The risks with Technical Author certification

As part of the attempt to make technical writing similar to other professions, there have been a number of moves by different technical communication societies to introduce certification. This can be a good thing, but there are some dangers with it as well.

Certification usually involves some training and a test. Students can be accredited or certified as having reached a certain standard. This might lead, at some point in the future, to organisations only hiring certified Technical Authors, in the same way they might only hire certified accountants.

So what are the dangers?

One danger with testing is that you tend to test what’s easy to measure, rather than test the talents someone needs to have. For example, multiple choice questions are easy to mark, but they tend to only test someone’s knowledge. They can test if someone knows “which X does Y”, but they are less good at checking if someone is able to explain “how X”. This can lead to an over-emphasis on teaching topics like the legal requirements for documentation, rather than testing whether someone can actually write clearly and simply.

A second danger is assuming there is only one right way to write a user guide. Technical communication is still a relatively recent area of study. We should still be open to ideas, to challenge accepted practice, if user testing shows that method or belief to be wrong. We don’t want to be the like the Paris Salon, which refused to show impressionist works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Whistler, because they didn’t meet their definition of good art.

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe

Although it’s more labour-intensive, we should ask students to make something, and then measure that against a set of user acceptance criteria: can they find the information they need?; do they understand it?; is it accurate?; is it complete?; is it cohesive? etc.

One Comment

TechnicallyWriting

I think the idea of a certification in our profession is more of a benchmark than a firm requirement. In that sense there can be some value in knowledge-based certification, as long as it’s well designed.

I definitely agree with you – technical communication is an art more than it is a science, and you should produce something useful to show off, not just show off what you understand (even if that helps too).

Isn’t this just saying that any certification should have some aspect of practice though?

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