Vancouver weather today was gorgeous; warm and sunny. I was able to ride my bicycle to and from work and revel in the clear mountains, still snow-capped, and the city towers, gleaming in the sun. But I could not find a topic for this blog. In spite of a visit to the 34th floor of a tower from which the views were superb and the mining company hospitable. In spite of a luxurious Japanese lunch with a beautiful and charming lady. In spite of a mind-bending problem come over the phone from a distant client. In spite of arranging travel to far places. Each would take pages to describe in detail, but all are “confidential,” so I must refrain.
Thin Lady in Green Dress: “I don’t understand why technical writers get paid more than engineers.”
Fat Red Cat (sitting on the edge of a large desk): “If you were capable of understanding that sort of thing, you’d be an engineer.”
Thin Lady: “This took an ugly turn.”
Fat Cat: “And your dress looks like a tube sock with aspirations.”
That is Dilbert for you. But this interaction captures a profound issue that arose in lunch-time discussions and over the phone: why do writers get paid less than engineers?
I am not sure that I am uniquely qualified to provide a better answer than the Fat Cat. Afterall I am first an engineer with nearly forty years consulting to mines and industry, and second I write this blog and other papers and EduMine courses. I have one published book–a long time ago and now out-of-date. I am working on a second book that may see the light of day before the end of the year. I can confirm that I earn a lot more as an engineer than I earn as a writer on technical things.
In my heart I know my engineering work is worth more than my writings–my engineering work leads to cost savings and cost-effective solutions for mines. Per hour of effort, I know that my engineering work is beneficial to stakeholders in far greater proportion than my “work” as a writer. I sometime dream that more people derive pleasure from my writings than people derive pleasure from my engineering works. But even if that is so, the readers’ pleasure is not quantifiable in dollars, whereas the engineering work is.
I do not write for profit–that would be stupid. I write for personal pleasure, which is not an activity that deserves remuneration. I work for profit, although I am lucky to be doing engineering that is challenging and great fun. There is tremendous personal satisfaction in my work: looking at a problem and working with miners to solve the problem. I like to think my efforts go to make mining a better activity of benefit to people and society.
I would like to believe that my writings are better because of my work as an engineer and because I try to analyse situations on the basis of facts. Sadly only a small minority of technical writers whom I chance upon do that. All too many who write about mining are facile and flaccid. I see too many writings that attack mining from a basis of emotion and maybe even conviction. But most are devoid of knowledge, fact, or insight. We see too many hysterical pieces by young journalists who pick up a sound-bit and run with it—but they fail utterly to seek out facts, to interview both sides, to balance, or to analyze situations and issue. We see too many written pieces that seek to incite, but which on examination are devoid of reason and are but empty drums that echo school courses in Marxism or Freud.
The mining industry is a particularly rich target for facile writers. It is too easy to find a disgruntled local who claims cancer because of the mine. It is too easy to find an old man who longs for the days when he was young and virile and who now blames the mine for his loss of authority and vigour. It is too easy to find an chieftain who gains honor in his tribe by attacking the source of money that keeps him overpaid. It is too easy to find a priest of a failing religion who hopes to boost church attendance by attacking the other. And sadly there is always a writer ready to fall in the lap of these rascals and charlatans. Why should we pay them more for their lazy scribbles?
OK, perhaps I am talking about journalists, not technical writers. So let me turn to those souls who are gainfully employed, reasonably well-paid, and who write about mining from the perspective of mining. I sometimes read them for facts, but never for opinion. For they are not employed to produce opinion. As employees of mines and mining-retained companies, they are paid to put out the facts, or at least the facts that best showcase the mine or miner they write about. Great technical skill is required to do this. I admire the skill of the best amongst them. But at the end of the day this is a sad undertaking: just skillfully reflecting the opinions and perspectives of the person with the money. That is not problem identification or problem solving like the engineer is required to do. Thus it must, perforce, bring lesser monetary reward.
I know I tread on sacred ground with these opinions and I say sorry to the many fine people I know and have worked with who are good technical writers. I have learnt a lot from many, and have had great pleasure in reading their writings. I seek to emulate them in this blog and the other writings I produce. But I know at the end of the day that even if I were to succeed in being but half as good as they are, my writing products would be worth less than the mundane and esoteric engineering products I produce. At least that is my opinion…all due respect to Dilbert and the Thin Lady in the Green Dress.