concise … so professional writing was kind of perfect for me.” TPC professionals reject simplistic descriptions like these because they downplay the complexity of the work and the skill needed to perform it. Because TPC as knowledge work is essential in the emerging economy of all-edge adhocracies, practitioners must engage in complex documentation and collaborative tasks. They must use their skills to improve company processes, contribute to technical knowledge and communication, and advocate for users.


TPC work may be confused with administrative work because coworkers and managers in other disciplines may not understand what the field contributes. Uneducated colleagues and misconceptions about their abilities and knowledge overwhelmingly frustrated participants. The theme of TPC as unarticulated across disciplines was discussed 49 times in the course of interviews. Jhumpa summed up the problem:

[U]neducated managers [are] probably my biggest stress … [O]ne of the engineering managers … has absolutely no idea what a documentation person does. As far as she’s concerned, the user guide just describes the software. … So every time I change managers, I have to reeducate them as to exactly what we do. I relate that to the fact that our degree has been around for a while but somehow we have not generally communicated our value and exactly what we do over the whole world. We’ve only done it person-to-person for each manager we’ve worked for, and it hasn’t spread.

She makes the important point that perhaps proving value is something for which we, as a discipline, are responsible. While efforts have certainly been made toward this (Redish, 1995; Carliner, 1997), Jhumpa also noted that much of this work is done at a personal level. She sees a need to educate managers and colleagues, but she questioned whether or not doing so in a single workplace situation is the right way to highlight the contributions of TPC.

Yet individual conversations about value are necessary. Jennifer suggested, “Nobody is going to advocate for you except for you, so I think in that way you have to make yourself valued.” Pearl, the manager of a documentation team, broadcasted her team’s value. She gave an internal presentation to the managers of engineering and development teams “to show what all we do and how it is beneficial to the company, because I don’t think they understood … so it’s a constant education. I’m constantly trying to show them why what we’re doing makes sense and provides more value.” She makes concrete the value of documentation and gives her managers and others a visual representation, engaging them in a conversation about her team’s work. Pearl keeps the conversation about value going by sending reminders to these managers. When her team receives favorable user comments about online documentation, she forwards those messages to her boss. She additionally forwards the articles she has published in Intercom, the industry magazine published by the Society for Technical Communication, to show “that the largest technical communication organization … in the world is publishing this in a magazine, which goes to show we are on the right track for the industry with what we’re doing with content.” She knows her work is valuable and that she’s performing competently, but she constantly brings that to the attention of other team managers. This creates respect for her as a documentation manager and for her entire team.

Interviewee Betty explained the importance of technical knowledge earned as a practitioner. She used it to her advantage with SMEs:

You get to become a subject matter expert in whatever you write about, and if you take that and run with it, pretty soon you’ve got this enormous bag of technical knowledge that you can reach in and pull out the right piece and throw it into the conversation as needed. You develop credibility quickly if you are able to make a relevant technical observation.

She used experience as a way of continuing to prove her value to colleagues who may not have realized how much she knows.

Technical writers are included in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook, updated in December 2015, nearly a year after I began interviewing practitioners. The description references TPC work as “supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily. They also develop, gather, and disseminate technical information through an organization’s communications channels” (U.S. BLS, 2015). The median salary is acknowledged as $70,240 per year, and requirements include a bachelor’s degree. However, participants were frustrated with the BLS because this information may not always have been accurate.

Jhumpa criticized the BLS, saying, “I don’t feel those [BLS statistics] are very representative of professional technical writers. They include every secretary who occasionally formats a document … and it pulled the salary level and experience level down.” Professions should not be linked with jobs that lack the same level of education, skill, and knowledge to perform. If they are linked officially, as Jhumpa believed, then they become linked through misconceptions as well. It is essential that practitioners not have their profession grouped with clerical staff. BLS statistics should be a source of aid to practitioners to approach their work with confidence, ask for raises as necessary, and make other strategic “demands” related to their contributions.

Edna experienced the power of official statistics. She explained, “They weren’t paying very much because the Department of Labor classifications that they used for technical writers made them administrative [and] … I was classified as administrative.” She did not know how true such claims were, but the origin story based on hearsay had to do with a technical writing contractor for the U.S. Coast Guard. The writer complained

that some people were being paid professionally when they were really secretaries, so the Department of Labor did some investigation to try to determine what the technical writers were. … I was told by a couple of people who interviewed with this Department of Labor person that he hadn’t the slightest idea what a technical writer actually does, and apparently nobody sufficiently explained it to him … [and he] saw them as glorified secretaries.

According to this story, the visiting representative of the Department of Labor downgraded their work status and therefore their salaries. As we see, power differentiations are not often changed through the efforts of one person communicating with another, although such efforts are important and necessary. Power changes might need to occur at higher and different levels, such as with government characterizations and within the academy. Christine saw similar confusion at her organization. She said, “I think people in marketing think that I only do marketing, and people in technical stuff think that I only do technical stuff. I actually do all of it.” The variety of skills and expertise that practitioners perform may be invisible to colleagues, government outsiders, and managers who do not see the complete picture of their work interactions.

