We need more technical writing in popular culture

Mar. 30, 2023

Laura Vass from API the Docs asked me the other day why technical writing has such a bad rap. My answer was that technical writing’s real problem is not having a rap at all: not only is our profession relatively unknown, it almost never appears in popular culture. A solution to this would be to start featuring tech writers and documentation in all kinds of media, from TV series to movies to video games, something it’s barely happened.

Current status: Not much beyond RTFM

Technical writing is almost absent from popular culture. When it appears, it’s almost always as a plot device for lonely, not entirely sane, characters.

The movie The Technical Writer (2003), for example, features a technical writer as the main character, a man that lives in a basement. The same formula appears in Love Object (2003), which also features a solitary tech writer. In The Body of Richard Baker (2012), a technical writer suffers from a mysterious disease. That’s about it, at least according to IMDB, which is good, considering how utterly awful those flicks are.

You’d think that the situation improves with TV series, but it doesn’t. You won’t find technical writers in IT Crowd, Silicon Valley, or Halt & Catch Fire. Script databases are incredibly silent about who creates manuals and docs. The only TV series featuring a technical writer as the main character was Andy Richter controls the Universe (2002). It got canceled after 19 episodes. Time to watch it? Nah.

The situation improves slightly with comic stripes: Dilbert had its own technical writer, Tina, a competent, if sour, coworker. Scott Adams introduced the character in 1995, following a heated debate in a forum. (See? We can get more visibility when we protest.) I can’t recall other comic books or syndicated comic strips featuring tech writers, although I’m fairly sure Iron Man has an entire team of tech writers at his disposal.

Manuals fare way better: in the TVTropes entry Read the Freaking Manual, you can find numerous works where documentation plays a role, albeit a pesky one. One of my favorite has to be Die Another Day, where Q hands over to Bond a big manual, only to see it disintegrated by the agent when testing the device; John Cleese’s look at the end of clip is more or less the same we use when a stakeholder decides to ignore the docs.

There’s lots of room for tech writers

There are endless possibilities for developing technical writers into meaningful characters, or to feature technical writing in plots. Technical writers can be anything from keepers of lore to nerdy sidekicks to humanists in tech. Almost all movies and TV series featuring complex technology could have technical writers in them. Some examples:

Perhaps technical writers don’t appear in media that much for the same reason philosophers or skeptics don’t: because they are able to unravel complexities and explain them in a clear, concise, dispassionate way, thus erasing mystery. If technical writers identify with Lt. Columbo it’s because we share the same methods and values, after all.

In this sense, distilling the essence of what technical writers are in a narrative is a way of understanding our work and its meaning. It strikes me as peculiar that technical writers who also write fiction (especially science fiction) don’t feature technical writing in their works that much. Although I understand escapism to a certain degree, we can do better.

No tropes, no hopes

So far, I’ve entertained a rosy scenario, but do we really want to risk our profession being distorted in the media, like it happened to doctors, engineers, therapists, and hundreds of professions before ours? Maybe not. Then again, it’s thanks to those portrayals that many decided to become what they are today.

I still believe that we need to talk more about technical writing, because technical writing’s mission is worth talking about. If that requires pestering scriptwriters, movie directors, and authors with inserting technical writers and documentarians in pop culture media, so be it. I long for the day technical writers won’t have to tell everyone what it is that they do.

In the meantime, I’ll continue drawing high fantasy maps.

Amy: Shall I run and get the manual?
The Doctor: I threw it into a supernova.
Amy: You threw the manual in a supernova? Why?
The Doctor: Because I disagreed with it! Stop talking to me when I’m cross!

Doctor Who, “Amy’s Choice”