How many roles can a documentation expert have in a company?

Harjot Dhodi asked, “What is the difference in the role of: Document Architect, Template Designer, Writer, Technical Editor, and Production Editor? Can a person be told to handle all these roles?” I’ll try to examine these roles one at a time, and then answer the final question last.

Document Architect – Typically this person has a “big picture” view of the documentation and how to organize it to fit the user’s needs. This role involves organizing, dictating what topics will be written, structuring the overall deliverables (especially if there are multiple deliverables such as online help and printed documentation). I would say this role is for a more experienced person who has been with the company a while and knows the business needs for the documentation.

Template Designer – This person knows the documentation tools well enough so that they can maintain and design templates used over and over for consistent documentation while authoring so that the out put look and feel is the same over and over. For example, the role would involve designing FrameMaker templates for books and chapters and styles for the authors to use while writing.

Writer - This person creates the content. They should be familiar with using the templates and the style guide for the company.

Technical Editor – This person reviews the content and may also maintain the style guide. Some times the term “technical” in an editor role means they will check the documents for consistency with the product and technical accuracy throughout the document. Grammar and style rules checking is also part of the responsibilities of this role.

Production Editor – This phrase is less familiar to me. I would imagine that this person reviews output for any errors and does link checking for online deliverables. I suppose it really depends on what deliverables are produced. The Production Editor may need to check CDs to ensure the documentation deliverable operates correctly on the CD. There could be a lot of editing and testing and checking on certain production deliverables.

Can a person be told to handle all these roles ?

I think one experienced person could handle all these roles, and a single person could learn one role at a time and just keep adding each role to their abilities. In my company we do not have separate editors so we must review each other’s content. We all write content, we all edit content, and we have a document architect and production editor who is most familiar with the content and production tool.

Does this help answer questions about documentation roles? I’d love to hear feedback from my blog readers as well – what have I missed or what additional roles might there be placed upon one person?

10 Comments

  • January 9, 2009 - 2:27 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Anne, for the clear answer to such an interesting and tricky question. I have a few comments from my experience with software companies of 50 to 1000 employees which have a tech writing staff of 2 to 15.

    The “Document Architect” comes close to the “Documentation Manager” role, the two titles may refer to the same job.

    I’ve rarely seen “Template Designer” as a role, much less a position. Instead, “template design” seems to be a task engaged in once in a blue moon – until “the old templates” have become completely unusable… That task frequently goes to the tool guru, whose usually a writer.

    I don’t know anyone who’s only editing, but not writing. I find it instructive and constructive when writers edit each other’s work, but takes a good team culture and mutual respect. Since editing frequently gets very little attention, I try to promote two separations as a minimum standard:
    – Separate editing (a writer/editor improving writing, grammar, layout, etc.) from reviewing (a SME checking contents).
    – Separate editor and writer – don’t let anyone talk you into seriously editing your own stuff.

    To go all out on editing, check out the nine types of edits in the five “Levels of Edit” by Robert van Buren and Mary Fran Buehler, available as PDF at http://www.iit.edu/~mackiewicz/levels_of_edit.pdf.

    I agree that an “experienced person could handle all these roles” – but I would still argue that no person “should be told to handle all these roles”. If you grow into them or if you choose to develop that way, that’s fine. But as posed, the question just sounds quite uncomfortable… I know I wouldn’t want to be the person asking it – and much less answering it.

  • Mike Wethington
    January 9, 2009 - 9:26 am | Permalink

    You’re forgetting Documentation Manager too.

  • January 9, 2009 - 10:13 am | Permalink

    Some writers also test their procedures. Didn’t say it was a good idea!

  • January 9, 2009 - 10:31 am | Permalink

    Great post Anne and a great question.

    I tend to come at this issue from a different direction. As one of the concluding slides in my “Why Technical Writers Shouldn’t Be Writers” presentation, I have the following list of things I believe we all should be:

    – User Advocates
    – Directors
    – Designers
    – Futurists / Technologists
    – Story Tellers
    – and above all Communicators.

    I think that the different job titles that get applied to different aspects of what we do are just a reflection of where a particular person’s focus is at that point in their career. But to be effective in any of those positions, you need to understand and appreciate the whole process.

  • January 9, 2009 - 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I hold that you cannot hold the editor roles and the others on the same deliverable.

  • January 9, 2009 - 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I work in a small start up where the writer (me)does all of this plus graphics, training, and any other communications-related jobs that will need doing (localization? RFPs?).

    Can one person be told to do it all? Personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  • January 12, 2009 - 2:41 am | Permalink

    Great post Anne !

  • Jessica Nealon
    January 12, 2009 - 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this article. The issues discussed here become especially difficult during a job search. Some forward-thinking companies will post jobs with the titles you describe; however, many default to the customary “Technical Writer” to attract the candidates most likely to match the job.

    The whole thing gets even more confusing when you consider how poorly written and non-descriptive most job descriptions are. I used to be a recruiter and the main part of the job was asking companies to explain their job descriptions.

  • January 15, 2009 - 2:12 am | Permalink

    Good post. It is more of a learning different tasks than performing different roles.Different tasks can be learned and performed well irrespective of any role.

  • Bhavna Chopra
    October 18, 2012 - 6:46 am | Permalink

    This was a great posting and was very nice to read the article. Actually, given me a very good understanding about different roles of Technical Writers in different situations.

    Great thoughts.

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