Unnecessary and Invisible

Interviewees reported 35 instances of colleagues characterizing TPC work as unnecessary or invisible. Participants used phrases like, “they brush you off,” “you are the first to go,” “they get credit,” and “it is hard to get into meetings.” Shirley heard the misconception “that it’s not useful.” Colleagues may engage with user guides or online help as much as customers do, but they might also think that Shirley’s hand in creating that documentation was unnecessary and, therefore, she is adjunct to the real work of the company and product. She explained that this is frustrating because, “I sit in sales now, and I can hear them talking about my work every single day. That’s part of how they sell the product. … I know they use it.” She sees them using the documentation, but she has also heard that what she does is unnecessary. There is space for her to prove her value and give voice to what she is witnessing. She said, “I’ve seen my own manager go and look at my [online] help to find out the answer to questions.” Because she has witnessed her colleagues using her work, she has an opportunity to bring that to their attention. She can speak up and make sure they are aware of how much they use her work and how useful it is. Such misunderstandings provide opportunities for workers to claim successes and draw attention to the usefulness of their documentation. When practitioners see their products being used, they can and should make others aware of it.

Because TPC is knowledge work, it can be invisible. Willa said, “I also run into some who say, ‘We have people who write stuff? That’s not automatically generated?’” Her colleagues did not realize that she existed, as work can easily become siloed and insular within bureaucracies. Similarly, Jhumpa “got an email from an engineer panicking because he had actually sent his project for approval … and they rejected it because it didn’t have a user guide.” He had skipped over the step where a practitioner writes the documentation. Practitioners are positioned to address this problem in organizations because their work is about making connections and building relationships. They must make their work more visible and connected to those who may most benefit from an education about TPC and the advantages of having practitioners in the workplace. Willa recognized that “some people have just never thought about it. They just don’t think about how those words came to be.” We have become accustomed to screens and disconnected from the person who wrote the words. Again, Willa’s situation is a place where value can be made visible by claiming and owning the work she does and making sure that others know she wrote it.

One way of creating visibility and necessity is to insert expertise into the process. Lois creates outlines for SMEs, to “show them that you have an idea of the bigger picture.” She has also taken existing and poorly written documentation “and revamp[ed] one page to show them the difference, and they’ll be blown away. They didn’t even realize how unusable it was before they see what it could be.” She also poses questions about how to improve products, demonstrating her ability to think critically and creatively. She acts without waiting for permission or waiting to be included. She knows her work is valuable and necessary, and she shows organizations her abilities before they have a chance to marginalize her.


Documentation specialists may be perceived as not quantitatively valuable, because they do not necessarily earn money for companies. While not many participants discussed this overtly, they mentioned the problem of proving value quantitatively 11 times. Jennifer said:

[W]e’re a cost center for the company, and while that is technically true, it annoys me to no end: the idea that we cost the company money in salary [and] that we don’t make the company money because we’re not selling things. … but in my opinion, we make the product. Sure the sales guys might sell the product and have the contracts come in and be actually producing revenue for the company, but without us, there would be no product.

She is convinced of the value of her work to the organization, and she found a way to let others know by participating in meetings and writing documentation to prove that she deserved a raise equal to that of a male counterpart. Companies are driven by profit motives, and if writers cannot quantify their work, they may occupy a precarious position depending on the company. They may be seen as adjunct to or unnecessary for the “real” work of the company if the organization values profit above all else. Pearl noted, “I try to explain that it’s more than just writing a paragraph, because if you added a new feature, there’s a lot of other things involved in our jobs.” While these women might not directly be making money for their organizations, they are doing much to improve the products and make those products accessible to clients, customers, and users. If what they sell is documentation, like Jennifer’s company, then the product is actually produced by practitioners. Their work affects many stakeholders and there is a need for TPC to claim this authority as part of the organizational process. Practitioners must learn how to present the value of their work in ways that employers understand, and quantifying that work is an effective way to do so. It may not always be straightforward, but practitioners can get a sense of how much monetary value their documentation has added to an organization and can report that to managers and colleagues.

One way to create quantitative visibility is through budgets. Gloria explained that her solution is to write up a plan about what she can do for the SME, and then “say these are your options and this is how long it’s going to take, and this is how much it’s going to cost you.” She laughed that they often forget to include her in the budget, so her interoffice communication always includes that part of the process. She consciously includes cost as part of her work communication, reminding colleagues of the monetary value of what she does.

May, as a grant writer, is easily able to quantify the money she has earned for her organization. She reported, “In seven years, I’ve brought in 10 million dollars. Not everybody can do that. And I’ve made sure that [the boss] knows that number.” Her outspokenness about her contributions has led to managers advocating for her with upper management. She knows the conventions of value within her organization and she fit her work into that framework to make herself visible and appreciated. Practitioners in TPC must use interpretive conventions and rhetorical analyses to determine ways of speaking about accomplishments that mirror the expectations of the organization. Sharing a monetary gain may not be possible for all practitioners, but using knowledge of the rhetorical situation to articulate value in a way that complements the organization’s goals is possible.

