Recent blog posts, webinars, conference sessions, and list debates have been creating a storm of very lively debate over a nearly ageless topic–the future of technical writing. Like the changes in the weather, taxes, and what our job titles should be it seems inevitable. But other emerging and extant trends in the field of technical communication are bringing some new twists to the old debate. How do trends like structured writing, single sourcing, and the move to manage the customer experience lifeycle affect the technical writing profession? Are we really moving to what Neal Kaplan refers to as “commodified writing” for technical information, or does effective content require a master of the craft of technical communication?
In the last century, when I was eagerly testing and documenting new software that worked on computers that had that new Windows thing, technical writers’ success and effectiveness was often measured by the volume of content they produced. It actually became pretty easy to do the writing part of technical writing. It was boom time and anybody that could appear to put together a set of instructions could get a job as a technical writer. I could make the case that in the late ’80s and early ’90s technical writing was already being commoditized. And it led to a lot of dreck.
Then people started asking whether somebody, like maybe those technical writer folks, ought to start looking at how the software was designed so that it would be easier to use. And somebody figured out that people were in the middle of using that software when something went wrong and they needed help. Technical writers started involving themselves in usability, and using new tools to build online help. We seemed to regain our shiny badges of “craftsmanship” and that’s when the “I’m just a technical writer” vs “I’m a technical communicator (or something else took off).
Now we have a world of social media, always available information using remarkable devices and tools, and insatiable consumer demand for new content and an excellent “experience.” That and employers with exponentially increased focus on risk mitigation, compliance, workflow effeciency, and information as corporate assets. No wonder so many experts and thought leaders are debating the value and the place of technical writing (or the more nebulous but encompassing technical communication) in modern organizations.
Often these debates center on tools and standards, which, while not the same as craft versus commodity, still have a lot of bearing on the future of the profession, how we describe what we do, and how we add value to organizations. Simply mastering tools and standards like DITA requires the mental discipline of a craftsman. But the act of creating content is a far different thing than the act of delivering it to the targeted audience. Well-implemented standards to help structure and simplify content may drive efficiences and improve the bottom line, but will that resulting content resonate with a user and make their lives easier or more enjoyable?
So what’s your take? Will technical writers soon go the way of the dodo, the buggy whip, and Windows 3.11? Does today’s technical content landscape require craftsmen (or craftspeople)? Or will technical communicators become managers of a commodity? Vote in the poll, and let’s continue the lively debate with some comments about why you believe you supply a commodity or craft something of value.