Technical writers, web writers, jobs, and employers

I’m returning to and rereading Violaine Truck’s post to the STC France site of a review of Content Strategy for the Web. Before you read this post, it might make more sense if you go read hers. Take your time, I’ll wait. :) After reading her post and then writing an overly long comment, I decided to turn my response into a blog post.

It all started with Twitter. Destry Wion’s tweet is how I found the book review, where he said, “Interesting review of @halvorson‘s book. As much an analysis of #contentstrategy in France as anything.” I am intrigued about the job market and the book itself, so I clicked through to the review.

Amazon tells me that my book, Conversation and Community, sells side by side with Content Strategy for the Web quite often. I am reading Content Strategy for myself and finding it complementary, with some concepts that are essential to understanding what is going on with the web. Thinking of a content audit on a single-sourced helpsite with 4,000 topics makes me want to cry inside a little. I say that only half-jokingly. :)

I read the review and my curiosity was piqued when Violaine said she’s a technical writer turned web content manager (with French job titles, naturellement). She asks in the introduction, “I hoped to find an answer in Kristina’s book to a prevailing question I (and presumably others) in France have: Is the title—Content Strategist—just a fancy name for one or more roles that already exist in the French job market…?”

I haven’t seen a job market yet where there is direct crossover between technical writing and web content jobs, yet in my book I believe in the future trends I see in technical writing and how we should be delivering our content with web content strategies adding value, especially for the social web.

Where are the jobs?

I have heard, “Where are the jobs that your book describes?” a few times since my book was published. I found one posting for a wiki writer that I blogged about previously. But I couldn’t directly point to specific job listings that combine all the skills and values my book describes.  I went to lunch with a community college professor here in Austin a few weeks ago. He is so inspired by my book that he wants to write curriculum around it, yet he correctly hesitates and waits to find the right job description to teach. At a community college, their professors know that you don’t propose curriculum until there are job descriptions in the market. It’s wise to do this in the community college setting so that their degrees match the demand for workers.

I think Violaine’s post helps us all get the perspective of a working technical writer. It’s a tough market out there. And it’s only getting tougher to prove value – no matter what your job description or title, or location, I’d say. Here’s my take from where I sit in the job market in Austin, Texas. There are plenty of technical writer jobs where a doing good, quality job is undervalued. There are plenty of web content creator jobs where good content is undervalued. Seems like everyone has to prove their value.

Consultants have this viewpoint all the time, that they must prove their value through metrics, return on investment, and so forth. It’s extremely difficult to act like a consultant in many jobs. If I’m reading between the lines of her post, it’s tough to be strategic when you’re copying and pasting, right? :) I recently read a book called Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn’t Want You to Know—and What to Do About Them. One mindshift that author tells you to do is to act like everyone is a client. You are the consultant.

Violaine has armed herself with the books that help prove a point – that a specialty does have value. It seems that’s only half the battle. The other half of the battle is to figure out where the value lies. Is it in business-to-customer interactions? Business-to-business? Is there a risk of inaction?

What are these jobs?

Finally, what are these jobs combining technical writing, content strategy, and web content? Colleges have web programmer classes and web design classes, because there is employer demand for those skill sets. I think there is an uncovered demand for web publishing and social web skill sets. In fact, I guess wrote an entire book about these skills. But just like technical writing, it’s difficult to teach, tough to evaluate, and often unfairly interpreted or undervalued in the marketplace. I think there are many job titles that fit that description. Community manager. Information architect. Technical editor. Program manager. Technical communicator. Business analyst. Web content manager. Web editor. We are not alone in this regard.

A fellow STC member, during an interview, asked, “In response to the current economic downturn, how do you think your book helps technical communicators weather the storm?” Thing is, unless you know the right keywords to enter into the job listings page, you won’t find the jobs, right? Do you search for “social media” – will that give you a lot of PR and marketing listings? Do you search for “web content” – perhaps, but again, will you find only ad agencies and newspapers using that term? If your specialty is technical writing, producing targeted documentation for a particular audience, what is your role in the web content arena? I think we’re inventing it in the jobs we hold today. Tom Johnson is doing so in the posts he’s writing now, in 2009. Rahel Bailie started the STC Content Strategy special interest group this fall. There are other examples of strategic moves in our field to deliver the right content in the right manner as the web and the social web change the rules, change the contributors, and change us.

