Who else wants to be a technical communicator?

I have been reading many essays and articles lately about “where has technical writing gone” (including a nice reaction countering the manual-less existence Jared Spool perceives) and “woe is technical writing.” Okay, I made the last one up.

But all of this reading and other recent experiences has made me think about the core competency of writing and writing well. Avi commented in a previous post about how our (writers’) business case and value-add is that others don’t want to write or are not as good at it as we are. One conclusion is that we should know our core competency and stick to it.

But does sticking to writing as a core competency work in the age of self-publishing?

Others are asking and answering this question. I found the article “Is the Net Good for Writers?” a though-provoking piece. Especially this quote from Clay Shirky pretending to write in response to whether Herr Gutenberg’s new movable type is good for books and for scribes.
In the same way that water is more vital than diamonds but diamonds are more expensive than water, the new abundance caused by the printing press will destroy many of the old professions tied to writing, even as it puts in place new opportunities as yet only dimly with us.

It’s a long article, containing well-written and dense prose – which is exactly what some of the contributors say the Net doesn’t value. My takeaway is that your goals as a writer will dictate your reaction to the net’s value to writers. Is your goal to be paid, and paid well? Then the net might be watering down the market (supply and demand). If you goal is to make connections, then the net offers opportunity that might never have been available in the day of the printing press’s invention.

I also think of the US-based screenwriter’s guild threatening a strike because they are not getting paid every time someone views a Season 2 DVD of an entire season of shows, or downloads a show on iTunes and watches it on their train commute on their iPod video. The writers didn’t come up with the idea of watching a TV show on a handheld device. Their core competency is writing. And we all know deep down that the best shows are the well-written ones. So how can our profession learn from the screen writers guild? Learn that good, fast, high-quality writing is valuable. Learn that a voice and consistency is important, though subtle.

The Society for Technical Communication recently worked with the US Department of Labor to to update the job description for “technical communicator.” Susan Burton discusses it in her Intercom letter You May Already Be a Technical Communcator! Now I won’t jump into the STC forum discussion about this particular word choice, substituting communicator for writer, but it is part of what I’m trying to parse out for my own professional job description and also describe what I like to do and what I’m good at.

I’m also thinking about minimalism and how to achieve it with writing alone. I am beginning to think that it can’t be achieved with writing alone. You probably need a team including a designer and illustrator to communicate the minimal message, and probably an information architect. As Bill Gearhart says, the Lego documentation is a gold standard of minimalism. But there is so little writing that I wonder where my value add would be in trying to emulate this minimalism? I’m not a designer or illustrator. I need a team to support the writing value that I offer.

I think the title of this post could be “Who else wants to be a designer?” And the answer might be, “technical writers.”


  • October 23, 2007 - 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Yes, no. Maybe.

    The communicator thing is interesting, it’s currently a footnote on two of my blog posts.. I don’t JUST write so why should my title reflect that?

    And yes, I think that the writer that churns out page after page of raw content, whilst still required, will increasingly be filtered by editors and IAs. The impact of Google on both WHAT we write, and HOW we write simply can’t be denied. If you work in software, with an audience that is tech-savvy, then the old adage of ‘I ask the person sitting next to me first’ is slowly dying out.

    People fire up Google first, and if they can’t find your information (because it’s not been structured properly, and doesn’t use the correct terminology) then they won’t look any further.

    As for minimalism, it’s that audience thing again. Although I will need to go and check the Lego documentation now.

  • October 23, 2007 - 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Ah, what a great luxury to have a designer, IA, etc. along with writers. Truth is, we probably have to be some of all of those things.

    In fact, as my team moves into our next, media-rich release, I’m thinking my best people are those who have the skills of screenwriters. They understand how to “show, not tell.” They have strong visual skills. They are especially good at “killing their babies.” And still they know their basic tech writing inside out.

    Does this mean we have to learn a bunch of new skills to be useful?

    Yup. But isn’t that what we said we loved about tech writing in the first place?

  • avi
    October 24, 2007 - 2:13 am | Permalink

    I am not a designer, I never have been. I can’t make illustrations of almost any kind, I never could. However, as I prefer to work alone, I found that Visio (in its simplest Flowcart stencil) can communicate virtually any idea. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is true, even for me, the non-artistic writer.

  • October 28, 2007 - 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to follow up and join this cool conversation. I agree that minimalism doesn’t necessarily mean “no text” – the basic goal of minimalism is to help the user get their task done as quickly as possible.

    I don’t mind wearing multiple hats for most of my projects. Like my four-year-old son says, “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” Hee. I’m happy to roll up my sleeves and do diagrams or SEO work as part of my job.

    But the example I’m thinking of is the One Laptop Per Child documentation for kids – they’re pursuing something like the Lego documentation, perhaps even via a wiki. And without a great illustrator, there’s no way to pull off Lego doc with a writer alone.

    But, the neat thing I’ve learned since writing this post is that the OLPC wiki has a page where you can request illustrations or artwork. So I plan to write up my request and post it and see what I get (and not throw a fit, ha). I’ll let you know how it goes!

  • October 28, 2007 - 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and you can download PDFs of the Lego docs here:

  • Leave a Reply