What Do You Do?: Answering the Fundamental Question for Yourself and Others

red ink edits with pen

As technical writers, we fight to answer the tough questions and dare to share that knowledge with others. However, no question seems as difficult to answer as the ever popular: “What do you do?” It creeps up on us at dinner parties and family gatherings. It slips off the tongues of acquaintances, first dates, and colleagues. In a moment of panic, we pause. Soon, we’re blathering on about user manuals and policies before recognizing the blank stares back at us. We quiet down, deflect the question back, and try to come up with the correct answer in our minds.

In documentation, titles and the roles they play are of vital importance. They become the authorities, managers, and users on which the entire document is based. And yet, we seem unable to define ourselves in the same way. Whether it’s a moment of reflection, or an answer to someone’s question, we must be able to define our roles to be good technical writers.

Why Is It Difficult?

The work of a technical writer does not mimic its title. We are not accountants, farmers, or florists. The meat of our work is not so easily encapsulated by the two words on our business cards. While, yes, we do write technical documents, I have yet to meet a writer satisfied with that description. We need to vocalize the truth of the work, complexity behind it, and the benefit we bring. So, an explanation must follow.

This would be simple enough, if all technical writers were the same. But, as we all know, that is not the case. We work in different fields: software development, desktop publishing, military specifications. We work under different parameters: full-time, telework, contract. As a result, we default to listing our duties and assignments, never fully capturing the essence of it all. We quickly learn that we can’t explain what we do to others. Then, in a moment of panic, realize that we can’t explain it to ourselves either.

Defining for Yourself

All technical writers know that before we can teach others, we must learn it ourselves. Start simple. Then, get more complex. This is the same way we must approach out question. Answer these for yourself:

  1. What is my title?
  2. Where do I work?
  3. What kind of company do I work for?
  4. What projects do I work on?
  5. What is the purpose of these projects?
  6. Who do I complete those projects with?
  7. How do I complete these projects?
  8. What skills are required?
  9. How do these projects benefit from my role?
  10. How does the office as a whole benefit from my role?

Answers one through six should be easy for you. These are the nuts and bolts of what you do. Keep those in the back of your mind. We will use this for the next section.

Now look at answers seven through ten. This is the heart of what you do. This is what we struggle to communicate to others. Like so many, what matters is not what we do, but how we do it, and the impact it has on others. Keep this as your personal answer.

Defining for Others

Now you broke down your position to the studs, explaining it to others becomes easier. String together your answers from one through six. Say it aloud. Does it make sense? Imagine it’s appearing in a document. Do you understand this role? Do you know its purpose? Write it. Rewrite it. Go over it again and again until you are satisfied. Memorize it. Keep it in your back pocket for the next time someone asks: “So, what do you do?”

About the Author
Greta Boller is a technical writer located in the Washington, D.C. area. For more information, please visit .


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