But that’s just my viewpoint – what do you see from where you are around the world?

5 Comments

  • November 26, 2009 - 3:30 am | Permalink

    I think the job title of technical writer (author here in the UK typically, which I don’t really like) will remain as regardless of whatever social media tools we use, we will still have the remit of providing technical information to customers.

    However given how much has changed in the past couple of years, and how much it is still evolving (the recent thread on TechWR-L mailing list on Twitter is evidence of this I think) I do see a point in time where another title is ‘created’. But that requires a large scale understanding of what that person does, it is also evident that we (the professionals in question) won’t get to choose it.

    Sure you can put whatever you want on your business card when you’ve got the job, but to the businesses who are hiring, unless they have a switched on team already there then chances are they’ll hire what they know, technical writers.

    But this isn’t really about the job title, is it? It’s about what we DO in the role and how we ACT and how we PROMOTE ourselves.

  • Mike
    November 27, 2009 - 5:28 am | Permalink

    In the UK, a ‘Technical Writer’ is (or was) a specialist NCO grade within the Armed Forces. It implied formal training, self-discipline, and familiarity with one or more of the standards used in the defense industry. It also implied a degree of comfort with a tight job description, a rigid hierarchy, and a large, paternal organisation.

    On the other hand, an experienced technical author is more likely to have a civilian training & background, a broader portfolio, and the ability to happily build a new job description as the situation demands. Indeed, technical authors often acquire completely new skills (we’re good at that, as a breed), and take on entirely different roles!

    Why care about the job title? HP’s bizarre “Learning Products Engineer”, for example, defined a pay-grade and a broad area of expertise. I found it amusing, rather than any big deal.

    Furthermore, job titles shift. All you need is something that an HR department can recognise. After that, if the job is worth doing, you have the skills to do it well, and you’ll be paid enough, why prevaricate?

    I’d agree that some organisations (more often, individuals) are slow to recognise a need for innovation, and slower still to recognise the skills and mindsets required to achieve genuine progress. What made our profession immune to occasionally feeling that our skills are wasted in the job we’re asked (and paid) to do?

    Such feelings have usually meant there’s a life-enhancing decision to be made. I can’t say those changes have significantly changed my job title, just the organizations I’ve worked for, and what I’ve been asked to achieve within those roles.

  • November 27, 2009 - 10:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks to both of you from across the pond – technical author, eh? I kind of like that. I’ve always said, “I don’t care what my title is but I’d better be doing the work that matters to customers.”

    Thanks Mike for illuminating the point that we are not immune to feeling our skills are wasted – exactly what I hoped to convey. You said it better. :)

  • Margaret
    November 30, 2009 - 2:36 pm | Permalink

    In the many years I’ve been in the tech comm field, tools, my skills, technology, and media have all been evolving. I started out as a tech editor in R&D. The scientist and engineer researchers submitted drafts of their content, and the editors made it into publishable reports, conference papers, and technical articles. As I moved in and out of different fields, my titles and the type of content changed, but not the basic need to understand and present each employer’s techncial information in a form that could be comprehended and used by the intended audience.

    Businesses in many industries are beginning to realize that their customers want to find appropriate content online, but, because this is being driven through sales and marketing, they start with marketing and advertising’s terminology. I think that “copy” and
    “content” in the marcom sense lead them to seek copywriters and copy editors without technical content writing experience.

    As technical writers, our core skill is the ability to convey complex information that is clear to the intended audience. We have to promote that core ability, and the fact that we can learn new tools and media faster than copywriters who’ve used the tools and media already can go the other way and master the technical content.

  • December 11, 2009 - 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Our industry is obviously having a deep identity crisis. As a consultant at the National Cancer Institute, I am under contract as a technical writer, but I find that my role in various projects is quite expansive.

    I write, edit, design, teach, conduct market research, and work with a rich community of creative, progressive talent. The sum of those things prevents me from worrying about my title.

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