As I increasingly write technical content for both professional and personal purposes, I find myself regularly thinking about the core aspects of technical communication, beyond simple technical understanding and writing ability. For those who are professional technical writers, ethical and legal considerations are well understood (or at least the lack of understanding is acknowledged and communicated explicitly). However, for casual technical writers, these ethical and legal aspects of technical writing probably fall into the “don’t know what you don’t know” category. For an amateur technical writer, you may only have a self-prescribed or shallow depth of knowledge of the ethics and legality of your role. To progress professionally, I’d like to talk about a standard, codified set of ethics for the field, and how, as an amateur technical writer, you can put these ethics into your practice.
How can amateur technical writers increase their professional practice within the field?
The Ethical Principles for the Society for Technical Communication (STC) includes thought-provoking ideas. The principles can shine some light into what you “don’t know you don’t know” in technical communication ethics.
The STC Ethical Principles address:
Legality is at the top of the Ethical Principles. It perhaps goes without saying - technical communicators must obey the law. Further, in our global, interconnected society, technical communicators may need to know more than just the local laws. The subject of your communications may be illegal to write in either your jurisdiction or the company’s jurisdiction, among other considerations.
In practice: Do your own investigations: you cannot rely on a client to be upfront about the legality of a prospective project.
Honesty goes far beyond “not lying.” By hiding behind ambiguity, writers can impart real harm to the readers. For example, ambiguous technical documents could lead to misuse or ineffective use of a product or service.
In practice: Ensure technical communication is clear, concise, and comprehensive.
Honesty and attribution
Attribution is another crucial component of honesty and one that may be difficult for amateur technical writers. On a casual blog, it may seem unnecessary to provide an academic-style bibliography and inline citations. Yet, missing or light attributions are deceiving. The nuances of how to approach citations and attributions depend on the context, but erring on the side of crediting others is a good start.
In practice: Use credible, current sources; link and attribute when facts, quotes, or figures are written.
Attribution for the writer, as author
“Fair use” and “work for hire” further complicate matters. For example, it’s copyright infringement to repost a blog you wrote for your company (work for hire) on your personal blog. Ghostwriting, in particular, is generally non-attributable.
In practice: Always ask for permission before reposting your works, even on your portfolio. A link to anything posted in your name is ok.
Confidentiality requires the careful treatment of private, business-sensitive information. For wealthier countries, with more knowledge workers and an “information economy,” intellectual property and trade secrets can be the lifeblood of organizations. Maintaining confidentiality protects the integrity and health of the economy, including the organizations and people within it.
In practice: When dealing with sensitive information, fortify your own systems; data storage, malware prevention, VPNs, etc. Ask your employer for guidelines.
Quality is less frequently considered a constituent of technical writing ethics. Cost, scope, and time - the trifecta of project management - may look like a project management responsibility, handled with a “best-effort” approach. Upon further inspection, however, project budget, deliverables, and schedule are a shared professional responsibility.
In practice: Negotiate proper project expectations with your employer and deliver on commitments. Adjust as necessary.
Fairness addresses the diversity and variety in any technical writing project. Stakeholders for a technical writing project go beyond just the writer and the client. From the first reader, out to the general public good, there are a variety of stakeholders, at multiple levels, that should inform the technical writing process and be treated fairly. Conflicts of interest should be avoided or, if that’s not possible, disclosed).
In practice: Be aware of bias in your writing towards any stakeholders in the chain. Don’t reference other clients, friends, or your own works unless they are highly exemplary - and disclose the association.
Professionalism is the final component that brings together the five other ethical principles. Ethical technical writers are constructive and tactful in their interactions with others. These technical writers also strive for excellence, stay up-to-date on the development of the discipline, and engage in personal continuous improvement activities. Finally, the excellent technical writers freely share the art of the craft - supporting, training, and mentoring others to excel and advance the discipline.
In practice: Read industry writings daily, communicate with empathy, learn associated skills, freely share experiences with others, and network without expecting anything in return.
Better your practice
By keeping these principles in mind and applying them in practice, you will mature in your technical writing ability and thus gain more coveted assignments. Professional growth will not only be better for you personally, but will provide better value to your employers, audience, and other stakeholders, too.