However, some devaluation may be inevitable, as workplaces have a distinct connection to management and profit. Longo (2000) explained, “This linking of knowledge to money through a management technology works to ensure that technical writing students conform to behaviors and attitudes resulting in efficiency and productivity within organizations that have evolved from the application of time management and assembly-line models of production” (pp. 74-75). Practitioners in TPC continue to be part of that assembly line of production within traditional organizations, and they are usually the last in that line. Documentation is written after products have been developed. TPC work is not always linked to money or management, and consequently, practitioners find themselves devalued. They are part of bureaucracies that value profit and efficiency, and practitioners entering this system must learn to navigate it on several levels. Furthermore, technical writing itself plays a role in keeping this system in order, as communication within an organization will move “upward into the management through reports and summaries generated by ‘brain’ workers at various levels of the system” (Longo, 2000, p. 101). Such awareness gives practitioners an avenue for asserting themselves and the value of their work more officially.


Unfortunately, and despite some of our best efforts, devaluation continues to permeate the profession according to the participants of my study. Even when people compliment her work, Anne laughed at the idea of being valued. She said,

[Y]ou still have this feeling that you’re the redheaded stepchild, and you’re going to be the first to go because … you’re not really providing the actual [product]. … So I’m always cognizant that we could be the first to go, because people don’t think that they need us anymore.

Anne felt the precariousness of her work, as did others. However, the work they do is essential in a knowledge economy and for networks and adhocracies that are beginning to expand and replace traditional workplaces.

TPC as a field involves understanding human interaction and the crossing of boundaries with technologies, rhetoric, research, and design. The practitioners in this study work across disciplines, and they know that educating others on the value of TPC continues to be a major concern and ongoing project. Practitioners know how to combat misconceptions because they continue to face it. While their stories may register as complaints, these professionals are committed to showing that their expertise is invaluable to the organizations for which they work and the fields to which they contribute. Their experiences, especially how they respond to misconceptions and combat stereotypes, highlight the ability practitioners and academics have for crossing contexts and articulating value. Perception problems are well documented and identified; the next project is then to change those perceptions and elevate the status of TPC work within a knowledge economy.

For practitioners, the findings suggest that misconceptions persist. The following ideas may promote moving away from these false characterizations within workplaces.

  • Practitioners must advocate by explaining, performing, and making visible the innovative and important work of TPC. Educating managers and colleagues about the value of TPC continues to be a critical part of the workplace experience.
  • Practitioners may perpetuate instrumental characterizations of TPC by acting as proofreaders. Practitioners must engage in complex documentation and collaborative tasks and avoid contributing to commodity writing by anticipating and driving change (Ames, 2003).
  • Practitioners should claim authority over their work and articulate its impact on many stakeholders and organizational processes.
  • Practitioners in TPC must use interpretive conventions and rhetorical analyses to determine ways of speaking about accomplishments that mirror the expectations of the organization.

Moreover, I suggest that some of the work of combatting misconceptions can be done within the academy. We need to reach across disciplines so that SMEs see practitioners as a necessary, visible, and indispensable part of the teams they will join once in the workplace. SMEs should enter their careers expecting to work with practitioners, just as practitioners know they must work with SMEs once employed. Instructors can take steps to interact with instructors across university programs to dispel misconceptions and allow our students to practice working together in positive ways before entering careers. We can address this divide by finding ways to collaborate with other disciplines that benefit from TPC. We need to network with students in engineering, marketing, computer science, the sciences, design, and other fields during undergraduate programs to make collaborative and constructive connections. The following are specific ways such work could be accomplished.

  • Department and program heads should meet with their counterparts in other disciplines to brainstorm ways of allowing students to formally interact in classrooms and on projects.
  • Department and program heads can organize or encourage social situations for students to inform each other of their disciplines and skills to discover mutual beneficence. This can be done through a casual yearly social, regular networking meetings, or even a “speed-dating” activity in which students interview each other with the aim of learning about various disciplines and their connections to each other.
  • Instructors can assign projects that require interviewing student SMEs and create assignments that encourage interdisciplinary interaction.

The varied work of practitioners demonstrates that TPC is part of an expanding knowledge economy, all-edge adhocracies, and unique and networked organizations, not marginal to them. Practitioners engage in TPC because it is human communication, and because they are users, researchers, innovators, technologists, and designers. Their work is threaded through the history of various fields and current practice of TPC and gives us insight into the importance of communicating through multidimensional means. We must continue to challenge and change stereotypes about TPC.


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About the Author

Emily January Petersen is an assistant professor at Weber State University. Her research focuses on professional identities from a feminist perspective, examining how women act as technical communicators through social media and historically, both in public spheres and in the workplace of the home. Her work has appeared in several journals, including the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication and Communication Design Quarterly, and in conference proceedings. She can be reached at januarypetersen@gmail.com.

Manuscript received 28 June 2016, revised 28 October 2016; accepted 4 January 2017.