Links of Note, June 2009: Technical Writing and Communication

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

55th Annual Conference – Technical Communication Summit: Session Materials:

If you missed the Society of Technical Communication’s 55th Annual Conference, check out the session materials for the latest tips and trends.

How to Avoid Extinction as a Technical Communicator:

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.

This is the Future of Technical Communication:

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?

U.S. Government Acknowledges Technical Writers As Distinct from All Other Writing Professions:

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.

From Technical Writer to Marketing Writer:

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.”

What Technical Writers Know That Copywriters Don’t:

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

State of the Society:

“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.

Whither STC?:

In a thoughtful post, Sarah O’Keefe calls on the STC to make some significant changes in the following areas: velocity, community, and openness.

Lifelines to the STC:

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.)


Anne Gentle on her Forthcoming Book ~ Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation:

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,

New Book Aims To Help Newbies Understand DITA Basics:

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).

Technical Writing 101, 3rd edition – a review:

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.

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Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog

4 thoughts on “Links of Note, June 2009: Technical Writing and Communication

  1. Actually, I didn’t say technical communicators will be displaced by user-generated content. If technical communicators were to become extinct, I think they would probably be replaced by a new job function – which would be a hybrid of trainer, techical support and editor. Some of the content may well be user generated, but I think there’s still a role for explaining technical stuff to non technical people.
    Ellis Pratt, Cherryleaf.

    • Thanks, Ellis, for the clarification and for the visit here. I respect your thoughts and will revise the inaccuracy in my post.

      The hybrid role you mention of trainer, techical support, and editor is already arriving, with the advent of social media. It seems to me that other groups, including marketing, customer support, and professional services, are already starting to use social media to fullfill these merged functions, and that technical communicators, by virtue of where we are placed in the organization (not customer-facing), will lag behind these other disciplines (really as we always have), evolving in this direction.

      My view is that technical communicators will continue to write the most technical, back-end docs, for an IT or developer audience, and that the customer-facing doc will more and more be off-loaded to the customer-facing parts of the organization. This has been my experience in small to medium-size companies of late. Larger companies will probably continue to keep some semblance of a centralized technical writing function, even for the customer-facing docs, but to remain viable, technical communicators will need to deliver those docs in formats that users are accustomed to consuming these days (shorter quick reference docs and podcasts, as Tom Johnson suggests, or where applicable, interactive formats).

      Part of the reason I am blogging about marketing and technical communication here, is because I see many more of my traditional technical documentation functions in the marketing discipline these days. As far as a hybrid role, I attended a wonderful MarketingProfs webinar on Customer Experience Management, which provides a framework for the kind of merged functions you mention.

  2. Thanks Peg, for mentioning my book here. I’d love to hear what you think about whether technical communicators will get the opportunities to get closer to customers after reading my book. One of the premises it builds upon is that for the first time in history we have tools at our disposal that enable us to know our audience better than ever before.

    I believe social media can “power up” our efforts to write customer-facing doc, or assist customers in writing doc themselves. This shift likely means tech comm departments will further align with customer support, sales and marketing, or training and education, which may dictate the level of involvement in social media.

    What may end up happening is that tech comm’s content will be the most desired and requested content by users. Then, the overarching content strategy will simply have a social media publishing strategy within it.

    Who knows what the future holds? It sure is an exciting time to be a technical communicator.

    • Hi Anne, I am eagerly awaitng the mid-summer release of your book:
      Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation by Anne Gentle:

      I, too, share your enthusiasm for the social web and the ways it can provide direct access to our audence. I am even more passionate about the ways the social web can assist product development, in the best spirit of the agile methodology.

      I’ve already dropped by your excellent blog several times and will continue to read your timely thoughts. Thanks, in the meantime, for dropping by here and for your detailed feedback. –Peg

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