It’s Links of Note time, with a look this month, at technical communication. Like marketing, technical communication is evolving in a Web 2.0 world. This post gathers technical communication links about the future of the profession, the future of the Society for Technical Communication, and recent books on timely topics, including the social web for documentation and DITA. Of special interest is a post about core technical writing skills, including information architecture and usability expertise, which are finding their way into high tech copywriting.
Future of Technical Communication
If you missed the Society of Technical Communication’s 55th Annual Conference, check out the session materials for the latest tips and trends.
An excellent post, in which I’d Rather Be Writing’s Tom Johnson summarizes a career development workshop where Ellis Pratt (@ellispratt on Twitter), one of the founders of Cherryleaf, argued that technical communicators may eventually become extinct, if they keep using the same methods and formats to deliver information.
Although there will always be a need for people to explain technical material to non-technical people, Ellis said, others may be doing it instead, through the formats users prefer. To survive, technical writers may need to morph into content strategists, managing the information in a systematic way, rather than merely creating it.
Rather than being a “technical communicator,” Ellis believes these roles will more likely be content wrangler, information strategist, user-generated content editor, information assets director, and content use analyst.”
Johnson shares his thoughts on Ellis’ vision of the technical communicator’s evolving role, agreeing that technical communicators have shown little innovation delivering information, in more consumable formats. As an alternative to online help and the long manual, Johnson offers his own success with quick reference guides (anywhere from 1 to 8 pages) and short video tutorials (2 to 4 minutes), as core deliverables. He also mentions his excitement about the potential of new DITA publishing capabilities of Flare 5, because “it means you can push the content out to additional formats more easily.”
You can convert DITA to the Confluence Wiki format, DITA’s XHTML target to WordPress, DITA to InDesign, DITA to web pages, and other formats.
Johnson does not think technical communicators will be displaced by user-generated content.
Except for public, web-based, multi-author, open-source software models, I just don’t see a lot of users contributing help content to the corporate-grown applications (except for the big ones, such as Microsoft Office). Most companies want their help content to look attractive and be accurate, and few project managers believe users can and will fill that gap if you take away the technical writer.
Sarah O’Keefe considers the implications of technical communicators monitoring and managing your organization’s communities, via forums and wikis. She asks, “Under what circumstances do you delete information? How do you respond when: information is inaccurate, information is unflattering, or both?”
What if the information is accurate but incomplete?
What if someone describes a way of using your product that could cause injury, even though it’s technically possible? Do you delete the information? Do you add a comment warning of possible injury? What if the reader sees the original post but not the comment?
The Society of Technical Communication has been working with the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), since 2007 to update its definition of the technical communications profession. At long last, the Occupational Outlook and Handbook (OOH), published by the US Department of Labor’s BLS, will have an individual report on technical writers, soon to be offically known as technical communication specialist, in the next edition.
Given tight budgets, many technical writers are asked to take on marketing writing responsibilities, in addition to their technical documentation deliverables. Janice M. King, herself a former technical writer who transitioned to marketing writing, helps you hone your copywriting skills, with Becoming a High-Tech Marketing Writer. This free guide shows you how to write “powerful promotional materials for high-tech products, services, and companies.”
Janice King, author of Copywriting that Sells High Tech, describes skills in the technical writer’s core set, which copywriters in PR and Marketing departments requires these days, to add interactive content (such as podcasts, webinars, blog posts, and other social media outlets) to traditional marketing doc deliverables (for example, press releases, white papers, and data sheets). For more information, see From Copywriter to Content Developer and the related post, What Technical Writers Can Learn From Copywriters.
The Society of Technical Communication
“This web page will provide community leaders with information about STC’s current financial challenges to aid in the understanding of the recovery plan that will be presented and discussed during the town hall meetings via conference call.”
From Virtual Town Hall slides, projected 2009 shortfall as high as $1.2M USD, caused by overreliance and recession’s impact, on membership dues and annual conference.
In a thoughtful post, Sarah O’Keefe calls on the STC to make some significant changes in the following areas: velocity, community, and openness.
I strongly agree with many of Tom Johnson’s 15 points on reforming the STC, which can be summarized here: “Closing off and restricting access to information, with the assumption that doing so increases member value, seems to run contrary to directions the web is heading.” In particular, as a member, I feel my dues should cover more training webinars (which are of value to me, for free, or at a significantly reduced cost.)
Tom Johnson interviews Anne Gentle about her forthcoming book, Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, due out, by mid-summer 2009. Gentle talks about “the future of documentation, the writer’s role, community and documentation, commenting and connecting with users, structured authoring with wikis, and more.” For more information about the book’s release, follow developments at Anne’s blog, JustWriteClick.com.
Scott Abel recommends DITA 101: Fundamentals of DITA for Authors and Managers, from the Rockley Group, as an important work to help technical communicators learn how “to write modular, topic-based, context-independent content using a new breed of authoring tools.” He asserts that learning about DITA is essential for technical communicators to remain competitive:
Gone are the days of the free-for-all approach to creating technical documentation products one-at-a-time using desktop publishing tools. While this technique was the best method possible in the 80s and 90s, today, those who create user manuals, online help systems, and other types of documentation are increasingly expected to take a more formal approach to content creation, utilizing content standards like the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA).
This link provides a recent review of Technical Writing 101: A Real-World Guide to Planning and Writing Technical Content, 3rd edition; Alan S. Pringle and Sarah S. O’Keefe, Scriptorium Publishing Services Inc., Research Park Triangle, NC, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-9704733-7-0, 328 p., $20.00 (PDF Download), $35.95 (paper). I am currently reviewing the PDF version of the book and agree that even experienced technical communicators can benefit from its guidelines. Its an ideal resource for college technical writing instructors.