Technical Writing Evolved

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The following is largely focussed on the software industry as that is where my experience lies.

I’ve been an on/off member of the TechWR mailing list for many years now. I dip in and out of threads depending on my current work and knowledge levels. The membership of the list is fairly wide-ranging, with people involved in all sorts of technical communication activites across many different industries. This gives any discussions around our profession and interesting slant as, by and large, the constituent parts of what it means to be a technical writer, and the daily activities involved, are somewhat tied to the industry in which they work. My experience is largely in the software world, but many of the other list members have wholly hardware-based experience, yet others work in highly regulated environments, and some flit from contract to contract, job to job.

A while ago a discussion about how our profession was changing kicked off and the range of responses was fascinating. This wasn’t a surprise of course, the list is full of passionate and intelligent people, but did have the effect of causing me to sit back and reflect a little more on what I do for a living and how, ultimately, it’s a fairly unique profession.

The discussion centred, mainly, around how the emphasis for a lot of technical writing jobs is swaying more and more towards a more integrated approach to the role and how it fits within a team than the historical basis of being heavily centred on writing. The presumption (largely being pushed by those of us in the software environments) is that the skillset a Technical Writer brings to a team extends beyond “just writing the docs”. As a customer advocate, we can (and should) influence UI design and the functionality of the product, and increasingly we are involved in the early design discussions, get hold of early builds and so on. To a small degree, today’s Technical Writer whilst retaining the core function of writing documentation, also dabbles in UI design, functional analysis, sanity testing software (note: this is not QA by any means!) and may even contribute to the software itself.

Some say that this detracts from the role for which we were hired. I disagree.

The role of product documentation is hugely important to any company and its creation will always be the core function of a technical writer. However, as companies push to reduce timescales and costs, whilst ask that productivity is increased, the idea of a closely-knit team with a shared vision becomes all the more necessary. Integrating a Technical Writer into that kind of environment means that speciality becomes less of an issue, and everyone starts doing a little bit of everything else. This extends beyond the Technical Writer, obviously, but uniquely we span the divide between technology and user (application and customer) and so can start to play a larger part in the development of the applications themselves, and also lessen the impact on our own area of expertise.

As I stated in that discussion:

I’ve always presumed that the role of technical writing isn’t really about ‘writing’ all that much (these days) and is why I’ve pushed to change job and team titles away from “writing” or “publications” to “communications”. It’s a small thing, but I think it breaks the “document monkeys” label a lot of people still have in their heads.

What this can mean is that a Technical Writer needs to have a sufficient knowledge to be able to intelligently converse with the application developers, and a good understanding of the business and user requirements that are currently being worked on. Acting as a “user proxy” in early design meetings has the double bonus of improving the application being developed (as most developers have a tendency to think in terms of functionality, rather than task) and hopefully easing the burden on the documentation as the general usability should be improved.

A bold statement perhaps, but ultimately the long-term aim is to have a better grounding in the usage of the application for which you are writing documentation. Understanding the why, and the who, as well as the how, is not a new thing of course, but contributing to the team in a “non-document” way is the real benefit.

A lot of companies still view product documentation, and the technical writers who produce it, as necessary evils to be tolerated and humoured. Most technical writers are able to constructively challenge and change that perception and I’m certainly not suggesting that anything I’ve suggested is the only way to do things. But I do believe that, in software documentation, there is a growing call for more technically technical writers, as opposed to technical writing writers. Becoming the accepted user-advocate in your development team is one path to achieving this, and I firmly believe that it will enhance both your own career and the perception of our profession.

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