Hone writing skills or specialize?

Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life, a dichotomy in which you hate what you do so you can have pleasure in your spare time. Look for a situation in which your work will give you as much happiness as your spare time.
Pablo Picasso

Someone pointed out a bit of a dichotomy in technical communication the other day. It was such an interesting observation that I’ve been thinking about it for a while. The dichotomy is between the power of plain old writing skills and the power of “sexier” specialized skills.

What are the specialties?

Directions for tech comm that  Tom Johnson and Alan Porter discuss on their respective blogs is a movement towards videos and screencasting (screencasts category on Tom’s blog) or graphics and illustrating (comics category on Alan’s blog). Mostly the posts talk about how users don’t read the manual (which is apparently okay). Perhaps specialization is a wise direction to take, because it’s a specialty that won’t be taken over by “the crowd” as easily as writing. WordPress.tv, for example, was seeded with 20 professionally-produced how-to videos, and the community can add videos to the site as well. You can mostly detect which were made by professional film-makers, so it would appear they’re employable longer.

Content farms go moo

Since anyone can write, and content farms are impacting the web, filling it to the brim with quickly written, search-engine baited fast-food content, hone more specialized skills in order to thrive in the shifting sands of the web, right? However, content experts like Brian Massey say that all content, no matter the source, is what’s driving the successful websites and web applications today. The written word is still effective with measurable results, and is overwhelmingly more prevalent on the web today, page for page. Mint.com, for example, is a wonderful redistributor and aggregator of banking and investment accounts, a specialized type of content. Mint also creates content, such as the weekly summary newsletter, that encourages you to return to the site. This content is text and numbers, with lovely graphs, but it’s really the numbers that shine.

To summarize

With both sides pointed out to me now, I’m leaning towards the broader content strategy movement. I will help people get content from any source, even if it’s built by a community or (gasp) ordinary users. But I do see the value in video and especially in non-text-heavy mobile content as we roll into the new year and a new decade.

Here’s my observation. If it’s true that bit.ly, the link shortener that’s popular on social sharing sites, has counted over a billion click-throughs per month, then it’s possible that social sharing will overtake search engine optimized content. As noted in 5 Trends That Will Shape Small Business in 2010, “Social search has the ability to eclipse the value of traditional SEO efforts.” A comment counters with the trend to go from text to video, saying clients should “record, record, and then record some more.”

Let me repeat that. Eventually there could be more people reading and clicking through links on social sites than searching and clicking through links in search results. How will that shift change how you create content, and how will you strategically choose the content that you create?


  • December 28, 2009 - 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Writing skills or specialized skills? We need both. We need to embrace the new media choices as well as learning the rules of the road for social networking and the “semantic web.” (That means, for example, learning to use keywords and tag our content with metadata.)

    But at the end of the day, nobody will buy it if it’s not well written. A video needs a solid script. An FAQ list or a blog needs to be well organized.

  • December 29, 2009 - 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anne –

    Thanks for the mention in the post. You raise an interesting point, but I have to disagree with you that there is any sort of emerging dichotomy between writing skills and specialization.

    No matter what the media, prose, manuals, video, comics, social networks, etc. good writing skills are fundamental.

    The shift comes in realizing that the writing part may no longer be the end product but is now part of a bigger production process.

    But the writer is always the one person on the team who starts with a blank piece of paper (or screen) and lays the foundation for everything else.


  • December 29, 2009 - 1:22 pm | Permalink

    You bring up an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, there seems to be a trend toward the idea that “anyone can write” and so writing loses value. And there’s also an increased emphasis on video and other visuals, which seems to further downplay the importance of the written word.

    But at the same time, we often hear that “content is king,” and that text drives search engine results.

    I have been thinking a bit about this as well. While many people on the web or in companies think they can write, usually their writing has only basic grammar properties to it, and otherwise fails to engage an audience. Those with more professional/creative writing abilities, people who can create engaging text that has mesmerizing appeal to an audience, are a rare breed. That written content is not a commodity, and it will continue to generate results from search engines and social networks.

    I’m not downplaying the visual, though. I think when you’re learning software, it’s hard to learn entirely from text. For instructions, visual mediums are often preferable.

    But not all communication on the web is instruction based. Blogs, for example, are often focused on concepts. And while visual mediums can of course communicate concepts, the written format give you more depth and versatility to do so.

    My thoughts aren’t entirely clear here, but you’ve got me thinking about it.

  • December 29, 2009 - 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, all, for commenting.

    I think Alan’s right, that writing is a foundation without which no other content is as effective. What’s interesting is that production has become more accessible to more people – especially for audio and video. I don’t think graphics design is any more accessible than it used to be, but that may be my own bias about my own skills (they stink!) 🙂 But if you’re not good at story boarding, story telling, or writing, you won’t be good at the other skill sets.

    Tom, your comment reminds me – I think Mashable’s blog is probably Facebook’s documentation. Mashable just launched the Facebook Guide Book. http://mashable.com/2009/12/28/facebook-guide-book/

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  • January 20, 2010 - 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anne,

    I’ve been lurking here awhile and just wanted to say that in this post, I really focused in on your question about social search and how that will impact both our content creation and strategy. In her keynote at the SES San Jose 2009 conference, Charlene Li, co-author of Groundswell, spoke about putting people, not keywords, at the center of search strategy, “where relevancy is increasingly the goal, and where the social graph (aka our respective social networks) are integrated with search intent.”

    As technical communicators, we can prepare for social search technology by putting solving people’s problems, not pushing our own products or agendas, at the center of our documentation efforts. We can do this, Li suggests, by building relationships online, listening and learning from our audience, and starting a dialog.

    Li’s talk tied in so nicely with your book Conversation and Community’s recommendation to build community, as both conversation instigators and enablers, through our documentation.

    I think there’s a place for both the content strategist and specialist (just as there is for the conversation enabler versus the instigator), though we may each have to choose one direction or the other, as we often do, based on our own inclinations and gifts.

  • January 21, 2010 - 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Hi Peg- Thanks for de-lurking! I greatly admire Charlene Li. She and Beth Kanter are some of the people I read regularly in social media today. I’m so glad you see convergence in my book and Charlene Li’s talk. Groundswell was highly influential in shaping my views.

    Side note: you would probably enjoy this post about 25 Women that Rock Social Media: http://www.toprankblog.com/2010/01/25-women-that-rock-social-media/ as much as I did. 🙂

  • January 29, 2010 - 10:25 am | Permalink

    Hi again, Anne, Thanks for the pointer to the article about women in social media…I greatly admire Charlene Li and Beth Kanter’s work, as well as your own recent work in Conversation and Community. I definitely see parallel ideas, applied to various disciplines and social causes, via Web 2.0. It’s wonderful how these tools and platforms are bringing us all closer together.

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