The Death of Tradition

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Job titles are one thing, but what do you actually do? Are you a ‘traditional’ Technical Author or a modern technical communications professional? Is there a difference?

I think there is, I think there is a distinction between the two although I’m not quite sure where that line is drawn and, as with most things in this multi-discipline profession of ours, the line is probably blurry and not all that straight.

For me the line separates what I consider the old and the new, the line between traditional technical writing and the modern day technical communicator, and I think the distinction is largely around the approaches each type of professional take when it comes to managing content.

I realise this may seem a little contentious, and possibly a little divisive (pun intended), so let me explain.

At the recent West of Scotland Area Group meeting, a few of us started discussing this. We all agreed that the traditional notion of what a technical writer (author) does has changed and that the change was driven mostly through technological advances.

For most modern companies, gone are the days of the author, editor, and illustrator producing printed documentation. The rise of the internet has changed the understanding of information and so our job roles (if not our titles) have morphed into what we do today, we write, we draw, we collate, filter, edit and publish information from a wide variety of sources, we care about the user experience of the product, and we push all of that information and knowledge out in many different formats, to different devices in radically shrunken timescales. We write topics, not pages, and publish to online portals, not printed and bound manuals.

From what I can tell, and I’ll admit that I’m not best placed to comment on any of this, I’ve only ever worked in software companies, but chatting to people at conferences and so on it does seem like the more traditional (old-fashioned?) approach of having a team – where the technical author writes the words, the illustrator draws the diagrams and artwork, before their work is combined and sent to an editor before being printed en masse – is slowly shrinking. For me it seems like that approach is typically based around some level of regulation (or litigation) meaning the scope of the content, choice of format, and even the list of final deliverables is impossible to negotiate.

Meanwhile, freed of such constraints, many of us find ourselves free to choose not to document a small change in an obscure and little used part of our product, and able change what we deliver and how we will deliver it.

Is it fair to be so black and white? Is there really a line, a divide, within our profession?

After all, my exposure to other technical communicators is largely through online sources (blogs, twitter, articles) and as those of us in the software industry have a vested interest in understanding these different mediums, it makes some sense that we are the ones making more noise than our counterparts who work in industries that demand paper-based outputs.

I think the disciplines required to work in a regulated industry are starting to differ more and more from those of us who can have input into the scope of what we do (and what we don’t do). There is a risk that future professionals won’t be able to cross that gap, they won’t understand (or want to understand) why they have to have numbered paragraphs, or why every single change must be traceable to the root requirement.

Over time, the more traditional roles, or rather the industries within which they operate, will start to come more towards a more modern view, in fact they already are. Airlines are allowing iPads onto flight decks, more connected systems of documentation and information capture forms are being seen in car production factories, and as further industries invest in modernising their infrastructures, so to must the technical writers.

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