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Where are all the technical writers?

By Tony Self

I have often wondered why there are so few technical writers in the world. In my country, Australia, the Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates there are over 2,000 technical writers within the total workforce of 11.65 million people. The Australian Government groups technical writers into a category called "Journalists and Other Writers". That category of writer has shown little growth over the last decade, and in 2011 represented just 21,400 people. In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there were about 50,000 American technical writers in 2010.

We are living in the information age, yet the numbers of technical writers in countries like Australia and the US are not skyrocketing. Why not? There are more fitness instructors in Australia than "journalists and other writers". According to some other ABS data, the number of technical writers in Australia in 1996 was 716 men and 593 women (totalling 1309). In 2001, the numbers had grown to 821 men and 827 women (totalling 1648). That's a 25% increase, which sounds impressive. But graphic designers grew by 62% in the same period, software designers by 135%, and IT managers by 84%. There are five times more fashion, industrial and jewellery designers than technical writers. More than ten times as many stonemasons and bricklayers.

In a higher education advertising feature in The Age (20 May 2013), there was an article entitled Learning the write stuff for business. It provided a case study of a graduate from the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing (Business) course at RMIT University in Melbourne. The graduate, Ella King, works as a content writer and executive assistant. "Web writing" is described as being a vital part of the course, but what struck me was the other keywords from the article: chunking, grammar, planning, process, critique, plan, and draft. Ms King's job is writing policy and procedure information in the finance industry. Many others doing the same job would identify as technical writers, so perhaps there are lots of technical writers out there, but they identify otherwise?

Delving further, this theory starts to make sense. The ABS detailed another occupation, where the job description was:

"assist organisations to achieve greater efficiency and solve organisational problems, and study organisational structures, methods, systems and procedures"
This sounds a little bit like a technical writer's job description, but the occupation is actually "Management and Organisation Analyst". There are 38,800 such analysts (compared to 2,000 technical writers).

Another group of workers "work with users to formulate system requirements, develop system plans and documentation... to meet users' business needs ": business analysts. There are another 32,600 of those. Graphic and Web Designers ( " design information for visual and audio communication, publication and display using print, film, electronic, digital and other forms of visual and audio media ") number 45,500. There are 32,700 training and development professionals, and another 6,400 information technology trainers.

Perhaps the number of technical writers is growing with the information age after all... it's just that those technical writers aren't technical writers! If so, we only have ourselves to blame; we have been miserable at marketing our own profession.

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